Destroying, degrading or containing the Islamic State — whichever goal President Obama chooses — will be the easy part. Finding ways for fundamentalist Islam to express itself peacefully is a bigger, tougher and more important project.
In his remarks Tuesday following the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff, Obama offered a smorgasbord of options. “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, he said, although it sounded like two different objectives. He added that the goal was “to make sure that [the Islamic State] is not an ongoing threat to the region.” Then he said the aim was to reduce the terrorist group to “a manageable problem.”
Before the warmongers have a cow, keep in mind that Obama’s idea of managing a terrorism problem involves killing people, without warning, even in countries where we are not at war. Just this week he authorized an airstrike in Somalia in an attempt to kill the leader of al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda offshoot. Obama’s fondness for drones as instruments of surveillance and assassination is such that any terrorist leader is foolhardy if he ventures to take out the garbage.
But the Islamic State is clearly not “manageable” in its current state, flush with weapons, cash and eager recruits — and occupying a huge tract of land in Iraq and Syria. Obama will have to destroy or degrade, but all the focus on his decision misses the larger context: the fundamentalist political instinct that the Islamic State represents, or rather misrepresents.
We’re talking about 15,000 or so fighters — not much of a challenge for the greatest military force the world has ever known. Why not just smash this group and be done with it? Let’s look at recent history.
The U.S. military invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, quickly routed the Taliban and eliminated the haven from which Osama bin Laden orchestrated his mayhem. Eventually, al-Qaeda was decimated and bin Laden was killed.
But jihad did not disappear, it metastasized. It turned up in Yemen, where an active al-Qaeda affiliate plotted attacks against the United States, including the failed underwear bombing. It emerged in Iraq, after the U.S. invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein created a vacuum for extremists to fill. It popped up in Somalia, in Libya, in Mali.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Westerners — mostly Europeans but some Americans as well — have gone to fight on the side of the Islamic State. The butcher who was shown executing Sotloff — and, earlier, fellow journalist James Foley — spoke English with a British accent. “I’m back, Obama,” he said.
The Islamic State’s vision of conflict in the Middle East as part of a centuries-old struggle between faithful Muslims and infidel crusaders is apocalyptic and insane. But there is a less-crazy version of this narrative — involving colonialism and oil — that many people accept, especially in Arab countries. The dictators who held power in the Middle East for much of the 20th century, propped up by the West, were brutal in repressing the Muslim Brotherhood and other religiously inspired political movements. Yet even when they were outlawed and driven underground, these movements managed to survive — and grow.
When Hosni Mubarak was deposed in Egypt, creating another of those sudden vacuums, the political force most ready to step in was the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed Morsi had the chance to show the world that a government led by an Islamist party could be fair, tolerant and effective. The United States and its allies had the chance to help Morsi succeed.
He failed, and so did we.
Had things worked out differently, Obama would be able to point to Egypt as an example for frustrated young Muslims who feel powerless. Instead, the jihadists point to Egypt and say: Look, my brothers, it is as we told you. They will never allow pious Muslims to hold power, not even in our own lands.
There is much about fundamentalist Islam that is incompatible with — even abhorrent to — the modern world. I’m not talking about the Islamic State’s obscene and theatrical violence, which appalls and disgusts devout Muslims. I refer mostly to a set of attitudes about women that need to be aired, challenged and reformed. This kind of positive change can take place, but only in the open. Repression strengthens the hand of the hard-liners.
Political Islam cannot be bombed away. If it is not somehow allowed constructive expression, it will make itself heard, and felt, in more tragic ways.
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