Perhaps the most predictable fall-out of Graeme Wood’s influential cover article for The Atlantic, “What the Islamic State Really Wants,” is another round of debate over whether or not the atrocities committed by ISIS and other armed fundamentalist terrorist outfits are sanctioned by the Qur’an, Hadith, and other Islamic texts, and if not, whether these groups and the evils they inflict upon the world should be called “Islamic” at all. Michael Lotus, co-author of the excellent America 3.0 and a generally sharp political observer all around, suggests that American policy makers shouldn’t bother themselves with the question:
Fortunately for non-Muslims, who have neither the time nor the inclination nor the scholarly competence to get into intra-Muslim theological disputes, we do not need to figure out whether ISIS or [their theological opponents] more properly interpret these passages. We just need to know that ISIS reads the texts the way it does, believe them to be divine commands, and acts accordingly. Knowing this, we are better able to plan whatever military response is necessary to defeat them, and hopefully destroy them entirely. This is both theoretically and practically an easier task than debating them.
There are two separate issues at play here that need to be clearly distinguished from each other before the United States crafts any strategy to defeat ISIS. The first is what, if anything, the United States should do over the short term to stop and then reverse ISIS’s advance. The second is how the United States should approach the long term threat posed by Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and the ideology that inspires it. Inasmuch as the goal of American policy is grounding ISIS into the dust, then Michael is entirely correct. Conquerors the world over have shown that one does not need a nuanced understanding of an enemy’s belief system in order to obliterate him. But ISIS is only one head of the hydra. If the goal of American policy is to permanently defeat “global extremism” or “global terror” or whatever the folks in Washington have decided to call Salafi-Jihadist barbarism this month, then this view is insufficient.
I should be clear here. I am not advocating a perpetual, open-ended war declared against some nebulous concept like “poverty,” or “drugs,” or “terror.” James Madison once declared that war is the “most dreadful” of “all public enemies to liberty,“ and I take his warning seriously. We cannot continue on an indefinite war footing without permanently damaging the integrity of the America’s republican institutions.
But there is more to this conflict than America’s internal politics. It is worth it to step back and remind ourselves of exactly what is at stake in the global contest against Jihadist extremism.
At the turn of the twentieth century, China, Japan, and Korea saw vast changes in the shape of their society because the old Neo-Confucian world view that had upheld the old order had been discredited. In Europe both communism and fascism rose to horrific heights because the old ideology of classical liberalism that had hitherto held sway was discredited. As a global revolutionary force communism itself withered away because the events that closed the 20th century left it discredited. If Americans do not worry about communist revolutionaries anymore it is because communism was so thoroughly discredited that there is no one left in the world who is willing to pick up arms in its name. 
We cannot “win” this fight, in the long term, unless we can discredit the ideology that gives this fight teeth.
Luckily for us, this does not require discrediting a fourteen hundred year old religion held by one fifth of the world’s population. It is worth reminding ourselves that the ideology we seek to discredit is a comparatively new one. It was born in the sands of Najd shortly before Arabia became “Saudi,” crystallized in its present form only in the 1960s, and was not exported abroad until the late 1980s. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict excepted, almost all “Islamist” terrorist attacks can be linked directly to this new Salafi-Jihadist ideology and the madrassas and proselytizing media used to spread it. It is an ideology that directly threatens the sovereign rulers of every country in the Near East, and one whose interpretations are not only opposed by the majority of Islamic theologians, but have little relation to the way Islam was practiced in most places a mere 30 years ago.
That an ideology is new or rebels against established world views does not make it less dangerous. Novelty also says little about a movement’s future success–once upon a time Protestantism was a novel ideology. I encourage people to use this analogy. Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS’s success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.
I will not mince words: humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every ‘great game’ of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. We must plan accordingly.
The other day a Palestinian friend of mine posted the following note on Facebook:
ISIS has zero connection to Islam. The only people who think ISIS is Islamic either know nothing about Islam, are part of ISIS or write for The Atlantic. If you doubt this, please take the time to read this letter written by some of the most prominent Islamic Scholars of our time in which they go into excruciating detail highlighting the VERY Un-Islamic nature of ISIS. It is 23 pages long and in 10 different languages.
P.S. Stop saying Muslims aren’t speaking out against ISIS.
He links to an open letter to al-Baghdadi signed by several hundred Imams and muftis across the world, debating various theological claims made by ISIS point by point. The status started a long debate–some 40 comments long last I checked–on whether or not ISIS was indeed “Islamic” or if it was something else. Had the debate been started by anyone else it would almost seem parodic. “Of course the Islamic State is Islamic!” one wants to shout. By denying the theological underpinnings of the group and its explicit religious–indeed, Islamic–goals we deny the threat it poses and the permanent impact ISIS and Salafi-Jihadist ideology may have on Islamic civilization as a whole. Lily-liberal progressives are intellectual cowards for refusing to face up to this fact.
