A Three Front War : Heaven is the Battleground
by John Kiser / Summer 2015
IN 1993 Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, his announcement was largely unnoticed. Until eight years later. In 2014, ISIS declared war on the United States and the West. The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, killing hundreds and terrorizing many more has become Europe’s 9/11 moment. The US is surely on ISIS’s target list for another attention getting event. Does the US and its allies know how to fight a global irregular war without borders? From whom can we best learn? Does the knee jerk desire for retribution serve as a useful policy guide in fighting this kind of enemy?
The struggle with militant Islamism ( ISIS/ AlQaeda style ) has all the potential to become what extremists in both camps want—a global civilizational war. A fight to the death. It sounds crazy? Yes, the bull is bigger and stronger and has Technology, but the wasps are dispersed, agile, creative, hard to identify and fighting for a place in Paradise. It is an enemy the US military is not trained for, or mentally prepared to fight. And the wasps can win. There are potentially 1. 5 billion to draw from if the bull lets non life- threatening stings cause an over reaction that will simply bring on more angry wasps. Chinese literature uses the metaphor of the Lion vs the Flies. Mao Tse Tung started as a fly. Victory through a thousand bites. It is why ISIS is praying for the US to put boots on the ground. American troops will be their best recruiters.
The enemy battle plan is simple, and openly stated. The red meat- eating American cowboys will go berserk over painful and humiliating attacks either by self-starter lone wolves or thru organized sleeper cells. Civil liberties in the US will be curtailed, a terrorist- hunting McCarthyism sets in, American Muslims become targets of more hatred, kicked out of government jobs and calls made to put them into camps. We destroy our own open culture and become a police state out of security paranoia, frustration, impatience and ignorance of what we are fighting and how to counter it. A quasi war footing puts the US still deeper into debt, the military industrial complex is delighted to peddle more expensive and ineffective technology to quell the never ending clouds of wasps. Disenchanted and culturally alienated Americans, especially American Muslims and young, angry black Americans morph into the enemy within and interbreed with the Mexican drug cartels. This scenario is three to ten years out, assuming a succession of unwise foreign policy decisions and domestic hysteria fanned by our brilliant leaders… a combo of Viet Nam Redux plus a Red Scare mentality. We would do well to imitate the British during the last hundred years of Irish insurgencies: Keep Calm and Carry on.
We are facing a war on three interrelated fronts, one that must be contained by building deep intelligence and experience, partnering with anti ISIS Muslims regardless of how they have been pre-labeled by American policy makers.
First is the domestic Islamophobia front in the USA and Europe. The professional Islamophobes are haters, often with a political agenda to demonize Islam as a single monolithic religion, reducing it to a cult of violence. These are the mosque burners, the Koran burners, the angry confused assassins who mistake Siks for Muslims. They want Americans to believe that Islam is One Thing, and is inherently evil, the new Communism out to take over the world, which militant Islamists indeed claim as their end game. The question is: Do US actions help make this alienated, apocalyptic strand of the Muslim world population get bigger or smaller? Islam demonizers in the West serve only to help the radical Islamists ( AlQaeda/ ISIS) recruit. Their message is simple: The West is waging war on Islam. And, indeed, a growing minority in the West has become a mirror of their counterparts in Muslim countries.
How address this fear of Islam from distorting sensible thinking? Civic education on a large scale and the media’s help in presenting other faces of Islam than that provided by the media. The hatred fomented against all German Americans and Japanese Americans in the last century offers sad proof of what exaggerated fear can produce. Yet, Muslims in America must also do their part and recognize there is an objective basis for fear. In order to restrain the rising animus against all Muslims in the West, they must condemn strongly, openly and unequivocally their rejection of ISIS type Islam through media attention-grabbing mass demonstrations.
