Sunday, September 7, 2008

One Ring to Bring Them All, and In The Darkness Bind Them

Over at the Counterterrorism Blog, the estimable scholar on Islamism, Walid Phares is interviewed on the nature and status of the fight against al Qaeda and other Jihadi organizations. It is a quick but very rewarding read, in which Dr. Phares, with characteristic clarity and comprehensiveness cuts through many of the dangerous misconceptions about Salafist Jihadism (such as looking at groups like al Qaeda in isolation or, much worse, treating Islamist terrorism as a mere law-enforcement matter).

Phares maintains that the essence of what we are fighting is not a particular group, nor a set of tactics or regional conflicts, but a coherent ideology which exists independently of the various visible shapes it takes on the world stage. One passage in particular stood out to me:

SMITH: In the years since 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, we’ve been talking about Al Qaeda as if it were a global force, with a reach extending from South Asia to the Maghreb and beyond. Then we’ve heard about Al Qaeda “the label” and “Al Qaedism.” From what we now know, how many of the ideologically sympathizing terrorist groups, from the Philippines to Algeria actually have connections to Al Qaeda and its leaders?

DR. PHARES: Again, many experts - unwilling to accept the reality that Jihadism is a global ideology and movement - went in different directions trying to explain the phenomenon away from its real and historic roots. Perhaps the little linguistic and cultural knowledge that was available pushed these analysts to adopt conclusions alien to the essence of Al Qaeda. In the Arab political debate there is not such thing as “Al Qaedism.” There is no such thing as Al Qaeda’s label or branding. The reality is simple: Beyond Al Qaeda and all similar organizations there is a one global ideology called Jihadism. If we compare this with the “Lord of the Rings” tales, Jihadism is the “ring,” a strong force that lords and leaders use in their quest for expansion. These lords such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri come and go. But the “force” - or ideology — remains and produces more leaders. So, Al Qaeda is a central organization for Jihadists, but there are Jihadi groups around the world, most of whom look at Al Qaeda as the great center. But again, this constellation, if you will, is the product of an ideology and of doctrinaires. If we fail to understand this, we fail to properly analyze the future.

Aside from geeking out over the spot-on Tolkien reference, I am impressed by the incisiveness of the observation. While many devote a great deal of breath and ink and pixels to the proposition that Osama bin Laden must be brought to justice (which he must) or that al Qaeda must be crushed (ditto), what is far less frequently discussed is the importance of discrediting the central ideology which animates these particular perpetrators and forms the wellspring of future foes.

Military prowess alone does not extinguish the flames in which Jihadists are forged (though sustained and humiliating defeat on the battlefield does weaken the claim to Divine favor for their cause). "Soft power" such as economic and diplomatic pressure scarcely scratches the surface of the great, lumbering engines which churn out "Lions of Islam" like the Uruk-Hai of Isengard. The dark breath which fills their lungs as they cry out to their god before dissolving in an angry cloud of ball-bearings and body parts comes from a far deeper source.

The "Cracks of Doom" for this particular Ring lie within the fissures which exist throughout Muslim communities worldwide, the chasm between their hopes for a proud, prosperous life, and the grinding despair of a civilization lacerated by a long slide along its collective rock bottom.

As the doctrine of counterinsurgency is applied in more of the regions in which the insidious whisper of Jihadist fanaticism and fantasism holds sway, the security and empowerment and self-determination which it brings will raise the temperature toward the Salafist melting point. As we have seen in Iraq, when pushed in this way, the true, desperate brutality of the Jihadi soul bares itself with the unmistakable contours of evil, and the people respond accordingly. Whether it is Zarqawi bombing a wedding in Jordan, or AQI baking the sons of tribal sheiks alive, the hideous nihilistic reality of Jihadism exposes itself when pressed, like the inscription on the One Ring becomes visible only in fire.

The seductive lure of appeasement and moral equivalency and retreat to the comforts of our Hobbit-holes must be resisted. In these epochal times, we are all Frodo Baggins.

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