Sunday, June 7, 2015

Taking Sides in a Religious Civil War

In order to to not offend Muslims, the President has taken pains to try to distance himself from the idea that we are fighting a religious war, so as not to offend Muslim allies.  This is understandable, but shows a lack of understanding of the true nature of the problem.  His administration has taken to saying silly things such as ISIS is not truly Islamic.  This could not be further from the truth, ISIS is nothing if not Islamic.  Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to have a doctorate in Islamic studies and certainly speaks with the rhetorical flourishes characteristic of a learned Muslim scholar.  Graeme Wood's excellent article in the Atlantic says this about ISIS' Islamic pedigree.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
. . .
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
Essentially, ISIS represents a sect of Islam that is different but related to Salafism, a Sunni sect.  We are witnessing a civil war within Arab Islam that has ethnic and tribal components as well, typical of any civil war.  We are choosing to take sides in this religious civil war, because it is in our national interest to do so. We make no judgment about the theological correctness of any side. We merely seek the defeat of those who have pledged destruction of us and our allies.  In Islamic thought, there is no distinction between the political and the religious, so when we attack ISIS' conception of political rule, we engage in a religious war whether we like it or not.

CDR Salamander's shorter summary, "Often, it isn't what you think about religion that matters, it is what the other guy thinks."

The harder question is what to do about the problem.  By taking sides in the conflict, we risk granting moral authority to ISIS which can correctly claim that America, (the Great Satan or some such term for infidels) is supporting other forms of Islam.  The obvious inference is that the Salafist Saudis or Shiite Iraqis are therefore tainted by our help.  This tends to draw recruits to ISIS sides, because in the 21st Century, people appear to be craving the moral certainty such a brand of religion brings.

Failure to intervene works against our interest as it brings to power a religious and political movement inimical to our goals of stability and peace throughout the world.  From the same Graeme Wood article:
Abu Baraa, who maintains a YouTube channel about Islamic law, says the caliph, Baghdadi, cannot negotiate or recognize borders, and must continually make war, or he will remove himself from Islam.
This is a classic wicked problem, defined as such because any attempt to solve the problem only seems to make the problem worse.  The best option appears to be to provide support to those reliable allies such as the Kurds who won't be tainted by U.S. help.  Putting boots on the ground only as a last resort to prevent catastrophes would also be necessary.  Finally, given the Caliphate's (ISIS' term for itself) need to continually be at war, a slow bleed of its resources and war making capacity is needed.  This would mean bypassing the national Iraqi army, as equipment destined for that sorry group only ends up captured and use by ISIS.  But in the end, we have to acknowledge that this is a religious war with political consequences.  We are taking sides to protect our national interest.  It doesn't mean that we have a theological view, just that we care about our own vision of the world order.

But in the longer term, if Western Culture doesn't provide something to offer beyond nihilism, we will be defeated by the likes of this man. (See this and this.)

The Caliph has studied Islam more than you have.