But my friend is not a lily-liberal progressive. He is a practicing Muslim, forwarding a message written by other Muslims meant to be read first and foremost by Muslims. What those in the comment thread upset at my friend’s refusal to “own up” on the Islamic nature of ISIS could not see is that the boundaries of a religion and its attendant ideology are not set by old texts or theological debate, but by the perceptions and actions of the devout themselves. What the average American Protestant–and even more so the average American Catholic!–does to worship Christ is only tenuously connected to anything found in a Biblical text, and the lifestyle of today’s Christians would be alien and scandalous to Christians of both the 4th and the 15th centuries. One age’s heretics are another age’s fellow saints. What is or what is not “Christian” is entirely determined by the perceptions, mores, and opinions of those who call themselves Christian. If the great majority concur that something is or is not Christian then, for all intents of purposes, thus it will be. As with Christianity, so with Islam. The Islamic State will be ‘un-Islamic’ once there is no one left who believes its actions are grounded in the Islamic faith.
It is a hard nut for Westerners to crack. President Obama and Bush show some awareness of the problem when they declare that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, terrorism, or whatever “is not Islamic.” In the end, however, these statements are self defeating. Those most tempted to join the Jihadist cause are those who will respond least well to a Christian emperor telling them how to express their faith. The crux of the problem is that we have picked a side in an ideological civil war, but the clearer it becomes that we Americans have chosen this side the more difficult it becomes for our chosen side to win.
That is when we do recognize the crisis of Islamic civilization for what it is. We often do not. With depressing regularity we fall into the trap of expressed best in all of this “clash of civilizations” talk. The problem posed by Islamic terrorism is not the ultimate consequence of a clash between civilizations, but a violent expression of a clash within a civilization. More Muslims die every year at the hands of Salafi-inspired terrorism than non-Muslims do, and even those attacks carried out against non-Muslims are overwhelmingly about forging a more perfect Ummah. What we are witnessing is a global contest for the soul of Islam. Unfortunately, so caught up are we in our own culture wars that we have completely lost sight of what is happening around us. In the American mind the Islamic terrorist is first and foremost a weapon to be used against her domestic opponents. Tribe Red sees every attack and atrocity as another talking point against Tribe Blue’s multi-cultural program; Tribe Blue, in turn spends more time worrying how Tribe Red will spin these atrocities than what their actual impact will be on the broader contest over the souls of the Ummah. As Gary Brecher put it in a recent War Nerd column, we are blinded by sort of “American narcissism” where “a man burned alive in the Syrian desert becomes nothing but an excuse for a sermon on American History X, because only America matters, only America’s sins [or in Tribe Red’s case, triumphs] are real.” 
The flight of Christians away from the Near East, 1920-2006.
Source: Stephan Farrel and
As Americans bicker as the old Islamic order burns. We are only in the beginning stages of this collapse and already the shape of the Arab world has irrevocably changed. 120,000 Christian refugees fled for safer lands as ISIS advanced across Iraq last year, effectively ending Christianity’s 2000 year long presence there. This same sort of pressure is being placed on ancient Christian communities across the Near East. That is worth reflecting over. The arguments we have about trigger warnings and American Sniper are froth upon the wave. They will not be remembered in thirty years time. The same cannot be said for the kind of demographic and cultural changes Islamic extremists are trying to bring to the Mahgeb and the Middle East. What is happening today in mosques and madrassas across the world may shape human society for centuries.
I have painted a picture in broad strokes, speaking of civilizations and centuries. That is what is at stake here. Given this knowledge I think it is appropriate to bring the discussion back down to where we started: what, if anything, can American statesmen and policy-makers do to discredit Salafi-Jihadist ideology?
Recognizing both the scale and the nature of the threat helps us. We need to realize that the daily lives of billions of people around the world are being decided right now, and that a virulent ideology, not an individual terrorist group or force, is the prime enemy in this fight. This ideology will not be stopped by rational discussion or theological debate. No political or religious ideology ever has been. Victory can only come through discrediting it. However, if we transparently lend our support those within the Muslim world who argue the position we like then we discredit them.
The implications of all this in my mind are:
1) We should not try to take part in the theological, intellectual, and cultural conflicts that are driving this ideology forward. American politicians making takfir are at best embarrassing and at worst destructive to out cause. Government officials should only give active support to prominent Muslims who oppose Salafi-Jihadist ideology when we can do so secretly or when our intentions for doing so can be obscured.
