Friday, June 04, 2010

The global war against Islam (or a fantasized version of it)

Department of Defense analyst Thomas McCabe's The Strategic Failures of al Qaeda Parameters (Spring 2010) seems at first like a pragmatic assessment of Al Qa'ida's effective demise as a significant force in world politics.

But the article is mainly an ideological justification for permanent war against the Muslim Menace. There's American triumphalism:

Immediately following 9/11, America showed an unprecedented ability to move quickly and with overwhelming force. Since then, the United States continues to display an impressive capacity to rapidly adapt strategically and tactically, while demonstrating impressive staying power in Iraq and Afghanistan, although many might say in Iraq it was a close call. While al Qaeda is undoubtedly hoping that the current turmoil in the world economy presages the collapse of the United States, a far likelier outcome is that once the initial panic passes the world will look pretty much like it did before, with America in fundamentally the same position — at the center.
As a statement of the obvious, that the United States will be the world's predominant military power for the foreseeable future, the deeply flawed response of the Cheney-Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks, followed now by Obama administration spectacularly ill-advised escalation of the Afghanistan War, have drastically weakened the credibility of the US as a world leader.

We also see in this paragraph the basic trick that underlies the entire article. It's the discussion of "Al Qaeda" as a massive, deadly, long term menace on a level with a hostile major power. Al Qa'ida, and here I'm referring to the remains of the group headed by Osama bin Laden, probably is "hoping that the current turmoil in the world economy presages the collapse of the United States". But so what? Lots of tiny sects, some of them with violent intent and capabilities, have all sorts of malign hopes for the fate of the United States. But McCabe uses the grandiose framework of evaluating the flaws of "Al Qaeda's" strategic assumptions to advocate for the need for the US to indefinitely fight a vaguely-defined Islamic threat.

His framework also shows in this claim: "After attacking the United States (and before), al Qaeda repeatedly expanded its theater of operations to embrace a greater portion of the world." But the biggest expansion of actual war has been the completely unnecessary American invasion of Iraq and the other decisions that leave us fighting militarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan nearly nine years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, with lower-level sporadic acts of war in Yemen and Somalia, and some unknown number of covert operations in places like Iran.

The active foreign terrorist threats currently confronting the United States may draw some inspiration from Al Qa'ida's actions and doctrines. But it's unlikely that Bin Laden's organization, to the extent that it exists at all, has much direct role in instigating them, much less exerting meaningful command-and-control authority over them. Groups like "Al Qa'ida in Iraq" were Salafi extremists groups, but their actual connection to Bin Laden was very tenuous. McCabe's underlying assumption of Al Qaeda as some kind of world power challenging American vital interests all over the world is a bad joke.

This is a good example of the problem with his argument:

Believing in a very narrow Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam—an especially rigid, austere, and intolerant fundamentalist interpretation—al Qaeda and other jihadis have repeatedly tried to encourage, or force, local Muslims to follow their practices and beliefs whether this was acceptable to the local populace or not. In Algeria, the jihadi insurgents were often extreme even by al Qaeda standards and routinely murdered those whom they defined as un-Islamic for such petty crimes as speaking French or not wearing proper Islamic dress. Over time, most of the population came to support the government, however reluctantly. Al Qaeda’s recent attempt to revive the Algerian civil war has not met with much popular support.
The argument that the Wahhabi variety of Islam, the one sponsored by Saudi Arabia, is the basis of Bin Laden-style jihadism is a favorite of the neoconservatives. But, as actual scholars of Islam like Juan Cole have explained, Bin Laden's jihadist ideas derived from the Egyptian extremist Sayyim Qutb are a violent extremist brand of Salafism, which is not Wahhabism. After all, Bin Laden's most important target has been the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy which is the chief international sponsor of Wahhabi Islam.

And the notion that the Algerian fundamentalists and the conflicts involving them are somehow "Al Qaeda" or like it, as well as the idea that what still exists of the actual Al Qa'ida could reignite the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, strike me as really pretty silly.

McCabe does make some interesting and probably valid points about how jihadist type groups (not just Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida) has alienated other Muslims. But that whole line of argument about the strategic failures of his mythic version of "Al Qaeda" leads up his own strategic proposal for a protracted US campaign against Islam. He suggest that a PR effort be part of it, though it's not at all clear how what he pictures would be different from the lame versions we've been using for years now. But in proposing this, he gives a key of his image of Islam:

