A CARTOON of the Prophet Muhammad donning explosive headgear
detonated in the Islamic world--a picture telling a thousand fighting
words. At least that is how many Muslims saw it, particularly those who
responded to the depiction of Islam as an inherently violent religion
with their own acts of violence.
Some imams and other Islamic leaders expressed frustration with the
cartoon riots. Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, instructed Muslims to
expect their religion to be attacked but to respond peacefully and with
"wisdom and exhortation."
The response by Gomaa and others points to an emergent and
overlooked global trend. Militants from the secular Fatah party, and
not the Islamic-fundamentalist Hamas party, led the most vigorous
protests. In addition, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
regretted, in a roundabout way, the violent response to the cartoons,
accusing some politicians of striving "to distort the image of the
Islamic movement--to get the people to say they are not peaceful, not
democratic, against free speech."
Interestingly, you had Islamists (those that the West tends to see
as the enemy) calling for calm and secularists (perceived as our
natural allies) summoning religious rage in response to a perceived
affront to Islam. That response highlights how difficult it is becoming
to distinguish the religious from the political, and vice versa.
While many Middle East experts have pointed to the "medieval"
religiosity of many Muslims, Islamists have been adept at folding
modern political ideology--nationalism, self-determination, free
markets--under the banner of Islam and winning at the polls as a
result. The Islamist parties that have either triumphed or made
electoral gains in the Middle East--Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt and Shi'a religious parties in Iraq--made openly political
appeals for support, such as ending corruption, promoting national
self-determination, improving social services. At the same time,
political secularists are dredging up Islamic motifs to galvanize a
sense of Islamic identity when it becomes expedient for them to do so.
Those developments make it more difficult for Western policymakers and
Middle East experts to keep track of and understand alliances, networks
and ideologies and to define those forces in society likely to be
The electoral ascendancy of Islamist parties highlights not only
that democracy will bolster political Islam for the foreseeable future
(with troubling implications for a U.S. policy that assumes the
promotion of democracy will enhance U.S. interests). It also
demonstrates how little support Islamic liberals have been able to
gain. Reformers, as Faisal Devji from the New School has pointed out,
have attempted systematically to enshrine more liberal interpretations
of the Quran into law, breaking with a tendency to interpret the Quran
fluidly in accordance with prevailing traditions. Many "Islamists"
selectively choose which parts of the Quran they wish to emphasize,
making them more Islamic radicals than Islamic fundamentalists.
Reformers have been so unpopular that they have allied themselves with
authoritarian (some blood-soaked) regimes, like that of Atatrk Mustafa
Kemal Pasha in Turkey, Reza Shah in Iran, Bashir al-Asad in Syria,
Saddam Hussein in Iraq and both Pervez Musharraf and Ayub Khan in
The "Islamic radicals" have also been successful in rallying jihad
on the tribal, but not inherently Islamic, tradition of restoring
"honor." Muslims appear to have been mainly outraged by the Danish
cartoons' attack on Islamic "honor" than by a perceived violation of
To many Muslims, Islam represents a sense of identity more than a
religion to follow dogmatically. Last month, Iraq's Shi'a cleric (and
militia leader) Moqtada Sadr dropped in on Syria's Bashir al-Asad, who
is, of course, not only a staunch secularist but also the globe's last
standing Ba'athist. "I will help Syria in every way. We are witnessing
Islamic solidarity", Sadr told Asad.
Similarly, violent jihad directed at the West has had more
geopolitical than Islamic inspiration. The rage that was born from the
cartoons appears to be a strain of the same emotional tumult that gives
rise to jihad. Osama bin Laden does not need the counsel of K Street PR
firms to recognize the advantage of making a geopolitical, rather than
religious, call to arms. As Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri put
it in 2001: "The fact must be acknowledged that the issue of Palestine
is the cause that has been firing up the feelings of the Muslim nation
from Morocco to Indonesia for the past fifty years."
Your run-of-the-mill jihadi footsoldier does not seem driven to
violence by grand visions of regional or global Islamic caliphates, as
a litany of terrorism experts have contended. Also, the idea that
jihadists are agitated by a hatred of freedom would hardly dignify a
debate, were it not routinely advanced by the president of the world's
sole superpower. Further, while many jihadists probably take solace in
visions of celestial rewards, including chaste (if spirited) maidens,
they are probably not driven to violence by those illusions either.
Jihadists are probably motivated more by a zeal to destroy or avenge
than to create much of anything, caliphates or VIP spots in paradise
included. The impulse appears to be more nihilistic and, arguably,
For the jihadist, the creation of a caliphate is more the
terminology or pretext for jihad than the animating motivation. While
many jihadists generally support the construction of an Islamic state,
that desire is probably not the catalysts for strapping on an explosive
belt or piloting an explosive-laden car. That distinction is not so
dissimilar from nations' justifications for wars. While the
administration surely favors the spread of democracy, it was probably
more focused on reminding the world of America's awesome military might
in the Iraq theater. Other priorities, including non-proliferation
goals, may have been important but were probably not the driving
The target of the jihadists, meanwhile, has been not so much the
infidel but the outsider. Saddam Hussein, a Ba'athi apostate, was
largely spared jihadi wrath in Iraq, while coalition troops have not
been. Similarly, anger at America's tendency to support dictators in
the Middle East is not born so much out of detestation of the Arab
dictators themselves, but rather of America's perceived infringement on
the Arab heartland. Those factors illustrate the sense of "honor" and
fellowship that can ignite jihad.
