The Magazine

It's the Ideology, Stupid

What do Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Che Guevara, and Mullah Omar have in common?

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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It's the Ideology, Stupid

Wherever the global jihad strikes, it does so with the same goal: the establishment of a worldwide Islamist state. This is as true when the Taliban conducts suicide operations in Pakistan as it is when Turkey’s Islamist government sends a “freedom flotilla” seeking martyrdom in support of Hamas. It is true of terrorists plotting attacks on America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, whether at Fort Hood, in London, Madrid, Mumbai, Detroit, Nairobi, or Times Square. And it makes no difference whether the terrorists are home-grown, come from far away, or—in a recent twist—are Americans trained at al Qaeda camps in Yemen. Whatever rhetorical pretext may be advanced by the jihadist network—national dignity, expulsion of invaders, an end to social injustice—all of its components, whether state or nonstate actors, are united in a revolutionary purpose, justified by their millenarian ideology: the overthrow of the West and its Enlightenment values through violent struggle to usher in an age of happiness for all mankind. The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran—increasingly the country most bent on leading this international network—proclaims the global umma to be the ultimate purpose of the Islamic Revolution.  

Yet almost no one ever says this. The Obama administration, finally driven to concede that “acts of terror” are taking place, still avoids identifying the revolutionary ideology that is the central problem. Government officials do not speak of an open-ended struggle between liberal democracy and a totalitarian movement bent on instituting a collectivist utopia. Nor do they draw the connection between this struggle for the soul of modernity and our earlier, decades-long resistance to communism and fascism. Washington, indeed, has been overwhelmingly vague in its account of jihadism, never emphasizing to the public, for instance, that Major Nidal Hasan and “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are driven by the same ideology that motivates murderers in Baghdad and Kabul. And many opinion makers join in the obfuscation. Within minutes of learning of the shootings at Fort Hood, CNN labelled it a “rampage killing,” as if the incident bore some resemblance to what happened at Columbine High School. The president referred to Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist.” National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough used the same term to describe would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who was trained in the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano even called terrorist attacks “man-caused disasters,” implicitly likening the decision to blow up innocents to a freak of nature as senseless as Hurricane Katrina.

The many cells of the global jihad are linked by a revolutionary ideology, which is why we need a more robust lexicon to describe the threat. The Bush era’s “war on terror” has become a worn-out place holder for something we are unwilling to name. Besides, the emphasis on “terror” subtly recasts a political act as a psychological aberration of the “terrorist,” an inexplicable lashing out that could turn up anywhere, like bad weather, interrupting the flow of normal human behavior. In this view, politically motivated violence is reduced to some psychotic episode (“he snapped”) or some lurch of despair bred by poverty and hopelessness.

Economic despair, to be sure, has helped make non-Western countries recruiting grounds for Islamist movements, just as they were for previous revolutionary movements like Third World socialism. And jihadists are quick to weave the language of Marxist class struggle, national liberation, environmentalism, and anticapitalism into their explicitly religious call to arms. But despair does not suffice to explain the motives of jihadist leaders, the designers and strategists of terrorist attacks. It ignores the fact that people are quite capable of a principled, methodical hatred of liberal democracy and the political values of the Enlightenment, especially when these are seen as tainting one’s own country via foreign military or cultural invasion. Reducing the causes of terrorism to poverty ignores the fact that a hatred born of wounded honor and moral outrage is independently rooted in human character and is therefore an independent variable in the equation of political extremism. This has been understood at least since Plato considered the “spirited” part of the soul. 

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