President George W. Bush originated a U.S. strategy of military intervention in Islamic cultures to counter terrorism. It has not worked. Where U.S. or NATO forces have intervened, they have been perceived as infidels and the common enemy of all Muslims. A new strategy of containment is necessary—one that will rely on Muslim indigenous forces as the “boots on the ground” that use lethal force to counter terrorism in Islamic cultures.
Islamic cultures in the Middle East and Africa are rife with sectarian and tribal conflict that is endemic to their culture and interwoven with virulent forms of fundamentalist Islam, or Islamism. While President Obama has refused to acknowledge that ISIS is related to Islam, he has acknowledged that it is “a twisted ideology” that cannot be defeated on the battleground. It can only be defeated by Muslims who undermine its legitimacy among young Muslims.
A containment strategy acknowledges that direct confrontation with a threat is not the best way to counter it, as was the case with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The primary strategic objective was to build popular support for libertarian democracy and human rights in communist regimes. The U.S. has a similar strategic objective in Islamic nations today, and to achieve it legitimacy (public perceptions of what is right) is the center of gravity in any conflict.
The challenge for the U.S. is to reconcile Islamist standards of legitimacy with libertarian democracy, human rights and a secular rule of law. That creates a daunting challenge for U.S. advisers and trainers in Islamic cultures. They must report violations of fundamental human rights while respecting local standards of legitimacy that conflict with human rights in order to gain the trust and confidence of their Muslim counterparts. It can be a mission impossible.
The Islamist standards of legitimacy that encumber U.S. advisers and trainers don’t apply to U.S. military strikes in which there is little contact with the local population. Both direct action strikes and training and advisory missions are conducted by Special Operations Forces (SOF), but they require very different skills. Direct action SOF warriors need only combat skills, while advisers and trainers must be diplomat-warriors to achieve mission success.
The diplomat-warriors of SOF must have language skills and knowledge of local culture and standards of Islamic law (shari’a) to navigate the treacherous human terrain of hostile Islamic cultures. In many Islamic nations, apostasy and blasphemy laws preclude the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, and women and non-Muslims are often denied equal treatment under the law. This makes it a real challenge for SOF diplomat-warriors to promote fundamental human rights with Muslims whose religious laws deny those rights.
If the U.S. adopts a containment strategy for the Middle East and Africa, there will be no large deployments of U.S. combat forces to compromise legitimacy and undermine public support. A relatively few SOF with cultural and language skills can keep a low profile as they advise and assist indigenous forces conduct military operations and promote fundamental human rights. It is a strategy based on a politics of reconciliation with Muslims in Islamic cultures.
Experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been painful lessons learned in legitimacy for the U.S. military. They have taught us that superior military force can never compensate for a lack of legitimacy when public support is essential to mission success. That is especially true in Islamic cultures where shari’a shapes the standards of legitimacy, since it conflicts with libertarian concepts of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.
The “twisted ideology” of ISIS is a radical form of Islamism that has motivated young Muslims to take up the cause of ISIS; and since it cannot be defeated on the battlefield, its ideology must be undermined by Muslims committed to make mainstream Islam a religion of peace and justice rather than one of violence and oppression. Those moderate Muslims are our most important allies in defeating the threat of radical Islamism, and the presence of large deployments of U.S. combat forces only aids and abets Islamist terrorists. It supports their propaganda that the infidels of the West are at war with Islam and justifies their Jihad (holy war).
When public support is needed for U.S. strategic political objectives, military legitimacy requires that might must be considered right by those who are subjected to it. When LBJ deployed U.S. Marines to Vietnam in 1965 he transformed what was then a U.S. advisory mission into a U.S. war and undermined U.S. military legitimacy in Vietnam. President Bush made a similar strategic error when he invaded Iraq. The military intervention created a political vacuum that the U.S. was unable to fill, making it another painful lesson in legitimacy.
A containment strategy that emphasizes military legitimacy can prevent such strategic errors in the future. It is a strategy that emphasizes reconciliation rather than violent engagement with Islam, and it can undermine radical Islamism and promote lasting peace with justice.
freedoms of religion and speech are first among the freedoms of our Bill of
Rights and also fundamental human rights in the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights. They are
essentials of liberty in law for any government, but they are denied in Islamic
nations where apostasy and blasphemy laws are enforced as part of Islamic Law,
or shari’a. In fundamentalist Islam, or
Islamism, shari’a prohibits any secular law that conflicts with its dictates, and
that includes libertarian human rights.
can be no liberty in law or peace and justice without the freedoms of religion
and speech, and those freedoms are denied when shari’a functions like a
constitution and preempts fundamental human rights, as it does in Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, and Pakistan. But U.S. foreign
policy has been ambivalent on that issue, proclaiming a policy to promote the
freedoms of religion and speech while providing aid and assistance to nations that
deny those freedoms.