This front must focus on educating the moveable middle of concerned but reasonable American citizens who care about civil rights, religious freedom and plain decency toward their fellow citizens. Americans who know Islam only thru the media, 99% of whom don’t actually know a Muslim, are most affected by the steady drip of bloodshed in the name of Islam. There are many other expressions of Islam known to anyone who has spent time in Muslim countries. But they are not in the news.
The second front is also at home—the security front where the job is to prevent homeland attacks, to keep Americans safe. Marine Brigadier General( Ret)Douglas Stone states the case simply: Islamophobia makes America less secure. Anti -Muslim prejudices cannot be allowed to interfere with local law enforcement agencies developing strong, trusting relations with their respective Muslim communities. In the past, FBI statistics show that the most important source of leads preventing plots from being carried out have come from Muslims themselves.
Only religiously well-educated Muslims can enter the social media jungle to counter with superior knowledge the distortions used by radical Islamists who rely almost exclusively on one hundred and thirty two of the six thousand plus verses in the Koran. American Muslims must be cleared to enter into the spiritual combat in cyber space without becoming suspects themselves. Every Col Hassan, Tsarnov, Chattanooga, San Bernadino strengthens the hands of those in the US who want the civilizational war that former Marine Commandant Conway warned against in 2008: “Western nations must ensure that this Long War does not evolve into a cultural war between Christians and Muslims. Extremists would like nothing better.” ( MCG 8/08) Yet, we are inching in that direction today.
Finally, the extra territorial front. A heavy-handed and highly visible US presence in Muslim countries serves only to increase the flow of recruits while inviting more retaliation at home. Radical Islamists use age-old reasoning: the friend of my enemy is also my enemy. When the US supports Muslim governments that are themselves the reason for the radicalization, those governments become our Uncle Toms.
Marine Col Stanton Coerr wrote eight years ago (Marine Corps Gazette 9/08): While American forces focus on winning battles, opponents will be focused on winning wars through the marriage of instability and initiative and projecting the smallest force at the quickest speed at the farthest place… such a place will not be a battlefield of our choosing. The weapon with not be a club, but a stiletto. The goal to instill fear. The enemy will have no center of gravity and will not draw strength from a source of military power. Radical Islam is not a Communist pole or Marxist line in the sand, but scattered entities: boys, gangs, militias, soldiers, clerics floating around an idea.
Coerr does not reveal the idea—probably because there is no one idea, but a blend. The most animating is a spiritual one, no matter how misguided in execution: To bring about the sovereignty of God to a godless, materialistic, morally decadent, hyper individualistic Westernizing world. It is a critique that echoes what is heard today on Christian radio stations and was implicit in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s shocking condemnation of our consumer bloated, narcissistic, Western culture in his 1975 Harvard commencement address. More recently, following the ISIS attacks in Paris, Pope Francis noted that WWIII has already begun, “even though piecemeal.”
The war within Islam affects us… but American presence in Muslim countries also affects Muslims in ways much worse than anything America has experienced. We enter ignorant into complex realities that are constantly fractionating and morphing into something else which the natives themselves are hard-pressed to understand. Marine General Anthony Zinni said years ago that operating in the Muslim world is like our trying to discuss snow with the Eskimos. Without being culturally literate, we don’t have a vocabulary to even talk about the Islamic world. Making decisions based on preconceived ideas and bumper sticker labeling –democrat vs dictator, theocrat vs secular, and outdated Cold War political alliances will likely cast us with the losing side of a struggle that has to be won by Muslims themselves. Nor should we have preconceived ideas as to what is the right outcome in this world that is not ours; indeed many are fighting precisely because they don’t want their world to be like ours.
In this struggle that will continue for generations (like that of Britain with the IRA but on a worldwide scale), the most important weapons must be provided by Muslims themselves. These are educational tools, knowledge and role models that can influence young people. Researching The Monks of Tibhirine, Faith Love and Terror in Algeria (2002) British intelligence reported monitoring arguments between Algerian military officers and moudjahidin over the correct interpretation of scripture. Knowledge of the Koran and the Sunna are the most powerful of all the weapons in this war that deploys competing versions of The Faith and their scholars of the Law.
