Issue Date: Spring 2006, Posted On: 3/17/2006

Geopolitical Jihad
by Ximena Ortiz

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 pro-American.

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 AtatĀrk 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 Pakistan.

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 Islamic tenets.

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, hormonal.

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 impetus either.

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 interests.

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.