August 8, 2016, Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinkin presented the annual
report on international religious freedom that affirms its primacy in U.S.
for religious liberty guides the U.S. and our foreign policy every day.
abiding commitment is affirmed by the priority we’ve given to defending and championing
international religious freedom everywhere, but especially where it is under
threat. …When a government denies
religious liberty, it turns citizens who have done nothing wrong into
criminals, igniting tension that breeds contempt, hopelessness, alienation. Far
from a vulnerability or weakness, religious pluralism shows respect for the
beliefs of every citizen and gives each a tangible reason to contribute to the
success of the entire society. That’s why no nation can fulfil its potential if
its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their
El Sissi of Egypt and Erdogan of Turkey have used apostasy and blasphemy laws
to repress opposition to their authoritarian regimes, often in the name of security
concerns. Secretary Blinkin acknowledged
that security is a concern with violent extremist groups, but cautioned:
security concerns are not a defensible reason to suppress peaceful religious
activities, deny fair treatment to religious groups, apply collective
punishments, or deny freedoms that are essential to religious practice,
including those of association, assembly and expression. We express this point not solely to defend
the principle of religious freedom, but also because terrorists are quick to
exploit evidence of discrimination in trying to rationalize their actions and
attract new members. Whatever the
intent, repression tends to fuel terrorism, not stop it, which means that the
denial of religious liberty is not only wrong but profoundly misguided and
Executive Summary of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2015
cites the brutal enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws and vigilante
actions that have been ignored in Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and
Iran. Egypt is not mentioned, perhaps
for political reasons, but there have been numerous reports of similar abuses
there. It is obvious that U.S. foreign
policy has failed to promote the freedoms of religion and speech in the Middle
is irony here. While U.S. policy is to promote
the freedoms of religion and speech where it is lacking abroad, at home fundamentalist
believers have carried those freedoms to oppressive extremes. They have demanded the right to discriminate
against homosexuals, who they consider sinners, denying them equal protection
of the law; and some have used religious freedom to fan the flames of religious
hatred. In the U.S., the abuse of the
freedoms of religion and speech by some have undermined liberty in law for
radical Islamist terrorists of ISIS thrive on Christian hypocrisy and moral
decadence in libertarian democracies and attract disaffected young Muslims to
their cause with the promise of religious purity through a strict shari’a that imposes
the death penalty for insulting God (blasphemy) and betraying God/Allah by leaving
the Arab Spring it appeared that Islam was becoming more compatible with
libertarian democracy, but a continuous flow of young Muslims to ISIS and a
trend toward Islamism by Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Iran have challenged that
assumption. The refugee crisis has made
matters worse. Public fear and anger
over Muslim refugees has been exploited by populist demagogues to polarize
religions. The jury remains out on whether
Islam will develop into a religion of freedom, justice and peace or one of
oppressive religious laws and violence.
strategies are needed to reconcile Islam with libertarian democracy. They have been hampered by an Administration that
denies any connection between Islam and radical Islamist terrorism to placate Muslims
who do not want to associate Islam with terrorism. It is an example of political correctness
hampering national security. ISIS is an
ideology based on a radical form of Islamism.
The ideology cannot be defeated by U.S. military force. It must be denied legitimacy among young
Muslims, and only Muslims can achieve that strategic objective.
provide their believers with standards of legitimacy (what is right). For a religion to be compatible with freedom
and democracy, its standards of legitimacy must be considered voluntary moral
standards rather than enforceable laws.
Judaism and Christianity abandoned enforcement of their religious laws after
the Enlightenment (although Massachusetts still has a blasphemy law on its
books), but Islamist regimes continue to enforce shari’a. There can be no liberty in law in Islam until
apostasy and blasphemy laws are no longer enforced.
conflict between libertarian democracy and authoritarian Islamism is testimony
to the pervasive and often perverse role of religion in our politics and
law. The reconciliation of competing religious
ideologies requires that Jews, Christians and Muslims share the greatest commandment to love God and
our neighbors as ourselves as a common
word of faith. We love our neighbors
in other religions by sharing our freedoms of religion and speech with
them. That can reconcile religious
differences and promote liberty in law, together with peace and justice.
is borrowed from America the Beautiful
(words by Katherine Lee Bates, 1904):
America! God mend thine every flaw.
thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
On related commentary on Religion, Human Rights and National Security,
with references to President Obama’s ambiguity on human rights and his
unwillingness to acknowledge any connection between ISIS and Islamism, and the
problem of providing aid to Egypt’s oppressive government while ignoring human
rights violations, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/05/religion-human-rights-and-national.html.
