A few years ago Bret Stephens cowrote an article in the Wall Street Journal to the effect that America did not have a “Muslim problem,” because Muslims in America tended to be wealthy and well-educated. (I wrote about it at some length here.) His analysis suffered from two mistaken assumptions: first, that poverty causes terrorism and that therefore Muslims who were better off would not be interested in jihad. This has been disproven by many, many, many studies, and anecdotally by the doctors’ jihad attacks last year in Britain, Intel executive Maher Hawash’s jihad activity, etc. Stephens’ (and his coauthor’s) second false assumption was that an absence of discernable terrorist activity equals an absence of efforts to establish the hegemony of Islamic law — and that false assumption also plays a role in Stephens’ latest piece, “How to Manage Savagery,” in the Wall Street Journal, September 5.
Stephens begins by discussing at length the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?,” showing how it “seemed in many ways to have been borne out by subsequent events,” and ultimately arguing that it has been disproven by more recent events:
Contrary to Huntington’s forecast, much of world conflict is now overwhelmingly characterized by fighting and competition not between or among civilizations but within them. And nowhere is this truer than in the Muslim world.
However, to arrive at this conclusion, Stephens has to gloss over certain unpleasant realities:
Look again at the peripheries of the Islamic crescent where Huntington perceived a collision course between Islam and the West. In the Balkans, NATO intervention in Bosnia and later in Kosovo secured Muslim populations and ultimately ended the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
And planted an incipient jihadist regime in Kosovo.
In Africa, U.S. diplomatic mediation helped to bring an end to the 22-year second Sudanese civil war and to initiate de-facto autonomy””with the ultimate goal of independence””for that country’s largely Christian south.
In Israel, the second intifada with its wave of suicide bombings was all but stopped cold by a combination of aggressive counterinsurgency operations and the building of a separation fence.
In the Caucasus, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended with a ceasefire that has held to this day, while Chechnya was brought to heel by a brutal military campaign directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Kashmir, there has been no direct fighting between India and Pakistan; the head of the main jihadist group lamented this past July that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had “murdered the Kashmir cause.”
Just after tens of thousands of Muslims rioted over a land transfer to a Hindu shrine, and around the time that the Indian Army acknowledged that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were waging jihad in Kashmir.
Even as far afield as Mindanao in the Philippines, the radical Islamist Abu Sayyaf movement has been crippled by a combination of Filipino and American arms.
Not crippled enough, apparently, to keep jihadists in Mindanao from trading mortar fire with government troops just weeks ago, displacing 130,000 Filipino Christians, and threatening full-scale jihad against the government.
Then Stephens concedes that “not all the wars of the Islamic periphery have ended,” and details some of them, concluding:
Remarkably, however, the wars that chiefly roil the Islamic world today are no longer at its periphery. They are at the center, and they pit Muslims against other Muslims. The genocide in Darfur is being perpetrated by a regime that is every bit as Muslim””and black””as its victims.
Actually, no. The regime that is waging the genocide is Arab; the victims are black. The regime considers it a jihad. The regime is Wahhabi, and considers its Islam pure, and that of the blacks in Darfur to be syncretistic and heretical, thus making the Darfurians licit to slaughter.
Anyway, then follows more detail of conflicts, and then some background in Islamic history:
Taking the long view, one might note that intra-Islamic feuding is as old as the religion itself. Of Muhammad’s immediate successors””the “righteous caliphs,” according to Sunni tradition””the first, Abu Bakr, may have been poisoned; the next three are all known to have been assassinated, with the murder of the third caliph (Othman) resulting in the schism from which the Shiite branch of Islam emerged. The Abassid revolt destroyed the Umayyad caliphate in the 8th century; the early 9th century was marked by civil war between the sons of the fifth Abassid caliph, Haroun al-Rashid. Al Qaeda itself has ancient Islamic antecedents: the 8th-century Kharajites, for instance, were notorious for their extreme puritanism, frequent recourse to violence, and the belief that they could declare their Muslim opponents to be infidels and treat them accordingly.
The Kharajites were by no means alone in this. All Muslim groups have done this — and Stephens’ gingerly “treat them accordingly” is a figleaf for “kill them,” as that is the penalty given to apostates and heretics in Islamic law. Al-Qaeda does this more than other Muslim groups, but they did not originate it, and the Kharajites are by no means their only Islamic antecedents.
Then comes, with no discussion at all of the violent and supremacist imperatives in the Qur’an, Muhammad’s words, and Islamic law, some fashionable moral equivalence:
To be sure, endless feuding is hardly unique to Islamic civilization: the history of the West is also one of intense competition, bitter conflict, and outbursts of religious fanaticism. On the whole, though, these conflicts have dissipated and evanesced as the West has almost universally adopted democratic forms of governance. By contrast, Islam’s foundational patterns not only persist into the present day but in many ways have intensified….