A number of Middle East experts insist that Arabs and other Muslims
understand only the language of force and that the West must become
fluent in brute coercion if it wants to bring insurgents to heel. What
those experts seem to be overlooking is that coercion has mostly been
effective in the longer term when exacted by fellow Arabs or Muslims.
Outsiders have had much more difficulty, as the French learned in
Algeria, the Soviets learned in Afghanistan and the Israelis continue
to experience in Palestine. Sometimes we will have no choice but to
engage in counter-insurgency operations--and even to employ brutally
effective force to achieve results--but our use of such methods should
be done judiciously.
Some U.S. military commanders have been mindful that, as outsiders,
using force incorrectly can further mobilize the insurgency. Col. J. C.
Coleman, chief of staff for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, noted
that before independent contractors were killed and their charred
bodies so ghoulishly paraded in Fallujah in March 2004, the Marines had
planned to move away from the Army's aggressive tactics. "We were going
to roll in there all quiet like the fog", said Coleman. "Now these
people are invigorated. They're all stirred up."
Despite the attack on the contractors, the Marines favored a
restrained response, but were ordered otherwise by Washington. A former
commander of U.S. Marines in western Iraq, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway,
said September 2004, "We felt like we had a method that we wanted to
apply to Fallujah, that we ought to probably let the situation settle
before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge." Conway also
disagreed with Washington's subsequent order to have the Marines
withdraw from their siege of Fallujah, claiming his forces were on the
eve of victory. "I would simply say that when you order elements of a
Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand the
consequences of that, and not, perhaps, vacillate in the middle of
that." The orders Washington gave the Marines represent precisely how
counter-jihad strategy should not be formulated: ill-conceived
aggression, followed by a weak will.
The question remains, what should be done about the jihadists who are out to kill us?
To the jihadi problem, there is no ultimate solution in the short
term. While U.S. officials should make every reasonable effort to
maximize the security of the homeland, they cannot create an
impregnable fortress America, any more than the state is capable of
eliminating murders in the country. The notion that military forces can
be successful in killing so many jihadists abroad that terrorists will
not try to kill Americans at home is also foolhardy.
What's more, once an individual goes over to the side of jihad, it
seems unlikely that the individual will drop that pursuit in the short
term, even if the initial source of rage ceases to exist. The Islamic
fighter is often too committed to a jihadi frame of mind and ensnared
in the network and friendship bonds to walk away from one day to
another--not unlike the difficulties individuals encounter in exiting
criminal gangs that operate in the United States.
Some calibration of foreign policy is pressingly important, though.
That calibration should not entail discontinuing America's support and
special relationship with Israel, abandoning other Middle East allies
or haphazardly withdrawing from Iraq. But U.S. officials do have room
and the imperative to take more consistent stands that would also
better serve the interests of the United States.
While there is, for example, a broad consensus on the need for more
honest U.S. brokering of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and a better
articulation of why settlement expansions undermine both U.S. and
longer-term Israeli interests, there has been little progress in these
areas. In addition, the administration must be more forthright in
recognizing that the U.S. campaign in Iraq creates a paradox: While
U.S. troops adeptly employ impressive firepower, their presence also
fuels the insurgency in Iraq and sows suspicions of hegemonic
ambitions. Perhaps the administration should adopt one of the
meticulously formulated exit strategies offered free of charge by the
constellation of Washington think-tanks.
In dealing with jihad and other global problems, the United States
must balance its national interests and its democratic and other
principles. A policy that pursues soaring principle while ignoring the
potential impact of that pursuit on the citizenry becomes implicitly
unprincipled. A pursuit of policies that considers only interests and
ignores ethics can provoke a backlash, thereby undermining national
The administration's efforts to give its foreign policy a Karen
Hughes makeover will not be successful. The administration must
re-engineer policy, not make new pitches. Washington needs a means of
fighting jihadists that does not create additional jihadists. While
jihadists are dreaming of and plotting revenge, Washington officials
should be kept awake designing strategies that go well beyond just
"smoking 'em out." America needs a foreign policy that is more
strategic than nihilist; a measured, muscular approach that can apply
carrots and sticks effectively rather than a "bring-it-on" hormonal
response that is impulsive and uncoordinated.
Finally, we need to be more realistic about how people in the region
regard U.S. actions. The concept of "benign crusader" does not exist in
the Middle East. While many Americans have been moved by Bush's
recurrent promotion (and virtual appropriation) of freedom, Middle East
Muslims have not been similarly stirred, given that they are in greater
proximity to the carnage of war--the military extension of that
professed pursuit of freedom. They also have a distinct vision of
freedom: defined largely as the ability to reject the guidance of the
world's superpower. Our desire to build liberal nation-states conflicts
with a Middle Eastern desire to exercise sovereignty and
self-determination independent of infidel outsiders.
With the death toll rising in Iraq and America's ability to promote
its agenda in the region increasingly called into question, now is not
the time for impulsive or emotional responses. More than ever, we will
need to think and act strategically--and that sometimes means having to
choose between unpleasant options. But we do not have unlimited amounts
of time, as recent events in Iraq have all too tragically demonstrated.
This is why it is important to avoid a defeat--or an appearance of
one--in Iraq that could accelerate the process of turning that country
into a terrorist base, further destabilize the region and give jihad a
new momentum. Now is the time to take the opportunity to recalibrate
U.S. policy to secure our interests--before the next crisis rears its
head and our freedom of action is even more compromised.
Ximena Ortiz is executive editor of The National Interest.