Since its inception, religion has been used politically, as a unifying force, as a pretext for conquest and as a means to suppress dissent. It is the same for pseudo-religions like fascism and communism.
Although fascism and communism were historically short-lived, one by defeat in war, the other by its inherent economic infeasibility, even pseudo-religions are subject to ideological fissures, ethnic fault lines and differing national interests, not the least of which was the Sino-Soviet split exploited by the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.
There is much discussion about defeating radical Islam “ideologically” because, they say, you can’t defeat it militarily. But what exactly does that mean in practice?
Most often, that plan can be distilled down to a nebulous combination of approaches to discredit radical Islam through education, social media and encouraging moderate Muslims to “reform” Islam or “mainstream” radical Islamic movements, as in the following contribution from the Brookings Institute, sentiments often regurgitated by American political literati:
“It is not enough to assert the numerous and very real divergences between mainstream Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists like ISIS. The true task at hand lies in fighting ideology with ideology. The obligation, then, is to undermine the foundations upon which extremism has drawn and to lay to rest those controversial rulings, religious personalities, and eras which provide fodder for an Islamic legitimacy for extremist ideologies to hide behind, and with which to deem their actions Islamic. Such rulings rely upon certain interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah (sources of legislation in Islam).”
That may sound profound, but it is preposterous. ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood have the same goals, a global caliphate and the imposition of Sharia, only differing in their methods, one by violence the other by subversion. Whether they interpret the Islamic texts literally or by clerical edit is irrelevant in terms of their opposition to Judeo-Christian-based Western democracy. Neither believe in coexistence.
There are, in fact, a more easily understood and practical strategies for fragmenting radical Islam by applying the principles of DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economics) and domestic legislation against radical Islamic elements:
- Whether by providing funding, safe havens or both, radical Islam is largely state-sponsored led by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Pakistan.
- Leverage the Sunni-Shia schism (e.g. Saudi Arabia versus Iran or within countries), ethnic separatism (e.g. Kurdish and Baloch nationalist movements in Iran) and the conflicts arising among the various radical Islamic groups, such as in Pakistan.
- Using legal remedies, do not allow into or tolerate within society radical Islamic individuals, policies or practices meant to undermine Western democracies.
The problem with the education, social media and moderate Muslim approach is that it was developed from a liberal Western democratic perspective, which has little utility in the fanatical world of radical Islam.
Rather than fighting ideology with ideology, the U.S. should become more comfortable with fighting insurgency and instability with insurgency and instability.
For example, continuation of the 16-year-old mostly reactive counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.
You get at the Taliban through Pakistan and you get at Pakistan through China. Making China nervous about its investment in Pakistan by Pakistan’s investment in Islamic terrorism would be more effective in changing the strategic conditions in Afghanistan than troop surges.
Amping up the ethnic insurgency in Balochistan would do just that. It would also put pressure on Iran, whose southeastern province has a Balochi majority seeking autonomy, complementing the Kurdish nationalist movement in northwestern Iran, placing Tehran inside an insurgency sandwich.
Approaches exploiting the fractures in the edifice of radical Islam would allow the U.S. to go on the offensive in a manner less costly in blood and treasure than its current defensive posture.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.