NOTE: This is a rough edit, more a collection of ideas than a formal composition. In an effort to stay current, I am releasing it for public consumption now; it will become more refined over time. –SJMB, ed.
“This is not a question of religion. This is a political ideology that has co-opted a religion, and I think it’s more than acceptable to call it for what it is and then organize an effort to destroy it.” -Jeb Bush, responding to Jake Tapper in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Sunday 15 Nov, 2015
ARGUMENT: JEB BUSH’S LINE OF THINKING, AS QUOTED ABOVE, IS DEAD WRONG AND HIS COMMENT BELIES THE FATAL ERRORS RUNNING RIFE WITHIN THE CONTEMPORARY APPROACH TO “SOLVING” TERRORISM THROUGH PRIMARILY POLITICAL/MILITARY/ ECONOMIC MEANS.
I’m not picking on Jeb Bush alone– but, he has it backwards, and, his reasoning represents everything that is wrong (and popular!) with the current way we, as a society, tend to think about Islamist Terrorism and how to stop it. Contemporary engagements with Islamist Terrorism are pointed at questions of religion. Contemporary Islamist Terrorism is not best defined as a political ideology problem first, and a religious problem second. It is, first and foremost, a problem of religious ideology and expertly manipulated theology.
How do we know this? Because that is exactly what the Islamist Terrorists tell us. For them, their terror acts are an expression of their religious commitment to a war ordained by Allah in which the only options are their victory or their eradication. In either event, they are committed to moving forward until one of those conclusions is achieved. Had Jeb Bush– and the many public figures who, like him, grievously misunderstand this crucial point– spoken accurately, he would have said, “This is a religion that has co-opted a political ideology.”
Hillary Clinton was more correct when she said, in the most recently held Democratic presidential candidate debate, “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.” (Cf., Footnote 1). Mrs. Clinton was right to not exclude religion from the mix or to leave religion uncorrelated to the present-day terror acts. Expanding on her comment, however, we might recognize her words as far too broad to be of any practical service. If we agree that we should be at war people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression, nearly almost anyone who practices, or assumes a leadership role within, any form of religion would be found employing power and oppression in their respective religion’s service. We would be better served with a conversation which stipulates to what degree the powerful or oppressive tendencies of religious practitioners and leaders are normative and acceptable. Now, if Mrs. Clinton is, by some act of verbal jugglery or word-smithing, not intending to refer specifically to Islamist Terrorism, then her entire comment is irrelevant and moot. But, if Mrs. Clinton is intending to slyly ‘refer without directly referring’ to the problems of Islamist Terrorism (her ‘passing yet positive’ inclusion of the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ really leave no room for anything other than that) not only has she failed in the subtlety of her communication, but she must then fully commit to an honest appraisal of contemporary Islamist Terrorism. Here is that honest appraisal, and, for the sake of precision, I will restrict this to the last two decades: Since 1996, the consistent virulent language and violent acts produced in the name of Allah by Islamist Terror Actors are the most prolific evidence of people using their religion for purposes of power and oppression available to us in the modern world.
What does the citizen response to this look like? A friend recently, and eloquently, conveyed to me what seems to be a statement of growing public acceptance, namely, “DAESH is a physical manifestation of an ideological virus. The only solution is [their] complete eradication.”
As I have already noted, DAESH’s complete eradication is already something of which they, as a group, are aware of, should that be the will of Allah in the religious war to which they have fully committed themselves. Bearing that in mind, let us take a moment to think about DAESH as a virus. Viral pathogenesis is the scientific process for understanding how an infection evolves into a disease. A future article will analyze the virus of terrorism using the aforementioned characteristics of viralpathogenesis as a model. This includes understanding:
(1) implantation of virus at the portal of entry, (2) local replication, (3) spread to target organs (disease sites), and (4) spread to sites of shedding of virus into the environment. Factors that affect pathogenic mechanisms are (1) accessibility of virus to tissue, (2) cell susceptibility to virus multiplication, and (3) virus susceptibility to host defenses.
For now, we may think of it this way– the terrorists who attacked Paris on Friday the 13th are akin to a virus’s supporting strains, i.e., all of the qualities and characteristics that support its sustenance and spreading. They are notoriously hard to detect, harder to locate, and even harder to destroy.