Those in charge of this communication campaign should emphasize that the jihadis have sought to redefine Islam as a religion of intolerance at best and aggression and genocide at worst. Jihadists want to militarize the faith, so that Islam would literally become a terrorist religion rather than the religion of some terrorists, a redefinition that ideally will be widely opposed throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds. Unfortunately, in terms of Islamic theology and law, the jihadis may have a good case, as has been argued by a number of critics, or they may have a position that is at least as strong as their opponents’ arguments. Even if the jihadis do not dominate the debate, we have to be ready to deal with the fact that large segments of Muslim society choose to accept the jihadi arguments and ally with them. It is immaterial as to why they may follow these extremists, whether it is because they do not disagree or do not dare to disagree, out of religious solidarity, or because of hostility directed at the United States and the non-Muslim world. If large segments of Muslim society believe that extremist Islam truly reflects the basic tenets of Islam, the campaign will at least have removed any ambiguity. If the response is an embarrassed silence, we should make clear that, under the circumstances, such silence will be considered a “yes” in support of the extremists. [my emphasis]
It doesn't give a great deal of confidence in McCabe's general knowledge of Islam or his overall ability to assess sources that his one footnote reference to those "number of critics" who take that position is to a 2003 book (Robert Spencer, Onward Muslim Soldiers) from the highly far-right Regnery Press, which specializes in, well, cranking out rightwing books. In Balancing the Prophet Financial Times 04/27/2010, Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar who actually knows a lot about the religion, describes Robert Spencer's perspective:

People often seem eager to believe the worst about Muhammad, are reluctant to put his life in its historical perspective and assume the Jewish and Christian traditions lack the flaws they attribute to Islam. This entrenched hostility informs Robert Spencer’s misnamed biography The Truth about Muhammad, subtitled Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.

Spencer has studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent religion. He is a hero of the American right and author of the US bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life. Consequently he makes basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he deliberately manipulates the evidence.
In the spirit of Spencer and his fellow Islamophobes, McCabe goes on to basically argue that "Al Qaeda" actually represents a huge number of the Muslims of the world, ending in a favorite Islamophobe argument:

First we need to understand that al Qaeda is not really an isolated phenomenon. In many ways, it is the tip of a large iceberg. It is not the lunatic fringe of Sunni Islam; it is the fanatic core of Sunni Islam, which is a profoundly
different phenomenon. Al Qaeda is an integral part of a broad and rather diverse spectrum of politicized Sunni Islam, and for that matter, of Sunni Islam as a whole. Unfortunately, the theological and ideological roots from which it grew still exist. Even if we are capable of destroying al Qaeda, we can expect it will have successors as long as those roots remain intact, especially those roots found in the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, the Deobandi school in South Asia, and the Qutbist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Muslims can destroy those roots, and so far they have failed to demonstrate a willingness to do so. [my emphasis]
He then repeats the factually-challenged neocon/Islamophobe contention that huge numbers of Muslims supported the 9/11 attacks:

The second thing we need to understand is that when al Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11, it had significant and fairly widespread support throughout the Arab world. Much of this support is the result of a belief that al Qaeda was standing up to the United States and punishing it for policies that harmed or demeaned Muslims. To the degree that al Qaeda has lost that popular support, it was a direct result of the strategic and tactical errors highlighted earlier in this article. Unfortunately, that potential base of support still exists and may be tapped by more sophisticated or more selectively bloodthirsty extremists.
Actually, there was a remarkable degree of condemnation from Muslim countries, including those in the Arab world, of the attacks. McCabe is conjuring bogeymen here. If there was any distinct region of the world from which the expressions of sympathy for the US seemed to be comparatively muted, it was Latin America.

And McCabe invokes another neocon standard, the argument based heavily of Bernard Lewis' faulty generalizations, that Arabs are generally kind of screwed up and hostile and envious and resentful:

Unfortunately, the problem goes far beyond these negative perceptions
and is rooted not just in America’s foreign policy but also in the political culture, psychology, and pathologies of the region. Much of the support al Qaeda received was rooted in the frustration, rage, and malignance with which much of the Muslim Middle East views the world and its position in it. These attitudes long predated either the existence of Israel or the US invasion of Iraq, and, in fact, preceded the United States having a major presence in the region. Middle East Muslims look at the world, especially the United States, with a primordial sense of grievance and a profound sense of resentment, which al Qaeda has been able to turn into a global threat. Once a leading civilization, the Muslim Middle East has been surpassed and is now dominated by peoples it historically regarded as inferior. The Muslim Middle East has been increasingly marginalized due to the globalization of the world economy by the capitalist economic powers and is constantly threatened by a wide range of attractions related to western popular culture. Governments in Muslim territories are often regarded as corrupt, incompetent, and in the view of Islamic radicals, defeatist in the face of Islam’s enemies, and often depicted as servants of the opponents of Islam who have been put in power and kept in power by its enemies. [my emphasis]
The few constructive observations in McCabe's article don't detract from the fact that he is essentially enunciating an already-too-familiar framework for permanent war against Muslims in general and Arab Muslims in particular.

On Islamaophia, see also this recent piece by Bruce Lawrence, The Polite Islamophobia of the Intellectual Religion Dispatches 06/01/2010.

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