It is clear that Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, is in serious disarray. Appalling barbarity has recently been on display, with cannibalism in the Syrian civil war, flying shrapnel bombs in Boston and the hacking murder in London. The soundtrack of “Allahu akbar” seems to accompany and justify slaughter across the globe.
Looked at carefully however, the killing and mayhem in the West appears to only be the byproduct of a larger war between Muslims and other Muslims. Only a small part of the violence is actually being aimed at others. The “terrorists” are terrorizing themselves.
This is a very significant fact because it changes many traditional analyses of 9/11 and complicates the larger question of what to do with the Islamic threat going forward. Lawrence Wright, in his book The Looming Tower, long ago believed that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda attacked America as a “far enemy” who was supporting a “near enemy”, the Saudi Arabian monarchy. America was a secondary campaign in a larger jihad against these Saudi rulers.
Since 9/11 the body count from warfare between Sunnis and Shiites and among fundamentalists in general has exploded within Dar al-Islam. Booby-trapped rickshaws in Pakistan kill dozens and maim even more. Afghan children are blown to bits by roadside bombs; bombs explode in markets packed with villagers. In Iraq car bombs explode on densely packed streets ending the lives of scores of fellow Muslims. Suicide bombers looking for revenge attack weddings. The Islamic fanatics of Boko Haram mutilate hundreds in northern Nigeria. In Syria, where all the gloves have come off the Islamic world’s comity, the raw nature of Muslim sectarian and fundamentalist hatred dominates the headlines.
The American baby boomers have been called the “me generation.” Self absorbed, narcissistic and concerned more with how the world affects them than with the bigger picture. In many ways the American (and to a lesser extent European) reaction to Islamic fundamentalism mirrors this “me” type of thinking. For example, the same week a British soldier was hacked to death on a London street, over a hundred people were killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria by Islamic fanatics of one stripe or another. This does not even count the hundreds that were killed in Syria. Some of these, like the killing of the Afghan children, received media attention. But the scores killed in Iraq or Pakistan were barely noticed, tiny entries on the back pages of newspapers and web sites.
The Muslim world is at war with itself. It is only the spillover that the West is experiencing. This is not new or historically unique: the war between the Catholics and Protestants that raged from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries spilled over to their new environments in the Americas. Even when the American enterprise consisted of only a little fragile coastal strip barely able to sustain itself and under constant attack by the Native Americans, Catholics and Protestants engaged in religious fighting and sought to destroy each other’s small holdings.
When President Obama declared the war on terror over, what he was really communicating was that it had shifted. The terrorized were now in Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad and Aleppo.
We need to be vigilant but not paranoid. Fanatics like Fort Hood murderer Nidal Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers are not really much more of a threat to us than the dozens of mass murderers who have gone on shooting sprees and created mayhem in our elementary schools, high schools, colleges, malls or movie theaters. Barely a week passes now without some new mass murder. It may be statistically possible to show that the NRA is far more dangerous to America than Al Qaeda.
The realization that the “me nation” has overreacted to Islamic fundamentalism does not serve the neoconservative military interventionists well. The recent article by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal is a classic example of inverse logic. His argument that things go wrong when we do not interfere in the Muslim world turns facts on their head. You have to forget or dismiss our two costly military fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq to see what intervening in the Islamic world accomplishes. But if you have a “me nation” that is all about us, then military intervention everywhere and “projecting American power” makes sense.
A more nuanced historical view would show that the Christian world was once aflame too. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were tortured, burnt and butchered for their beliefs. Whole countries like Holland and regions like Southern France were laid to waste. Tudor England was the Syria of its time.
I do not recall the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful force in the world for much of that time, getting involved. Eventually the flame of intra-Christian hate died out and relative religious pluralism took hold. Let’s hope that happens to the Muslim world too.
However, while we wait let’s realize that the hands holding the sword of the prophet are not really swinging at us. Yes, America and Europe are going to get caught up in the war, but the casualties do not seem any greater than the normal background chaos of gun violence and murder we seem prepared to defend and live with.
This is not a reflection of a powerless America or an America in retreat. It is just the sober realization that our fellow followers of the Abrahamic tradition are having a tough time and that we do not have much to offer in the way of real help. Sending in the Christian military will only make it worse.