Defeating Islamist totalitarianism requires a three-pronged approach: Hard power (destroying Salafi Jihadist forces, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and undercutting avid supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Turkey and Qatar); Social and economic leverage; Conduct of an aggressive war of ideas that would de-legitimize the Islamists in Islamic terms. Israel can play a discreet role by extending its hand to moderate Muslims, while taking a firm stance against the totalitarian perversion of Islam.
Seventeen years after 9/11 – a day that has come to live in infamy no less than Pearl Harbor – the Long War still rages. Totalitarian Islamist regimes and groups still pose an active threat across an arc stretching from Southeast Asia to West Africa, with focal points in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as major cities in the West. Yet there is still a need for a clear and coherent concept as to the objective of this war, the identity of the enemy and the means of not only containing but also defeating it.
What’s in a name? The way the “Long War” has been defined is driven by ideological as well as practical considerations, with the aim of using motivational language that will broaden the base of support for US-led coalitions. Nonetheless, it has repeatedly fallen short of offering a clear sense of purpose. The first term coined by President Bush, the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) reflected the impact of 9/11 and the security-oriented aspect of the war. Terrorism, however, is not in itself an enemy, but rather a tool used by the enemy. The point has often been made that speaking of a War on Terror is like defining WWII as “a war against tanks (or submarines).” When he spoke of the “Axis of Evil” Bush came closer to identifying a set of enemies, but given that both North Korea and Iran were left to their own devices, this term, too, did not properly explain the objective of the war.
Some of the neo-conservative thinkers who played a major role in inspiring the president’s policy decisions during the first five years of the war occasionally spoke of it as “World War IV,” essentially implying that the challenge posed by Islamist forces is on par with those posed by Nazism in WWII and the Soviets during the Cold War (“WWIII”). This had the merit of adding an ideological, albeit not fully explicit, dimension to the ongoing military effort, but it also conveyed the expectation that a decisive military defeat of the enemy, as in 1945, would lead to a transformative process that would bring the lands of Islam within the scope of what came to be called the “freedom agenda.”
Yet that was not how events unfolded, and as the problems of “the day after” piled up, the new US Administration chose a markedly different approach to the very nature of the war. President Obama was quite willing to use force when necessary, as demonstrated by the daring nature of the raid that killed Bin Laden, deep inside the territory of a declared nuclear power. But he was not as willing to commit to a war against an ideological enemy. In fact, by shifting the center of gravity to the concept of “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) in 2014, the Obama Administration gave the struggle the distinct undertone of a social work project.
Following the White House Summit on CVE in February 2015, a broad range of activities – some would say an “industry” of projects and initiatives – emerged worldwide, supported by the Obama Administration and focused on minority communities in the West and vulnerable neighborhoods in moderate nations across the Arab and Muslim world. Some have left a positive mark, while others were little more than elaborate hoaxes. All had in common the notion that social reform, greater attention to the needs of the young, economic betterment and political participation, particularly among those who tend to feel alienated and abused, would sap the energies that fuel phenomena like Daesh (IS) and other radical groups. Despite poor results, “de-radicalization” efforts in prisons and schools were part of this general project. In this context, tensions were bound to arise between the socially oriented CVE activists, who seek to persuade and co-opt potential radicals, and the various security-oriented forces and agencies in the region and in the West that seek to break, repress or coerce terrorists and potential future terrorists.
Although led by a core group of professionals with a firm worldview, the Trump Administration has yet to offer a coherent “shorthand” of its own to define the war. Amidst the swirling patterns of adversarial politics in the US and the West today, this will not be easy. But it need not take the familiar form of denigrating all the previous efforts (even if the president himself is often tempted to do so). Indeed, a firm strategy for DIT (Defeating Islamist Totalitarianism) can and even must include viable elements of both the GWOT operations and the CVE project.
This strategy should, however, include a third and highly necessary dimension: a targeted ideological campaign to debunk the Islamist claim to represent the “true religion.” Indeed, the key message of this campaign was delivered on January 1, 2015, by Egypt’s President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, when he called upon the ulama (Islamic scholars) of al-Azhar to reform, or indeed rectify, religious discourse and challenge the folly of the so-called fundamentalist position.
