On Fitna &c


My past few posts on Islamist terrorism, including Fitna, were provided without much editorial content. For those interested, here are my opinions:

First, Barry Cooper’s “‘Jihadists’ and War on Terrorism,” addresses a vitally important subject but one that often makes radical leftists of the Marxist variety uncomfortable. Why do some terrorists view the killing of civilians as a “moral” act? Further, why do some terrorists view suicidal martyrdom as “the highest morality”? These questions make radical leftists uncomfortable because they tend to view conflicts through a structural lens. The actions of individuals, in these accounts, are largely diminished or explained as resulting from broader factors like social class, economics, etc.

Cooper, by contrast, seeks the individual motivation for these sociopathic acts:

The term used by Voegelin, which he borrowed from Schelling, and which I used in New Political Religions, is “pneumopathological.” Literally, a pneumopathology is a spiritual sickness, in contrast to psychopathology—a psychological disorder. The difference between the two is that psychopaths cannot tell the difference between good and evil, whereas pneumopaths can tell the difference perfectly well and go out of their way to hide what they know—typically by using religious symbols and language to intoxicate themselves into oblivion with respect to what they know.

What are the implications of this analysis for the prospects of defeating Islamist totalitarianism? How do you defeat a cadre of individuals who are not motivated by an individual leader like Bin Laden but by a shared narrative or vision of reality? I haven’t had a chance to read Cooper’s New Political Religions but I plan on having a look soon. If he conducts a comparative study of various pneumopathic movements across time and space that would be especially interesting.

Cooper opines:

How the Islamist militants or salafist terrorists came to the conclusion that killing the innocent by means of suicide attacks was moral or was evidence of martyrdom is particularly surprising because the salafists take their name from the al-salf al-salihin, or “pious forefathers.” We shall see, however, that they have nothing in common with the pious forefathers or, more broadly, with what, in the absence of a Muslim orthodoxy, is often referred to as Koranic Islam.

Which brings me to Fitna. I did not post the movie due to an affinity with the political perspective of the filmmaker nor because I agreed with the message of the film. I disagree with the thesis of the film. I do not believe faithful followers of the Koran hate non-Muslims and are committed to violent jihad. I agree with many others who have written that religious edicts and quotations can be taken out of context. Nevertheless we must—all of us—address the fact that most of the terrorism in the world today exists in the Islamic world and is being committed by Muslims. The vast majority of it is being directed against Muslim people by Muslim people.

Unlike many neoconservatives who view the fight against Islamist totalitarianism as a clash of civilizations, I contend a primary element of the struggle is this internal dynamic within Islamic societies and nation-states. As Cooper writes:

Political disorder in the modern Islamic world has evoked a genuine horror at the structure of reality. From this experience arises a desire to escape reality or transform it along the lines of a second reality more congenial to the pneumopathological terrorist imagination. We in the West have encountered such forms of consciousness before in the great ideological movements of the last two centuries, and we shall no doubt see it again after the last member of al-Qaeda has been killed, or retired, or converted to peaceful Sufi mysticism.

Which brings me to John David Lewis’ “’No Substitute for Victory’ The Defeat of Islamist Totalitarianism.” Lewis compares the American response in World War II where the enemy was motivated by a religious ideology—Shintoism—that justified Japanese imperialism and aggression, to that of the contemporary war against Islamist totalitarianism. In the contemporary conflict our use of force and targets are limited whereas during World War II large-scale bombings of civilian populations were, if not common, militarily acceptable. Lewis strongly believes that these strategies are applicable today if only the American public and our politicians had the strength of will to use overwhelming force against our enemies.

As Lewis’ notes:

The Islamic Totalitarian movement has a similar fire burning at its core—an authoritarian, state-centered religion, replete with state-funded educational indoctrination, a massive suicide cult on behalf of the deity and state, and hope for a final battle over the Americans. The key to extinguishing this fire, I submit—the sine qua non required to end the spiral of indoctrination, jihad, and suicidal attacks on the West—is to do what was done against Japan: to break the political power of the state religion. State Islam—Totalitarian Islam—rule by Islamic Law—must be obliterated.

Reading Lewis’ words I can sense his anger and frustration. But a huge problem with his approach is, in many cases, we are dealing with internal struggles within states rather than wars between states. The soundness of this approach grows even more questionable when we are dealing with conflicts within allied states. Afghanistan and Iraq are the obvious examples. We are not at war with the central governments of either of these countries. What kind of support would the central governments of Iraq and Afghanistan receive if the United States—their allies—started bombing civilian populations as we did in World War Two? I think Lewis’ main policy prescription, “America, acting alone and with overwhelming force, must destroy the Iranian Islamic State now” is similarly reckless. Force must always be an option but it should be the last option.

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