So far, over the many, many months of cooperative allied airstrikes, DAESH has been neither degraded nor deteriorated. Rather, they have managed to regain strategically significant territory which they had lost in Syria and Iraq; they have taken down a Russian airliner with help from several employees of the airline who smuggled the military grade explosives on board; they have regained control of Syrian and Iraqi oilfields, the yields of which they are selling for private profits; they have now attacked Paris twice, each attack a highly successful operation; they have inspired a host of other small scale attacks by lone wolves in the US, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, Russia and the affiliated Caucasus; they have infiltrated a Turkish peace rally with two powerful suicide bombers; they have detonated several powerful bombs on the streets of Beirut; and, from the country of France alone, they have recruited 571 French citizens to come and fight in Syria (i.e., they are currently fighting there as members of DAESH). That is not counting the many more recruits who have recently arrived in both Syria and Iraq from all over the EU, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and the United States- that number is somewhere in the thousands.
DAESH is not being weakened by the allied air assaults. Instead, they are becoming stronger, more emboldened, drawing a greater number of sympathizers (many of whom are “thinking globally and acting locally”, staying right where they are in their home countries so they can assist in executing terrorist missions across the world). With every moment that passes, DAESH is gaining more operational experience and becoming more proficient at coordinating, planning and executing impactful missions. DAESH is currently the epitome of a highly successful and brilliantly executed grass roots/asymmetric warfare campaign. There are only two ways to stop such a campaign, both of which cost an unfathomable amount of either money or lives, in one case, both. More on the specifics of that in a future discussion…
One thing to note: the people who are being primarily sought out as “experts” on Islamist Terrorism and its successful execution are political scientists, military personnel, intelligence analysts, economists and sociologists. Each of these “experts” is continuing to say the exact same thing they have always said, the current application of which is only strengthening DAESH a group and as a soon-to-be-globally-operational-force. Some exceptions to this conventional “wisdom” are the truly wise commentaries offered by persons like Scheuer, Nance and, especially, Juergensmeyer.
And now we have come to the critical point, the very thing which has somehow become the most obfuscated and disregarded piece of “intelligence” or material germane to understanding and resolving contemporary Islamst Terrorism: DAESH has declared this to be a religious war.
This is a real-time declaration sourced from deep within the history of Islamist Terrrorism. Osama bin-Laden and company, as far back as the early and mid-1990’s, made equivalent declarations (fatwas). Very few Westerners listened to those declarations then and, in a parallel display of following their own history, very few Westerners are listening to those declarations now. The Westerners who are listening to those declarations are the same Westerners who are joining DAESH. Why is no one outside of DAESH listening to what DAESH themselves are telling us? Furthermore, why would we not believe them? Dastardly as they are, they are not inventing artificial reasons to wage their terror campaigns. They are telling us the Absolute Truth about what they religiously believe; as such, they are providing us with wide glimpses into the deepest recesses of their faith.
Why then, are the current attempts at resolving a clearly defined religious war focused primarily on conversations with social scientists? What might a politician or an economist tell us about a religious war which a theologian or religious studies person could not? Why does there appear to be an intentional lack of focus on conversations with theologians and religious studies persons about a war which falls under their banner of expertise– religion and its practices. This is a religious war. The very people waging it have said just so. What are we missing that theologians would certainly help us to understand? We are talking to the wrong people. At the very least we are not talking to the right people.
This is but one example of the same party-line approach and associated political and military practices which have done nothing to degrade and/or deteriorate DAESH since the group’s inception. The events in Paris are only one more example of what has been, and will continue to be, a seemingly never-ending string of successfully executed and highly effective terrorizing operations by DAESH and their (officially or non-officially) affiliated ilk.
Resolving this issue and exterminating DAESH begins with understanding the issue for what it is—a deeply rooted, if not self-constructed, religious conflict which manifests as severely brutal, appropriately bite-sized, and highly unpredictable violence. This conflict will continue to propagate itself as such, and without cessation, for as long as we refuse to acknowledge this conflict’s precisely theological roots.
I stand in solidarity with the people of Paris against terrorism. My deepest and most heartfelt sympathies are with the victims and their families. But, failing the recommendation I have made above, we can only expect one Paris-like terrorist event after another, after another, after another, after another ad infinitum. Should terrorism remain theologically unchecked, the sympathetic rallying slogans of “Je Suis Paris” will become literal in every town and village around the globe as each one succumbs to the same terroristic force which, this past Friday, so effectively dismantled Parisian life.