Thus what is needed is a well-honed “trident” in the form of an aggressive three-pronged approach aimed at defeating and if possible destroying modern, revolutionary Islamist totalitarianism in all its forms. The first prong is and must remain military in nature, supported and sustained by solid, actionable intelligence. When radical organizations do well in the battlefield, as Daesh did in 2014, no amount of social work or ideological suasion can undo the damage. Young minds – ranging from excitable youth in Tunisia to teenage girls, some not even Muslim, in Britain – were captivated by a sense of excitement and adventure. The first imperative, as in Bush’s GWOT and Obama’s drone campaign, is to kill or capture Salafi Jihadists and destroy their so-called states and provinces. At the same time, all options, including sanctions, covert action and open warfare, should be on the table in order to dissuade the regime in Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to restrain its regional subversion. Moreover, it is necessary to re-evaluate the notion of a Western “alliance” with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Erdogan’s Turkey and the Qatari leadership.
The second prong can and should endorse the CVE agenda to a certain extent, while rejecting the notion that economic and social remedies can replace the security effort. These need to proceed in tandem, not in a spirit of political rivalry. Continuous military and intelligence pressure should constantly raise the cost of affiliation with totalitarian Islamism in all its forms, while enlightened economic policies and the creation of opportunities can reduce the relative benefits that Islamists are able to promise young people who currently see no future. Very firm guidelines are necessary, however, to ensure that the substantial international funding devoted to CVE-oriented projects is indeed put to good use, rather than wasted on fanciful projects that fail to pass basic tests of effectiveness.
Finally, the first two prongs need to be complemented by a third, namely, a systemic effort at all levels (from high-level policy statements to schoolbooks and social networks) to demolish the presumed authenticity of Islamist positions. It should expose them for what they are: a poisonous hybrid of selective Islamic percepts and the all-powerful influence of modern, revolutionary totalitarianism, an ideological aberration that originated in the West, not in the world of Islam. The term “fundamentalism” has misled too many people into believing that this violent ideology in fact embodies old, “fundamental” Islamic beliefs, whereas it is very much a product of modern times.
Clearly this work must take place within the world of Islam; this is the essence of Sisi’s message to the scholars of al-Azhar in his programmatic speech of January 2015. The NU movement (Nahdat al-Ulama, “the Renaissance of the Scholars”) in Indonesia, whose leader visited Israel this year, offers another model of moderation and tolerance. Nevertheless, the call for internal reform and “correction of the religious discourse” within Islam must be backed by a very firm message from Western leaders across the board: “Islam is not the enemy, Islamism is our common enemy.” Rejecting Huntington’s thesis on a “clash of civilizations” – as both Bush and Obama did, each in his own way – is an important component of the ideological war. It can be used to isolate the radicals, while reassuring truly moderate forces (as distinct from “pragmatist” manipulators such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who never abandon their basic totalitarian creed) that they have a role to play once the Islamists are defeated.
Israel can make its own discreet contributions to the global effort, and it is in its strategic interest to do so. The remarkable achievements of the Israeli security forces and intelligence community in foiling Islamist terrorism internally and around the world are generally recognized, even if the details must and do often remain classified. The combined effect of these security measures and of social and economic incentives, which have increased and improved in recent years, helped dissuade young Muslims in Israel (where they account for nearly 20% of the population) from joining IS and its likes. Fewer Israeli Arabs ended up joining such groups than Australian Muslims, for example.
For self-evident reasons, Israel is barred from taking a prominent or assertive role in the ideological struggle. It is also important that Israel, as a state, and prominent figures in its public domain, resist the temptation to pose as an outpost of Western civilization in the frontier against Islam as such. Such imagery might invite some Western, and specifically American, sympathy, but at the cost of playing into the Islamists’ hands. With Israel now closely and strategically associated with several like-minded Muslim nations, most of whom are Sunni (though not all: the Azeris are Shi’ite), it is in Israel’s interest to draw a clear distinction between Islam as a religious civilization and the modern totalitarian perversion that presumes to speak in Islam’s name. In recent years Israel has taken symbolic measures that constitute a step in the right direction. One such example is the holding of Iftar dinners by Israeli Ambassadors, President Rivlin (whose father translated the Qur’an) and more recently Prime Minister Netanyahu.
A proper definition of the enemy and a coherent, well-balanced strategy aimed at defeating it do not in themselves guarantee that the struggle will be successful, and it certainly will not be brief. But in the absence of both, it is difficult to see how the battle can be won at all.