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Religion and Realism After 9/11

Religion and Realism After 9/11

Six years after 9/11, pundits and policymakers still don’t have a good grasp on terrorism's religious dimension.

In 1996, halfway through America's "holiday from history", terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp published an article warning of a surge in religious fanaticism that would manifest itself in "spectacular acts of terrorism across the globe." This wave that would be "unprecedented, not only in its scope and selection of targets, but also in its lethality and indiscriminate character." Ranstorp concluded on a pessimistic note:

It is imperative . . . to seek to understand the inner logic of these individual groups and the mechanisms that produce terrorism in order to undermine their breeding ground and strength, as they are here to stay. At present, it is doubtful that the United States or any Western government is adequately prepared to meet this challenge.

Two developments at the end of last week underscore just how poorly the nature of the terrorists' challenge to both the security of the nation-state and the structure of the international system is understood, even by many realists.

In the wake of the foiled plot to launch massive attacks on American installations in Germany-and the revelation that two of the conspirators were ethnic Germans-Bavarian Interior Minister Günther Beckstein suggested that "Germans converting to Islam should be watched because they show particular fanaticism in order to prove worthy of their new religion." Whether or not such surveillance would be an efficient use of police resources, the firestorm caused by Beckstein clearly showed that public acknowledgement of religious linkages to terrorism remains verboten, at least in among European opinion leaders.

With few exceptions, the clichéd reactions to the release of Osama bin Laden's new video on the weekend news talk shows were also disappointing. The only thing that distinguished the current batch of "analyses" from those produced the last time new footage of the Al-Qaeda leader surfaced was the puerile fixation on Bin Laden's apparent use of dye for his beard. While most news reports mentioned in passing Bin Laden's invitation to Americans to "embrace Islam"-among the more alluring arguments he adduced was a pledge that there would be "no taxes but rather a limited zakat [alms] totaling 2.5 percent"-none of them even ventured to disentangle the profoundly religious discourse. Although the religious discussion constituted more than half of the "Message of Sheikh Osama bin Laden to the American People", pundits opted to focus on Bin Laden's mentions of the Iraq War and taunts at congressional Democrats.

Above all, the fight between the United States and its allies and Al-Qaeda, likeminded terrorist groups, and their state and non-state enablers is an ideological contest. It has little in common with the mainstays of realist analysis-alliances and polarity, anarchy and security, states and power-and much to do with the an element that most Western analysts have great difficulty grasping: religion. (To be fair, liberal internationalism from Kant onwards suffers from the same blind spot.)

Not that Bin Laden's rant is representative of the broad spectrum of Islamic theology in the world today-much less its intellectual monuments across time. Nonetheless, there is no denying that Bin Laden's political critique is religious in nature: "Our rulers in general abandoned Islam many decades ago, but our forefathers were the leaders and pioneers of the world for many centuries, when they held firmly to Islam." The argument is that the even sharia-enforcing states like Saudi Arabia are illegitimate because they tacitly accept and operate within the largely secularized international system that has prevailed in the West since the Peace of Westphalia. Therefore, in Bin Laden's view, these states reduce themselves to jahiliyyah, the ignorance of divine guidance, which prevailed before Muhammad.

This ideology derives from Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb's innovative application of takfir, declaring Muslims who obeyed human governments as apostates for allegedly violating the first of Islam's Five Pillars, the profession of the absolute oneness of God. In Qutb's vision, which Al-Qaeda has adopted as its own, the secular international order must be replaced by a divine order: the nation-state with a caliphate, democracy with Muslim political space (mamlakat al-islam), human legislation with sharia. This radicalism challenges not just the international order but the basic tools that most realist policymakers and academics rely upon to understand and engage with the world. John McCain succinctly captured the dilemma last Saturday in a speechto the California Republican convention:

The world Ronald Reagan faced was a dangerous one, but more stable than the world today. It was a world where we confronted a massive, organized threat to our security. Our enemy was evil, but not irrational. …[Today] we also face a threat, and a long war to defeat it, that is as difficult and in many respects more destabilizing than any challenge we have ever faced. We confront an enemy that so despises us and modernity itself that they would use any means, unleash any terror, cause the most unimaginable suffering to harm us, and to destroy the world we have tried throughout our history to build.

Similarly, in his essayin the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Rudy Giuliani defied political correctness to actually name the threat:

The first step toward a realistic peace is to be realistic about our enemies. They follow a violent ideology: radical Islamic fascism, which uses the mask of religion to further totalitarian goals and aims to destroy the existing international system.

The bien-pensant critics of the former New York mayor's candor were legion and, undoubtedly, they will reassemble to lament the Arizona senator's "demonization" of the enemy. And maybe the secularized denizens of Western governments and academia may ultimately be correct in their analyses. Perhaps the political theology of Al-Qaeda and its ilk is primarily a means to recruit and maintain forces for a struggle with other underlying bases, a sort of "public diplomacy" for terrorist networks.

Maybe, but do not count on it. The problem with this type of explanation-and with most of our foreign-policy establishment, for that matter-is the near total disregard for even the possibility that religious beliefs still play an incredibly significant role in the lives of many around the globe. Unfortunately, as Michael Scheuer has pointed out, President Bush and his European counterparts' mantra that "Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have hijacked the Islamic religion", flies in the face of reality. Scheuer notes that while many Muslim leaders have opposed Bin Laden's methods and timing, "very few-even among the crowded stables of clerics owned, operated, and scripted by Mubarak and the al-Sauds-have disagreed with al-Qaeda's portrayal of U.S. foreign policy as a mortal threat to Islam."

The course of America's global War on Terrorism-as well as our standoff with the nuclear ambitions of the Iranian mullahs-will be heavily influenced by powerful religious currents operating below the radar screens of most conventional diplomatic and security analysis. These currents-unlike political dilemmas that might be remedied by governmental action, security challenges that might be met by appropriate force or socioeconomic difficulties that might respond to the appropriate stimuli-are, as Edward Luttwak put it, "an intractable force that can be quite unresponsive to all the normal instrumentalities of state power, let alone the instrumentalities of foreign policy." And it is this force that motivates the jihadists that America and its allies now confront in the Middle East as well as closer to home.

This brings us back around to Bin Laden and his belief that the "greatest of plagues and most dangerous of threats to the lives of humans" is the fact that "the world is being dominated by the democratic system" which "exists on [Allah's] earth and property without His commandments and without obeying Him" and "legislates in contradiction to His law and methodology." From Bamako to Baghdad to Bali, similar "faith-based" ends-no matter how apparently irrational, no matter how much they may offend religious orthodoxies or secular sensibilities-are just as likely to be the objectives of international conduct as promoting national interests, attaining security and stimulating economic development. Realists need to adapt our analytical toolkit to account for these aspirations if we are to continue providing relevant strategic insight in the post-9/11 world.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.