It says something about the current moment in the Middle East—and about us—that we’re already able to treat the stone-age viciousness of the Islamic State in the blasé manner once reserved for news about the latest failure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program. We know now that IS has beheaded one of its two Japanese hostages last week, and so it’s only a matter of time before they kill the other: The fact that IS cuts people’s heads off with knives, videotapes these savage acts, and turns them into Islamist snuff films that serve as powerful recruitment tools across the Middle East and Europe is simply par for the course. A single beheading video makes only a minor impact on viewers who have become accustomed to a steady diet of Middle Eastern gore available on both CNN and YouTube—including decapitations, crucifixions, mass sexual enslavement of non-Muslim minors, and throwing homosexuals off of towers, in addition of course to the usual run of torture, rape, and murder.
But the biggest problem with Islamic State and the Sunni-Shiite war they’re fighting isn’t the brutal methods that the group has adopted to further its cause. As Lebanese political analyst Elie Fawaz told me recently in Beirut, it’s how that violence to which the Middle East is now being conditioned will shape Arab societies in which a new generation with no memory of any other reality will come to hold power. “These guys are cutting off people’s heads,” said Fawaz. “So, what’s it going to be like when they’re walking around the streets here in Lebanon or elsewhere in the region?”
Or Europe, for that matter. The Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks that killed 17 people in the streets of Paris seem to be further evidence that the current wave of Islamic extremism is not a movement that can be usefully analyzed as the province of a small number of criminal conspirators. IS is not a problem for the police. Indeed, to many observers the actions of the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly called into question whether or not Islam is compatible with the norms of modern Western societies.
The answer, say Western policymakers and pundits, is that Muslim moderates need to step up and rescue their faith from the fanatics who’ve hijacked it—an answer that has the advantage of avoiding hateful bigotry toward hundreds of millions of peaceful, believing Muslims who often form the majority of their communities both in the Middle East and in the West. The invocation of Muslim moderates seeks to rescue both the humanity of the community that is most often targeted and victimized by Islamist terror and of the Westerners who wish to deal with the threat of Islamist violence in their own societies without tearing those societies apart. Those are virtuous aims. The problem, of course, is that what sounds virtuous isn’t necessarily what works—and when virtuous-sounding solutions fail, the obfuscation that follows often makes the problem worse.
So, maybe Western policymakers and pundits need to find a way to reframe the problem. Maybe the issue isn’t about religion or reinterpreting Muslim scripture at all. Maybe it’s about power politics and actually arming Muslim moderates to kill Muslim extremists.
Because the fact is that even well-meaning non-Muslims are extremely limited in their ability to shape how Muslims interpret the Quran and other religious texts. Moreover, it’s not the business of American commentators and policymakers, or even commanders in chief like George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, to describe what’s authentically Muslim and what’s not. U.S. presidents are not imams and sheikhs—neither are they priests nor rabbis, for that matter.
Rather, they’re the elected leaders of a secular republic whose very foundation rests on the firm separation of church and state. That’s good news because as the world’s superpower, looking out at the world through secular lenses, we are very well equipped to apply various forms of political, diplomatic, and military pressure on violent extremists in support of moderates, whether they are Muslims or not.
Unfortunately, since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. policymakers have tended to pay plenty of lip-service to moderates but have failed to provide them with earthly goods, like weapons. In assuming that it’s only the hard men of the Middle East, like IRGQ-Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who are able to get things done, U.S. officials have become more Arab than the Arabs.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Bush Administration put out a casting call for moderate Muslims who would take on the world-historical task of reforming their faith. Soon, Washington, D.C., became the capital of moderate Islam, with dissident sheikhs and Islamic scholars, as well as self-described Islamists and former terrorists vying for the large pots of American money earmarked to reshape their creed. They got paid, just like other contractors who found post-Sept. 11 Washington to be a city paved with gold. And just like Halliburton’s fat contracts failed to change much about Iraq, and the TSA turned out to be a make-work scheme that created incredibly long lines and humiliating procedures at airports, D.C. wonks and government billions failed to change Islam.
Why? One reason, as I mentioned before, is that the U.S. government by its nature just isn’t very good at this sort of thing. Critics, mostly on the right, argued that Islam was also by its nature a problematic religion, burdened by violent verses that abrogated the faith’s peaceful messages. This scriptural essentialism, as doctrinaire as the fundamentalists’ version of Islam, misunderstood the nature of literary hermeneutics. You don’t have to be Jacques Derrida to see that all texts are slippery things, subject to interpretations that are constantly being determined and re-determined by historical and political exigencies.
