Since September 11 2001, the United States has responded to the growing threat of suicide terrorism by embarking on a policy to conquer Muslim countries – not simply rooting out existing havens for terrorists in Afghanistan but going further, to remake Muslim societies in the Persian Gulf. Proponents claim that Islamic fundamentalism is the principal cause of suicide terrorism and that this radical ideology is spreading through Muslim societies, dramatically increasing the prospects for a new, larger generation of anti-American terrorists in the future. Hence, the United States should install new governments in Muslim countries in order to transform and diminish the role of radical Islam in their societies. This logic led to widespread support for the conquest of Iraq and is promoted as the principal reason for regime change in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states in the future.
The goal of this strategy is correct, but its premise is faulty. American security depends critically on diminishing the next generation of anti-American Muslim terrorists. However, Islamic fundamentalism is not the main cause of suicide terrorism, and conquering Muslim countries to transform their societies is likely to increase the number coming at us.
Dying to Win
Spokesmen for the ‘Muslim transformation’ strategy present a sweeping case. Although these arguments are sometimes vague and incomplete, they all centre on the presumption that Islamic fundamentalism is the driving force behind the growing threat of suicide terrorism. According to David Frum and Richard Perle, ‘The terrorists kill and will accept death for a cause with which no accommodation is possible. That cause is militant Islam.’ Moreover, these beliefs are not really confined to a radical fringe, but infect even ordinary Muslims: ‘And though it is comforting to deny it, all the available evidence indicates that militant Islam commands wide support, and even wider sympathy, among Muslims worldwide, including Muslim minorities in the West.’ For Frum and Perle, ‘the roots of Muslim rage are to be found in Islam itself…. The Islamic world has lagged further and further behind the Christian West.’ While there are multiple terrorist groups, the common element of Islam makes the threat monolithic: ‘The distinction between Islamic terrorism against Israel, on the one hand, and Islamic terrorism against the United States and Europe, on the other, cannot be sustained…. Worse, the ideology that justifies the terrible crimes of Hamas and Hezbollah is the same ideology that justifies the crimes of al-Qaeda.’ The result is an unlimited threat to dominate the world: ‘This strain seeks to overthrow our civilization and remake the nations of the West into Islamic societies, imposing on the whole world its religion and its law.’ The solution, Perle and Frum contend, is regime change: ‘We must move boldly against [Iran] and against all the other sponsors of terrorism as well: Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.’
This argument is fatally flawed. First, al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorists have not come from the most populous Islamic fundamentalist populations in the world, but mainly from the Muslim countries with heavy American combat presence. From 1995 through 2003, there have been a total of seventy-one al-Qaeda suicide terrorists. Only 6 per cent (4 of 71) have come from the five countries with the world’s largest Islamic fundamentalist populations-Pakistan (149 million), Bangladesh (114 million), Iran (63 million), Egypt (62 million), and Nigeria (37 million). By contrast, 55 per cent of al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorists (39 of 71) have come from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, a region whose population totals less than 30 million, but where the United States has stationed heavy combat troops more or less continuously since 1990.
This comparison of the relative weight of American military presence and Islamic fundamentalism is important. If Islamic fundamentalism is driving al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorism, then we would expect a close relationship between the world’s largest Islamic fundamentalist populations and the nationality of al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorists. However, this is not the case. The world’s five largest Islamic fundamentalist populations without American military presence have produced al-Qaeda suicide terrorists on the order of 1 per 71 million people, while the Persian Gulf countries with American military presence have produced al-Qaeda suicide terrorists at a rate of 1 per million, or 70 times more often. Further, even if we narrow our definition of Islamic fundamentalism to Salafism, the specific form associated with Osama bin Laden but not with Iran or even many Sunnis, American military presence remains the pivotal factor driving al-Qaeda’s suicide terrorists. The stationing of tens of thousands of American combat troops on the Arabian Peninsula from 1990 to 2001 probably made al-Qaeda suicide attacks against Americans, including the horrible crimes committed on September 11, 2001, from five to twenty times more likely. Hence, the longer American troops remain in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf in general, the greater the risk of the next September 11.
Second, Islamic fundamentalism has not created a monolithic terrorism threat against the United States or other Western countries. Islamic fundamentalism does not lead suicide terrorist organisations to cooperate with each other in the ways that matter most-the sharing of suicide terrorists across groups, or one group conducting a suicide terrorist campaign on behalf of another. Hezbollah and Hamas have each waged numerous suicide terrorist campaigns against Israel, but never for each other and never at the same time. Al-Qaeda has never attacked Israel at all, while Hamas has never attacked the United States, and Hezbollah has attacked only Americans in Lebanon. When one studies the various suicide terrorist campaigns by Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda what stands out is not that these groups share military resources or act in concert, like a monolithic movement. Instead, what stands out is that each is driven by essentially nationalist goals to compel target democracies to withdraw military forces from their particular homeland.
Third, the idea that all Muslims around the world are quietly anti-American because Islam encourages hatred for American values for democracy and free markets does not square with the facts. Indeed, robust evidence shows that American military policies, not revulsion against Western political and economic values, are driving anti-americanism among Muslims.
Our best information on Muslim attitudes comes from the Pew Global Attitudes surveys. Since 2000, approval of the United States has been declining sharply among Muslims from across a broad cross section of countries-among both Muslims who were initially highly favorable to the United States and those who were not. Even with the slight rise in
2004, America’s image even among our closest Muslim allies is now a pale reflection of where it was four years ago.
|‘Defeating Suicide Terrorism’, another extract from Dying to Win.
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