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.
The designers and practitioners of revolutionary violence, moreover, are not usually poor, disadvantaged, uneducated, or lacking in avenues for advancement. Osama bin Laden is from a wealthy family, and world-class political mass-murderers before him include the middle-class Lenin, son of a high-ranking civil servant, and the Sorbonne-educated Pol Pot. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that such figures—who cannot be placated with economic well-being because they are motivated by a principled hatred of the West—make up only 1 percent of all political killers, we still must understand them if we are to make sense of the violence they orchestrate—and forestall it.
Ideological motivation alone is not enough to distinguish the terrorist. Many assassins have a twisted view of the justice of their cause. The killer of Martin Luther King Jr. thought his victim was a dangerous Communist. The Washington Beltway sniper had formed Black Muslim loyalties in prison. Even John Lennon’s assassin believed he was removing an evil force from the world. Common sense tells us that these lone assassins are not terrorists in the same way as al Qaeda or as past leaders and comrades in other cohesive extremist political movements.
Instead, terrorists are revolutionaries committed to killing, even to the extent of genocide, to bring about a better world. To join this particular tribe, members must carry out acts of large-scale political murder for the sake of the ideal they share: a future society that will end all alienation, vice, and unhappiness forever by submerging the individual in the bliss of the righteous collective. This future utopia can only be brought about if the one group or force standing in the way is annihilated, for that group or force is construed as the cause of all human unhappiness, injustice, and oppression. This is a trait common to revolutionary movements from the Jacobins all the way down to the jihadists of today.
Depending on the movement and the era, the impediment to universal bliss may be the bourgeoisie, capital, the kulaks, the Jews, America, Israel, the infidel. Destroying this evil force, sometimes embodied in a nation-state, sometimes in a class or race, revolutionaries believe, will liberate mankind forever. The very violence of the deed will itself be cathartic for the “warriors,” transmuting their souls as heroic avatars of the cleansed world to come—the Communist new order, the Third Reich, the Year Zero proclaimed by the Khmer Rouge, the worldwide caliphate that will supposedly restore original Islamic purity. Whether working in the United States or abroad, today’s jihadist revolutionaries are bent on the eventual overthrow of the American government and all other liberal democracies and their replacement with a global Islamist dictatorship as little resembling true Islam as true democracy. While sometimes imitating the language of freedom and equality, revolutionary movements as far back as the Jacobins have originated in the conviction that representative government and the Enlightenment are disastrous for human dignity and can only degrade all that is virtuous and dutiful.
Only these idealists of death, the practitioners of utopian genocide, provide a category for comprehending al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thus enabling us to distinguish political mass murder from school massacres, hate crimes, assassinations, and idiosyncratic apocalyptic rampages like Charles Manson’s “bringing down helter-skelter.” The revolutionaries’ motivation is not “terrorism,” an increasingly empty abstraction. Rather, terrorism is a means, and it is but one means toward the end of the collectivist utopia, alongside relentless propaganda, bribery, intimidation of opponents, paralegal military action, conventional warfare, charitable good works among potential converts, tactical compromises with ordinary political processes, and the ceaseless psychological conditioning of young people in the need to fight against the oppressive force supposedly blocking the people’s road to happiness, all of these integrated and directed by the blueprint for the coming new society. From Robespierre to Stalin, Hitler, Che Guevara, and Mullah Omar, they should be described for what they are—revolutionaries, whose violence today serves their belief in the world of tomorrow where they will rule.