2) However, we should become very fluent in the details of these beliefs and these debates, even though we do not participate in them directly. It is possible to discredit an ideology without understanding it–there are few things naked force can’t accomplish if applied in large enough doses. But the human costs of such a campaign would be horrific and could not be done without severely damaging the character of American democracy. Better to be smart than to descend into barbarism.
3) As we cannot discredit Salafi-Jihadist ideology through debate, we should focus our efforts on figuring out what events in the real world will
discredit it and then do everything in our power to make these events happen. In his Atlantic article Graeme Wood provides one good example of this sort: if you can dislodge a Caliphate from its territory, he notes, it can no longer claim to be a Caliphate. If we properly understand the ideology that drives these men and their supporters we can find other weak points that can be exploited.
(Another example, again in the context of ISIS–I would suggest that our campaigns against ISIS would have far greater power if they were perceived to be led, planned, directed, and fought by Sunni Muslims. America’s role should be muted. This will be hard to pull of given realities of current U.S. domestic politics though).
4) We should do all we can to stop the dissemination of Salafi-Jihadist ideology. On the short term that means taking down Jihadist web-sites and forums; on the medium term that means confiscating the funds and barring travel visas of the rich Saudi and emirate sheiks who fund the madrassas, presses, preachers, and websites that produce the Jihadist filth; on the long term it means recognizing that Saudi Arabia poses a greater threat to the interests of the United States specifically and of humanity generally than any other state, and do what we can to terminate our relationship with the house of Saud as soon as possible. 
5) Related to that last point, we need to fundamentally rethink the structure of our alliance system in the Middle East. There are no good options in the Near East, and no good allies. We must settle for least worst. That is almost certainly the Iranians. It is too much to ask for an alliance with Iran, but truly, of all the important regional players they are the least dangerous. Tehran is not exporting an ideology that inspires terrorists around the world. (Indeed, outside of the Middle East itself you won’t find a Shi’i terrorist). The Persians have a stronger interest in combating Salafi-Jihadist extremism than any other power in the region. Growing Shiite power also means that more of the energy currently spent on attacking the West will be spent attacking Iran, while we can safely support Iranian ambitions without discrediting them, as would happen with many a “moderate” Sunni.
This last point is radical but it may be the most important. Lately there has been a growing discussion in foreign policy circles over whether or not true U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is possible, or if the Iranians will take advantage of U.S. overtures to act against American interests with impunity. I am skeptical that the current generation of leadership in Tehran will ever be anything less than hostile towards the United States. But in the long term this does not matter. Even if the Iranians resolutely oppose every American initiative in the region the damage they might do–both to America, but really more importantly, to Islamic civilization, and by extension, to humanity as a whole–will be far, far less than out havoc our “allies” now wreck.
T. Greer, “Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, Part I,” and “Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context Part II,” The Scholar’s Stage (9 and 10 October 2013).
Seth Jones, A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp, 2014). PDF file.
Brookings Institution Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, “Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: Comparative Discussion of Islamic Tradition and Revivalism,” Panel discussion at Brookings (20 May 2014). Transcript and audio. See also the book that inspired the discussion.
“Lorenzo,” Review of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, Post I and Post II, Thinking Out Loud (19 and 20 February 2015).
Abdul Ghella, “Tackling the New Wahabi Extremism: Africa’s Menace for the Coming Years,” Pambazuka News, iss. 605 (11 August 2012).
 Lexington Green, Comment #1 (26 February 2015) on Charles Cameron, “Definitely my ‘Best Book’ of 2014,” Zenpundit (23 February 2015).
 The phrase comes from his 1795 political pamphlet, “Political Observations.” I have written extensively about this quote and the historical context for it in “James Madison of War and Liberty,” The Scholar’s Stage (8 Oct 2010).
 This is of course not absolutely true–India’s most serious insurgency, the Naxalites, are nominally communist. But the very fact that they are now called Naxalites instead of their official name, CPI-Maoist, is a pretty telling indication of how large a role Marxist or Maoist ideology plays in their operations.
 Gary Brecher, “The War Nerd: The Islamic State and American Narcisism,” Pando Daily (12 February 2015). His most recent column about Boko Haram strikes a similar note: “Boko Haram and the Demon Consensus,” Pando Daily (28 January 2015).
 This is also true, though to a lesser extent, of both the Emerati states (like Qatar) and Pakistan. The Pakistanis are a particularly dangerous lot, because they have the power to export this ideology to India, China, and Central Asia and are actively doing so.