On the contrast between human
rights in libertarian democracies of the West and Islamic regimes in the East
under shari’a, and the contrasting views of Islamic scholars on that topic, see
Religion,Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a,
Democracy and Human Rights (pp 6-17) at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4qPfb4MvEswV2ZHS3hyWTcwbmc/view.
past week it’s been hard to ignore the Olympics if you watch TV, especially if
you watch NBC. Once again, images from
the swimming competition (Phelps and King) reminded us of just how obsessed we
are with competition and winning, whether in sports, politics, social
activities, business or entertainment—even in religion—and how competition shapes
is a contest between adversaries with only one winner. It ranges from simple games to violent conflict,
where winning is everything (there are no silver medals in war). By way of contrast, cooperation requires the reconciliation
of adversaries to achieve a common goal that benefits all involved. There are no losers when adversaries are reconciled.
is human nature to compete rather than cooperate with others, so that competition
is pervasive in social institutions that base their power on their popularity,
such as those of politics and religion. Even
though Christian teachings promote cooperation through God’s reconciling love for
all people, the history of Christianity has witnessed more competition than
cooperation with other religions, and there has been fierce competition among the
many denominations of Christianity as well.
The same is true for other exclusivist religions like Islam.
politics are inherently competitive, especially during elections. A politics of reconciliation may sound like
an oxymoron, but it’s essential for a democracy to avoid partisan gridlock. The U.S. Constitution protects fundamental civil
rights from a tyranny of the majority and provides a balance of powers (e.g.
the executive, legislative and judicial), but it doesn’t provide a remedy for gridlock
in Congress. Where there are two evenly
matched political parties that cannot compromise on major issues, a third party
is needed to prevent partisan gridlock.
involves the public ownership and operation of the means of production and
distribution rather than private ownership, with all members sharing in the
work and the products (Webster). Socialism is theoretically based on cooperation,
but in practice it involves competition for power that can be oppressive without
a democratic process, and in pluralistic cultures like the U.S., democratic
processes notoriously resist altruistic and egalitarian socialism.
is an authoritarian form of government ruled by divine authority defined in a
holy book and interpreted and enforced by religious officials. When religions have comprehensive and
immutable laws—as in ancient Judaism and in modern Islamism—there can be no
libertarian democracy or human rights.
Theocratic government is strictly by the book—the holy book. There is no room for innovation, whether
through competition or cooperation.
is a theocratic form of Islam that can have some of the attributes of democracy
so long as they don’t challenge the sanctity of religious authority and law. Islamic law (shari’a) functions like a
constitution and prohibits fundamental human rights like the freedoms of
religion and speech. Without human
rights, democracy in Islamic cultures produces a tyranny of the majority with oppressive
religious laws, like those that criminalize apostasy and blasphemy.
the U.S. libertarian democracy has evolved in the other direction, with individual
rights expanded at the expense of providing for the common good. Fundamentalist Christians have pushed to
expand the freedom of religion to allow them to discriminate against homosexuals
(who they consider to be sinners), denying them the equal protection of the
political demagogues have seized upon this and other divisive racial and
religious issues to exploit the fear and anger of voters to motivate them to support
their populist campaigns. This election
year has witnessed partisan competition on steroids, exemplified by the divisive
and narcissistic nihilism of Donald Trump, and politics as usual by Hillary
is deeply ingrained in our culture and should be balanced with cooperation and
reconciliation to support a healthy democracy and promote better interfaith
relations. As globalization makes America
more pluralistic in race and religion, it must balance the polarizing effect of
competition with reconciliation and cooperation to maintain political stability
and avoid religious conflict.
moral principles of religion and politics are woven together; exclusivist
religions are as divisive and competitive as partisan politics. They can be reconciled by the greatest commandment to love God and
our neighbors—even those we would prefer to avoid—as we love ourselves. It is a
common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that can
transcend the competition and conflict of exclusivist religious beliefs and partisan
politics and reconcile us so that we can live together in peace in a world of
and References to Related Commentary:
There is a vast political and
cultural divide between a fearful and angry white middle-class tribe in America
known as WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), who have long held political
power, and those who challenge their right to rule, including Millennials and numerous
minority groups in the Democrat Party. Donald
Trump successfully exploited the fears and anger of the WASPs, and they made him
the standard bearer of the Republican Party.
Christianity in America, leavened by
advances in knowledge and the reason of the Enlightenment, is the primary source
of those moral values that have shaped American politics. Donald Trump was an unlikely choice to lead a
GOP that has long championed traditional values; but he exploited the fear and
anger of WASPs with his celebrity status, personal wealth and a narcissistic
and bullish charisma to subdue his opponents.
