What is an appropriate response to radical Islam? Weapons grade rhetoric that calls down fire from heaven to ignite the apocalypse or passive acquiescence that leads to dhimmitude and interfaith worship? Does it have to be one or the other? Racism or appeasement? The clash of civilisations or the Islamisation of the West?
Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek suggests we must learn to live with radical Islam. Writing from an Islamic perspective he insists, “We don’t have to accept the stoning of criminals. But it’s time to stop treating all Islamists as potential terrorists.”
In what many coinsider his finest piece of writing in Newsweek, Zakaria makes a convincing case for why the West needs to adopt a more “sophisticated strategy” toward Radical Islam.
Pierre Tristam, writing for about.com summarises this important article: “The current with-us-or-against-us business won’t do, Zakaria argues, with eight years of evidence on his side. Not every radical Islamic regime is a synonym of al-Qaeda.”
Zakaria admits, “The militants are bad people and this is bad news. But the more difficult question is, what should we—the outside world—do about it? That we are utterly opposed to such people, and their ideas and practices, is obvious. But how exactly should we oppose them? In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have done so in large measure by attacking them—directly with Western troops and Predator strikes, and indirectly in alliance with Pakistani and Afghan forces. Is the answer to pour in more of our troops, train more Afghan soldiers, ask that the Pakistani military deploy more battalions, and expand the Predator program to hit more of the bad guys? Perhaps—in some cases, emphatically yes—but I think it’s also worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism.”
There is realism in his assessment of the threat posed by Islamists: “Reports from Nigeria to Bosnia to Indonesia show that Islamic fundamentalists are finding support within their communities for their agenda, which usually involves the introduction of some form of Sharia—Islamic law—reflecting a puritanical interpretation of Islam. No music, no liquor, no smoking, no female emancipation.The groups that advocate these policies are ugly, reactionary forces that will stunt their countries and bring dishonor to their religion. But not all these Islamists advocate global jihad, host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world—in fact, most do not.”
He cites examples in Pakistan and other countries where attempts have been made to distinguish between Islamists who are violent and those who are extreme.
“Over the past eight years such distinctions have been regarded as naive. In the Bush administration’s original view, all Islamist groups were one and the same; any distinctions or nuances were regarded as a form of appeasement. If they weren’t terrorists themselves, they were probably harboring terrorists. But how to understand Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the countries “harbor” terrorists but are not themselves terrorist states?”
Zakaria also warns us not to over-estimate the influence of Al Qaeda:
“To be clear, where there are Qaeda cells and fighters, force is the only answer. But most estimates of the number of Qaeda fighters in Pakistan range well under a few thousand. Are those the only people we are bombing? Is bombing—by Americans—the best solution? The Predator strikes have convinced much of the local population that it’s under attack from America and produced a nationalist backlash. A few Qaeda operatives die, but public support for the battle against extremism drops in the vital Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Is this a good exchange?”
The danger Zakaria highlights is that believing in the existence of an “Axis of Evil” and Huntingdon’s theory is becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.
“We have placed ourselves in armed opposition to Muslim fundamentalists stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, which has made this whole enterprise feel very much like a clash of civilizations, and a violent one at that. Certainly, many local despots would prefer to enlist the American armed forces to defeat their enemies, some of whom may be jihadists but others may not. Across the entire North African region, the United States and other Western powers are supporting secular autocrats who claim to be battling Islamist opposition forces. In return, those rulers have done little to advance genuine reform, state building or political openness. In Algeria, after the Islamists won an election in 1992, the military staged a coup, the Islamists were banned and a long civil war ensued in which 200,000 people died. The opposition has since become more militant, and where once it had no global interests, some elements are now aligned with Al Qaeda.”
Zakaria then examines the painful lessons learnt by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan:
“We have an instant, violent reaction to anyone who sounds like an Islamic bigot. This is understandable. Many Islamists are bigots, reactionaries and extremists (others are charlatans and opportunists). But this can sometimes blind us to the ways they might prove useful in the broader struggle against Islamic terror. The Bush administration spent its first term engaged in a largely abstract, theoretical conversation about radical Islam and its evils—and conservative intellectuals still spout this kind of unyielding rhetoric. By its second term, though, the administration was grappling with the complexities of Islam on the ground. It is instructive that Bush ended up pursuing a most sophisticated and nuanced policy toward political Islam in the one country where reality was unavoidable—Iraq.”
Zakaria urges the new US Administration to break with the Bush model of doing geopolitics.
“Beyond Afghanistan, too, it is crucial that we adopt a more sophisticated strategy toward radical Islam. This should come naturally to President Obama, who spoke often on the campaign trail of the need for just such a differentiated approach toward Muslim countries. Even the Washington Institute, a think tank often associated with conservatives, appears onboard. It is issuing a report this week that recommends, among other points, that the United States use more “nuanced, noncombative rhetoric” that avoids sweeping declarations like “war on terror,” “global insurgency,” even “the Muslim world.” Anything that emphasizes the variety of groups, movements and motives within that world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West. Bin Laden constantly argues that all these different groups are part of the same global movement. We should not play into his hands, and emphasize instead that many of these forces are local, have specific grievances and don’t have much in common.”
“That does not mean we should accept the burning of girls’ schools, or the stoning of criminals. Recognizing the reality of radical Islam is entirely different from accepting its ideas. We should mount a spirited defense of our views and values. We should pursue aggressively policies that will make these values succeed. Such efforts are often difficult and take time—rebuilding state structures, providing secular education, reducing corruption—but we should help societies making these efforts. The mere fact that we are working in these countries on these issues—and not simply bombing, killing and capturing—might change the atmosphere surrounding the U.S. involvement in this struggle.”
Counselling a dose of realism Zakaria concludes,
“The veil is not the same as the suicide belt. We can better pursue our values if we recognize the local and cultural context, and appreciate that people want to find their own balance between freedom and order, liberty and license. In the end, time is on our side. Bin Ladenism has already lost ground in almost every Muslim country. Radical Islam will follow the same path. Wherever it is tried—in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan—people weary of its charms very quickly. The truth is that all Islamists, violent or not, lack answers to the problems of the modern world. They do not have a world view that can satisfy the aspirations of modern men and women. We do. That’s the most powerful weapon of all.”
Tristam summarises Zakaria thus: “Zakaria resolves the contradiction by suggesting that accepting that fundamentalist wave, dealing with it, letting it unravel of its own, is a far smarter strategy than any attempt to bomb it. Again, evidence is on his side.”
Between annihilation and assimilation there is a third way: constructive engagement.