Today’s terrorists are aspiring tyrants. They kill in order to bring about a grim collective whose power over us all will be absolute, thereby making us “happy” by purging us of the corruption of individualism, economic well-being, free choice, female equality, and rights. And wherever such idealists of death have come to power, they have built regimes that continue to terrorize their populations in order to build the “new man.” Looking through the charters and pronouncements of groups like the PLO, the Taliban, and Hezbollah, one discovers, never far beneath the pseudo-religious surface, the language of socialism (both national and international), the levelling of classes, and the eradication of individual liberty under a monolithic dictatorship. However they may understand themselves, the jihadists, like their fascist and Bolshevik predecessors, cannot be considered true men of faith, because all three of the Abrahamic faiths deny that man can save the world through secular political action, much less through mass violence. For truly pious people, only God can redeem the world. Genuine Muslim religious authorities have consistently denounced the jihadists as irreligious. One such body in Jordan, the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, has written that “Islam does not countenance utopian ideology,” and adds, “When one can justify any act in the name of a worldly utopia, then one has passed into pure utilitarianism.”
In sum, “terrorism” has come to mean something hardly more precise than “violence”—at best “political violence targeting civilians”—and everyone is against that. Even revolutionaries claim to be ultimately against violence, since their actions will heal the distorted soul of modern, materialistic, selfish, bourgeois, Enlightenment man, the perpetrator, they maintain, of all genuine violence, injustice, and oppression in the world, which their own use of force is meant only to combat. Revolutionaries above all have a positive goal. While adroitly downplaying their long-term aim of reconstructing humanity, they pretend to be mere nationalists, proponents of elections, defenders of just land claims, pious believers, or freedom fighters. Yet they will never categorically abjure the revolutionary faith, because they really do believe it. They are murderous and sincere. Terrorists—the leaders, the true believers—are revolutionaries bent on becoming tyrants, just as tyrants working to remake man are terrorists in power.
What the West can do to resist this global revolutionary movement is, above all, get over the idea that terrorists are lone wolves roaming the world. As revolutionaries bent on becoming tyrants, the perpetrators of mass violence both seek and need state support. That was true of Saddam Hussein’s support for Hamas suicide bombers, the suspected involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence services in the Mumbai bombing, and, most recently, Turkey’s backing of the attempt to run Israel’s blockade of the Hamas dictatorship in the Gaza Strip. The deputy minister of religion for Hamas, a terrorist movement now conjoined with a despotic state, recently referred to Jews as “foreign bacteria—a microbe unparalleled in the world” requiring annihilation. Above all, of course, is Iran, leader of the terrorist international, which supports both “Sunni” Hamas and “Shia” Hezbollah in a pincer movement aimed at Israel, and is building a collection of dictatorships (Venezuela, North Korea, Syria) in its proclaimed mission to wipe Israel from the map. While ordinary power politics, economic self-interest, and imperial ambitions play a role in these complex machinations, the overriding aim of terrorists and their terror state sponsors is the worldwide Islamist revolution to be sparked by Israel’s destruction. The Obama administration shows no grasp of this important truth.
Some who did grasp it were the founders of neoconservatism, people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Their central insight was what Moynihan termed the importance of the regime. Instead of invoking the empty and hypocritical concept of “the international community”—a concept in which any agreement between democracies and tyrannies must be morally bankrupt because it places them on the same level of legitimacy—we should return to the language of “the free world” at the United Nations and in international affairs generally. Moynihan spoke of “the party of liberty.” It is a question neither of Obama-style internationalism nor of Ron Paul-ist isolationism but of America championing the world’s liberal democracies and the regimes that are seriously striving to join their ranks.
We need to recover our sense that, while any regime is capable of lapses in the protection of human rights, for democracies like the United States and Israel, these are lapses from their own standards, lapses which they work to redress. For tyrannies like Iran and Syria, as for jihadist revolutionaries, by contrast, human rights abuses are not lapses from a higher standard. On the contrary: The behavior we term “abuse” is their standard, one they strive to implement every day. We must also overcome our discomfiture at being labeled enemies of “the Muslim world” or the Iranian or Syrian “people.” Tyrants and dictators, and the jihadists who aspire to join them, do not represent their peoples, and they cannot represent high religious values. The West’s unambiguous moral opposition to such regimes and the terrorism they sponsor, whether deployed against their own populations or against innocents abroad, is at the service of liberating their peoples from fear and oppression.
Waller R. Newell is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.