With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Letter to My Friends: Why We Can't Expect to Win a Religious War in the Middle East


I commend to your attention the excellent article by Graham Fuller.

Graham was briefly a student of mine at Harvard. He is a highly experienced, intelligent man who has carefully studied the Middle East for many years. His opinions deserve very careful attention. They are not now being heard by the White House. They should be.

I agree with his major points: our policy toward Asad has been a failure; overthrowing governments also destroys institutions and often creates chaos but hardly ever produces democracy or stability; overall, although he does not say this explicitly, we have no coherent policy, just a sporadic series of attempted quick fixes; and, finally, we do not have the intelligence, the will or the "acceptance" to remake societies or even political systems as we would like. These are the facts to which we must adjust.

However, I disagree with the notion -- the hope -- that Asad, the Iraqis or the Iranians can successfully put down the radical Islamic fundamentalists. As Graham points out they are growing and spreading. In part, I believe, this is so because of these factors:

First, unlike most of the Arab nationalist movements, particularly those of the Palestinians, this salafi jihadi movement is demonstrating to a wide public that it is unwilling to compromise and will fight to the end. I find aspects of their tactics similar to those of the Viet Minh and the nature of their warfare similar to the religious wars in Seventeenth century Europe.

Second, the salafi jihadis claim to base themselves on the fundamentals that every Muslim believes are God-ordained (even if most Muslims do not rigidly or often practice them). Thus they assert and their enemies cannot fully or effectively deny their "legitimacy."

Third, because alternate ideologies (nationalism, socialism, communism) have failed to bring the sought-for objectives of freedom and well-being, many people in the Muslim world believe that religion is the only thing they have left.  In this sense, they have no ideological competition.

Fourth, the salafi jihadis have announced openly a coherent three-stage strategy.  The leaders have adopted this strategy explicitly in the document I quoted in my essay on them a year ago,   The first stage is aimed at "creating chaos in which the forces of the foreign powers and their local proxies are distracted and exhausted and the Muslims learn that they have power and learn how to use it."   The means to accomplish this is what they call "vexation of the enemy" through the actions of small-scale, independent acts by autonomous groups.  The second stage is the "spread of savagery."  The word they choose, at-Tawhish, is comparableto Hobbes' "state of nature." It is a condition in which the rules of human society are suspended.  Unlike Hobbes' state of nature where "warre" is general, however,  their objectives are clear and coherent.   Their second stage is what we now see in Syria and Iraq.  The third stage, into which they are rapidly transforming themselves,  is what they have termed "the administration of savagery (Idarah at-Tawhish)."  The aim there is to create a "fighting society" in a given territory in which the population is won over by administering religious law and by providing social services including money, food and medical services and so to create a state.

Fifth they are getting support from those, and many they are, in other Arab and Muslim lands who feel alienated from their own regimes and frustrated with their lives.  

Sixth,  Almost everywhere in Africa and Asia is the residual anger over European imperialism. The "White man's burden" was really a colored man's burden and is only now becoming the white man's burden.   People almost everywhere dislike foreign intervention and those who practice it.  This is not unique to the Arabs. Bombing, special forces raids, or the introduction of foreign "boots on the ground" will be seen by large numbers of people as a return to imperialism -- not as a movement of liberation.  We often forget (if we ever really appreciated)  the deep angers of the post-imperial generations over the pains they or their fathers suffered under Western domination.  The salafi jihadis take this as a given and use it as a major asset.  In the document I quoted above, the salafi jihadi leadership comments that Westernizers are hypocrites to inveigh against violence on moral grounds since in the 20th century alone they committed massacres against themselves and against the Muslims[i] [on a scale} which had not been matched in all of human history.  Even the most brutal peoples, like the Tatars [or Mongols], did not shed as much blood as they did.  They frivolously spent the money of the Muslims and their own money —  which is, in reality, the money of God — for spreading unbelief, moral depravity, and debauchery, while millions of humans died hungry, the number of which some rational minds would not believe even if it were recorded in a book."

Adding up these points, I argue that the more they are attacked, the stronger the salafis become.  Even if  we kill their leadership, cut off their supplies of arms and food and overwhelm their followers, we cannot destroy their movement.  I believe that the history of religious movements proves two things: 

The first it that, religious wars are never "won." That is the "bad news."

Second, the "good news" is that even violent, radical, ugly religious movements "mature."  That is, they are forced by their followers and even by some of their leaders to become "civilized."  This is a process, slow to be sure, we can see in all radical movements.

Thus, what we need to do, in my opinion, is to ease our pressure to enable internal changes -- those that are beneficial to them and to us -- to take place.   

Admittedly that is a long-time strategy.  It is far less popular than attacking:  most people love war, soldiers like to win glory and promotion and arms dealers want to sell their goods.  So our leaders may not have the strength or the courage to try a long-term strategy, but I think it is far and away the most likely to accomplish our objectives.