Let’s take a concrete example. How did it come to pass that American support for Israel relies more on the country’s vast evangelical Christian community than it does on the backing of American Jews? After all, the entire thrust of the New Testament would appear to militate against strenuously supporting a nation that by definition openly rejects Jesus as messiah. Indeed, the scriptural core of Pastor John Hagee’s hugely influential organization Christians United for Israel is taken from only a few scattered verses from the Bible, like Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all nations of the earth be blessed.”
The real premise of CUFI’s support for Israel isn’t textual, of course. Rather, it issues from Hagee and the evangelical Christians’ love for the Jewish people and their conviction that, on their watch, God’s chosen people will not suffer another persecution like the Holocaust. Christians who support Israel believe that it is a Christian thing to do.
Scripture, like all literature, is read in light of historical, sociological, and political contexts—and while Western policymakers can’t shape the text to their liking, they can very powerfully affect the context in which it’s re-interpreted. The catch is that this work can’t be done in Western capitals like Washington and Paris: Rather, it has to be done on the ground in the Middle East itself. And here the United States has accumulated a dismal record under two successive American presidents, each of whom represents opposing political philosophies and stated approaches to foreign policy.
In Beirut, Elie Fawaz and I walked by a billboard counting the days since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. He was killed along with 22 others nearly 10 years ago, Feb. 14, 2005, here in Lebanon’s beautiful capital. Hariri was the very model of the moderate Muslim. A businessman with strong ties to the West as well as the Middle East, he started a fund to educate thousands of Lebanese students across the sectarian spectrum and thereby build a better Lebanon.
Everyone knows Hariri’s killers—Hezbollah. Four members of the Party of God have been indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon now under way in The Hague, yet all are still at liberty. The facts are as clear as they could possibly be, and no serious U.S. analyst or policymaker disputes them. International organizations concur.
So, which side has the United States taken in this clear-cut conflict between Muslim moderation against extremism? The Obama White House shares intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is controlled by Hezbollah—Hariri’s murderers. The administration currently seeks a larger regional accommodation with Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons, who almost surely gave the approval to kill Hariri.
The rhetorical support American policymakers lend moderates is nearly always in conflict with what the United States is actually doing on the ground in the region. If the Islamic State and the al-Qaida franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, are now the two main opposition groups fighting in the Syrian civil war, that’s because the White House allowed extremists to fill the vacuum left by our failure to back moderate rebel groups when they rose up against Bashar al Assad, gave their lives by the thousands, and then pleaded for our help, over and over again. As Obama told Thomas Friedman recently, “The notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
The Obama Administration didn’t support “doctors, farmers, and pharmacists”—aka Muslim moderates with a stake in the future of their societies—because it assumed the extremists were going to win in Syria. In excusing itself from a battle between moderates and extremists, the White House tipped the scales on behalf of the latter—while providing them with a powerful argument as to how Muslim life was worth nothing to Westerners, who wouldn’t lift a finger to help them even if Muslims embraced their values.
At times it seems the Obama Administration’s entire Middle East policy is geared toward leaving the field free to extremists, or in some cases actually empowering them. The White House’s precipitate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq left former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki free to hunt down one-time U.S. allies in the Sunni awakening (moderates) who defeated al-Qaida (extremists). When Arab tribesman and other Iraqi Sunnis were made vulnerable to Maliki and Iraq’s numerous Iranian-backed militias (extremists), the administration ignored the Sunnis’ concerns. When Sunni provinces fell under the sway of IS, in part because the Obama Administration had abandoned them to that fate, the United States then partnered with Iran (extremists) to take on the Islamic State (extremists), earning the enmity of some Sunnis who had previously seen themselves as U.S. allies.
Actually holding power also seems to do little to help moderates attract U.S. backing. In Egypt, a pillar of American power in the Middle East, the White House has kept the country’s strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at arm’s length, even as he recently made an impassioned plea for moderation before the sheikhs at Al Azhar and is fighting a counter-insurgency against extremists in the Sinai. In other words, if moderates are out of power, as in Syria, then the problem is that they are only doctors and pharmacists. If they hold power, then the problem is that they aren’t democratic enough; if they were properly democratic, they would allow extremists to hold power instead. It would all be funny if the effect on the region wasn’t so dire.
Forget Muslim scripture and other religious texts, which will take care of itself provided the context is right. If the White House and other Western policymakers want to stop the march of Muslim extremism, they’re going to have to back the moderates on the ground and arm them with weapons to kill their extremist enemies, who, as it happens, are also our enemies.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).