And why is that? That question is not considered.
Several explanations have been offered for this history of violence. There is the absence of democracy, which forecloses opportunities for non-violent political change and pushes most forms of dissent into the mosque. There is the oil curse, which allows states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to finance expensive wars, buy political support, sustain huge sclerotic bureaucracies, and prevent the diversification and modernization of their economies. There is the endemic tribalism of Muslim, and particularly Arab, societies, and the values that go with it: the claims of kinship, the premium on familial honor, the submission to established hierarchies, suspicion of those outside the clan. There is the moral abdication of the Muslim intellectual class, which, with some notable exceptions, fell prey to nearly every bad idea that came its way, from fascism to socialism to third-worldism. And there is the history of Islam itself, which has made a virtue of military conquest, dealt sharply with heretics, and, until the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 by Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, typically combined political with religious authority.
But nothing, you’ll note, about Islamic theology and law, which teaches unanimously and has always taught that heretics should be killed, and that political and religious authority. It is manifestly and demonstrably true that all the orthodox schools of Islamic thought contain such doctrines, but to acknowledge that would be to grasp the third rail of contemporary public discourse, and Bret Stephens is by no means alone among conservatives in being unwilling to grasp it.
It’s also our fault, of course:
There is also the fact that European colonial regimes overstayed their welcome in their Middle Eastern possessions, with the effect that more or less liberal movements like the Egyptian Wafd came to be seen as stooges of the West, incapable of achieving national goals through nonviolent means. Partly as a result of this failure, the Muslim world soured on liberalism before it ever really tasted it, and traditional liberal parties and policies were discredited in favor of more radical alternatives: the Muslim Brotherhood, the violent Arab nationalisms of the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the “Free Officers” in Egypt, Algeria’s National Liberation Front, and so on. Despite the manifest failings of these movements, and the triumph of liberal politics from Mexico City to Warsaw to Seoul, liberalism has never really recaptured its good name in the Muslim world beyond a handful of courageous individuals. […]
Stephens goes on to detail the decline of Al-Qaeda, culminating in a positive appraisal of the rejection of violent jihad by one of the leading modern jihad theorists:
Even now, after his “conversion,” Dr. Fadl is no one’s idea of a modern secular thinker. Rather, his manifesto rejects the inherent radicalism of jihadism in favor of more orthodox conservative values, a return to a kind of Islamic mean. More than that, it is a frank recognition of reality””namely, that the jihadist fervor of men like Zawahiri can only lead Muslims down one dead-end street after another.
True, about 9/11 Fadl asks, “what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy”s buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours?…That, in short, is my evaluation of 9/11.” In other words, it was tactically stupid. Not morally wrong. Has he rejected jihad? No, he has just rejected certain tactics. He still says that “jihad in Afghanistan will lead to the creation of an Islamic state with the triumph of the Taliban, God willing,” and that “if it were not for the jihad in Palestine, the Jews would have crept toward the neighboring countries a long time ago.”
But like Lawrence Wright, Stephens confuses a change of tactics with a change of ultimate goals. However, the goal remains the same. Now it is being pursued through stealthy means. That is not on Stephens’ radar screen: he mentions neither the cultural and demographic crisis in Europe nor the “grand jihad” in the United States aimed at “destroying Western civilization.”
Stephens’ ultimate conclusion is this:
To speak of an Islamic civilization is to speak in error. Rather, there is a Muslim world. It is fractured, and fractious. At times, Muslim causes or conflicts spill over into the non-Islamic world, as they did in the 1990’s. Today, thanks in no small part to our actions, they remain internal””expression not, or not merely, of a clash of civilizations, but of the convulsion of one. In this internal disunity lie our strength and our opportunity””and ultimately, perhaps, the reform of the Muslim world itself.
To speak of an Islamic civilization is certainly not to speak in error. There is a civilization informed by and shaped by Islam, but really this is beside the point. He is absolutely right that we should exploit the internal disunity of the Islamic world to blunt the force of the global jihad — Hugh Fitzgerald has been advocating that here for years. But his assertion that the conflicts in the Islamic world are largely internal today is wildly exaggerated and misleading, and fails to consider in any way the many non-violent ways in which the Islamic supremacist agenda is advancing in the West today.
As always, I’d be happy to discuss this with Bret Stephens. I’d be happy to open up any kind of dialogue or debate he would be interested in, but I won’t be holding my breath — I have invited enough people to dialogue and discussion lately and been rebuffed to know how few people, even vaunted political writers and bloggers, are willing to defend the positions they take. We have in our public square today a dialogue of the deaf, or more precisely a series of monologues by graceless people who refuse to engage one another’s point of view, and boorish ratings hounds who find the jihad low on the public’s scale of interest and so don’t talk about it, as if the jihadists will go away if people are uninterested in them. I am not referring in any of this to Bret Stephens, whom I do not know. But I’d be happy to hear from him.