Many observers in France feared that Algeria might become an Islamist State in the 1990s during the GIA’s ( Group Islamique Armé) ISIS- like reign of terror. It was defeated. Like the recent Arab Springs, there were many legitimate grievances fueling the Algerian insurgency that started simmering in the 1980s and exploded in the nineties. Yet the government prevailed. Why? I suggest four reasons that are broadly relevant today as the US and other countries face this spreading contagion.
1) There were never foreign boots evident. The so-called “apostate” military rulers were not contaminated by any visible presence of France or the US government that could have fanned the call for jihad. The role of Western helping hands was not in the open.
2) Revulsion of the citizenry especially the urban populations where the fearless mujihadeen initially won many sympathizers among the youth. The original urban base of support for the terrorists disappeared. For many, the killing of the Trappist monks in 1996 was the last straw, dividing even the terrorists. Ultimately, ordinary Algerians rejected the murderous violence exercised in the name of Islam.
3) Demoralization of and killing terrorists. Algerian counter terrorism elements, and infiltration of GIA emirates caused divisions and doubts about the righteousness of their cause. Theological knowledge became the ultimate weapon. Would heaven or hell be the ultimate destination of the terrorists? This matters for the committed Islamist warrior.
4) The role of knowledge and interpretation of the Koran became the ultimate battlefield. Prominent religious authorities in the Middle East finally spoke out after seeing Islam being befouled by GIA butchery. In 1999, on Algerian TV during Bouteflika’s Concord Civile, one of the repentis was asked why he laid down his arms. His answer: ”Because the Saudis told us.” Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz bin Baz openly condemned the GIA’s vigilante jihad, violence against civilians and issued fatwas that reached the maquis. A year earlier, conservative Sheik Nacer-Eddine Albani’s deathbed fatwa condemning GIA behavior as unIslamic was particularly demoralizing. He was considered by Islamists to be a conservative interpreter of the law.
The war in which The United States and European nations are embroiled is a political war for the soul of Islam. Killing a certain percentage of the irreconcilable haters of Western cultures will be necessary. More important in determining the outcome of this struggle will be wise leadership in the West and close cooperation among Muslim and non Muslim allies, restraint, deep knowledge of The Book ( à la Abdelkader) and finesse in dealing with a multifaceted, constantly morphing movement that has all the potential of a Chinese finger trap for the West.
Bombs can have short term benefits and make the various publics feel avenged. Yet, this is a long term struggle whose long term weapons must include knowledge and alternative narratives of Islamic heroes, past and present. Every Muslim country has heroes who represent an open spirited, big tent Islam. They display love of knowledge, ethical courage, compassion, and the ability to dominate the destructive demons of hatred and revenge. Emir Abdelkader is one such figure. When he died in 1883 in Damascus, The New York Times hailed him as, “One of the few great men of the century.” He was admired from Missouri to Moscow to Mecca by heads of state, ordinary citizens, Muslims and Christians alike.
Kaderian Islam has historic roots in Iran (Abdelkader al Jilani) and adherents today in Chechniya, Dagestan, Afghanistan as well as growing numbers of admirers in Pakistan and Indian Kashmir. Kaderian Islam abhors sectarian and human divisions. It views all creation as God’s work and all religion as founded on two pillars: love of God and compassion towards his creatures. A Kaderian movement has the potential to heal divisions within Islam and within the human community. Its spirit is universal and can be found in the lives of Leo Tolstoy, Mohatmed Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan, Nelson Mandela, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King and all the millions of lesser known anonymous people for whom there is only one race—the Human Race.
John Kiser, cofounder, Abdelkaderproject.Org; author of Commander of the Faithful, (Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader 1807-1883); The Monks of Tibhirine, Faith Love and Terror in Algeria; adjunct instructor Marine Corps University