Even if Clinton defeats Trump in November,
it will not bridge the political and cultural divide. It will take a politics of reconciliation to do
that, and while it does not require unanimity on issues, it does require a
willingness to compromise—something missing in a political duopoly mired in
gridlock. Even if Democrats are sincere
in seeking to unify America, they cannot do it by themselves. Reconciliation requires two or more parties that
can hold each other accountable.
South Carolina illustrates the
problem. It was a one-party state under
the Democrat Party until civil rights and the Republican Party gave S.C. voters
a choice in the 1960s. Today partisan
roles are reversed, with Republicans ruling the political roost. The majority of voters in S.C. are WASPs,
whose misguided concepts of Christianity supported a separate but equal culture under the Democrat Party until the 1960s;
and this year evangelical Christian WASPs voted to make Donald Trump—whose
values are decidedly not Christian—the GOP nominee for President.
Religion has always shaped the moral
standards that govern our political preferences, so that if religion has a part
in creating our political problems it must also be part of the solution. The
greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves is a common word of faith for Jews,
Christians and Muslims alike. It is a
moral imperative of faith that can help alleviate contentious religious and
political differences and promote a politics of reconciliation.
God’s will is to reconcile and
redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer; but Satan does a
convincing imitation of God in the church, mosque and in politics. That is evident in how Donald Trump has used
fear and anger to exacerbate racial and religious differences in his campaign. If Trump is defeated in November, perhaps a new
and enlightened Republican Party can arise Phoenix-like from the ashes; but unless
that happens, issues of race and religion will require a third party to promote
a politics of reconciliation with Democrats.
An example of Trump’s belligerent
and divisive campaign style was his response to the criticism of Khizr and
Ghazala Khan at the Democrat convention.
Mr. Khan said that his son, a U.S. Army officer who was killed in Iraq,
made a greater sacrifice to his country than Trump, who has never served his
country. Trump responded that he has
served and sacrificed for his country by creating thousands of jobs, and then he
questioned why Mrs. Khan stood silently by Mr. Khan at the convention, implying
that her Muslim faith prohibited her from saying anything.
Trump has demonized all Muslims
based on the terrorism of radical Islamists, but we need to support moderate Muslims
who can challenge the legitimacy of radical Islamism among young Muslims. It doesn’t help that President Obama and
Democrats have denied that ISIS is related to Islam in deference to Muslims who
wish to disassociate their faith from it.
Before we can expect Muslims to challenge the legitimacy of the radical form
of political Islam (Islamism) that motivates ISIS terrorism, our policymakers must
recognize it as such.
Christianity provides a useful analogy. Christians don’t have to answer for modern
Crusades or Inquisitions, but they do need to counter the fundamentalist form
of Christianity that motivates the supporters of Donald Trump. Progressive Christians must challenge the
legitimacy of those evangelical Christians who have allowed fear and hate for
Muslims to shape their politics, just as Muslims should challenge radical forms
of fundamentalist Islamism within Islam.
It should be an embarrassment to
Christians that some of their tribe made Donald Trump the leader of the Republican
Party. Christians who seek to follow the greatest commandment to love God and
neighbor should disavow Trump and those who follow him, just as Muslims who
share that common word of faith should disavow radical Islamism with its
apostasy and blasphemy laws and discrimination against women and non-Muslims
To bridge the political and cultural
divide that threatens American democracy and promote libertarian democracy,
human rights and the secular rule of law in Islamic cultures, Christians and
Muslims must embrace the greatest
commandment as a common word of faith. It requires providing fundamental human
rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech, and balancing those
individual rights with providing for the common good.
On the clash between Trump and the Khans as new
signs of a cultural and political divide, see
Krugman revealed his partisan bias in arguing that Trump is not a unique
political phenomenon but that he represents a long-standing lack of patriotism
on the part of Republicans compared to the patriotism and love of country of
Democrats. Krugman has also criticized
Republicans who urge that “…the president must use the phrase “Islamic
terrorism,” when actual experts on terrorism agree that this would actually
hurt national security, by helping to alienate peaceful Muslims?” Krugman argues “…that the alienation isn’t a
side effect they’re disregarding; it’s actually the point — it’s all about
drawing a line between us (white Christians) and them (everyone else), and national
security has nothing to do with it.” See
Gary Gutting has asserted that Islam is a factor in ISIS or ISIL terrorism, opposing
the view of President Obama and Krugman (above) who have denied any
relationship between them. Gutting related
religious violence in both Christianity and Islam to the intolerance of religious
exclusivism, and he urged Muslims, like Christians, to accept political
restraints in promoting their religion [such as providing the freedoms of
religion and speech]. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html?_r=0.