With the war in Syria becoming ever more complex and murderous, it’s worthwhile to revisit a guiding principle of Barack Obama: The use of American military power is likely to do more harm than good in the Middle East, and even in the region’s violent struggles, soft power is important, if not decisive, in resolving conflicts. If Islamic militancy is to be defeated, better ideas, advanced by Muslims, backed up if necessary by Muslim soldiers, must be the principal means.
We do not know whether the president sincerely believes in this military-lite, soft-power-heavy, Muslim-versus-Muslim answer to Islamic radicalism; he may well just care about his progressive agenda at home. A non-interventionist foreign policy, and all the intellectualism that surrounds it, may be only an afterthought, a byproduct of his determination to keep his liberal aspirations for America undiminished by arduous and expensive foreign adventures.
But we cannot ignore the fact that terrorist safe havens now cover a large swath of the Middle East and may soon extend once again across southern Afghanistan. Let us assume that the president sincerely believes that Islamic militancy must be defeated by ideas for it to be downed on the battlefield. Let us also assume that this Middle Eastern question will eventually compel some sustained attention from Republican presidential candidates, since one of them may well succeed Obama and confront the Syrian war, which is rattling both Europe and the Near East. A Republican president could choose to ignore the conflict, citing the same arguments Obama does, with a conservative twist. Republicans don’t appear any more eager than Democrats to send American forces again into Muslim lands. Vladimir Putin’s arrival has probably made punting an even more attractive bipartisan option, since changing policy in Syria could well pit the United States militarily, indirectly or directly, against Russia. Barring a massive terrorist strike against America launched from the Islamic State or elsewhere in Syria, even a half-million dead Syrians—double the current accepted number—and millions more made homeless will likely not push Americans to intervene.
But fear of entanglement aside, does the president’s view make sense historically? Have Muslims viewed militant irruptions as preeminently battles of ideas? Or have they seen such struggles as contests of swords and gunpowder? In the past, what have been the winning strategies against “violent extremism” in the Middle East?
Taming the zealots
Historical parallels to the Islamic State are imperfect. Although Islamic history has seen an enormous number of politico-religious rebellions, the vast majority failed to displace the ruling powers, and successful movements seeking explicitly to revive the early caliphate have been rare. The Islamic State in this sense is a product of modernity: It couldn’t have happened without the rise of modern fundamentalism, which zealously ignores—or delegitimizes—the history, the perceived moral compromises, of medieval and modern Muslim empires and states and returns the believer to the most virtuous age, to the community of the prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs, the Rashidun, the Rightly Guided Ones.
But jihadist revivalism is a not infrequent occurrence. As Princeton’s Michael Cook noted in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, an important book for understanding historically the moral reflexes and agony of faithful Muslims:
It was the fusion of this egalitarian and activist [Arab] tribal ethos with the monotheist tradition that gave Islam its distinctive political character. In no other civilization was rebellion for conscience sake so widespread as it was in the early centuries of Islamic history; no other major religious tradition has lent itself to revival as a political ideology—and not just a political identity—in the modern world.
Focusing on the more extreme and successful examples of this religio-political zeal offers some insights into how such fervency fades. Islamic history offers no sure strategy for defusing zealotry, but it certainly records the methods that Muslims, and non-Muslims, have used to combat the fanaticism of believers at war with the status quo. And the principal method has always been military.
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