The Long War


By: Guest Authors

By Russ Gottwald for Right Side News

The War on Terror, or the Long War as President Bush has re-styled it, shares many features of the Cold War. Both of them are, at root, ideological conflicts perceived very differently by the respective adversaries. Both sets of ideologies contain internal fissures and (to a certain degree) state sponsors of their dominant strains of thought. Both feature proxy and paramilitary campaigns, but (at least as of yet) no direct conflicts between the primary state sponsors. Finally, neither offers the possibility of a purely military victory in the vein of the triumph over Fascism; indeed, a hallmark of victory in the Long War will be that the losing ideology, rather than being truly defeated, will be marginalized the way that Marxism has been.

The first step in grasping the true nature of the Long War is to define exactly what it is, and who the opposing sides are. It is not purely a battle against terrorists or terrorist organizations. It cannot be, for to make it so would all but guarantee defeat. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas are merely the militant branches of a larger movement. In a Cold War context, they tend to be compared to more dangerous, capable, and global versions of the Baader-Mainhof Gang, the Red Brigades, or FARC. This characterization is inaccurate, as is the assertion that such groups as al-Qaeda are “not ideological in a political sense.” Rather, these organizations and others like them, such as the Taliban, perceive themselves more similarly to the Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia (although they would likely not make that parallel directly). As General Howard states earlier in his overview, their goal is to topple Western and “apostate” or secular regimes in predominantly Muslim states and replace them with Islamist rule. This is an explicitly political aim.

The key, then, to defining the adversary to Western liberalism and democracy is to look at the political aim of the terrorists. Put simply, the various organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaeda in one way or another share one overriding goal: to bring Sharia to as many places as possible. Sharia is the rule of Islamic law as specified in a definite legal tradition. This goal is not unique to terrorist organizations; rather, it is the central tenet of Islamism of any kind. Islamism is an ideology that stresses Islam’s role, not just as a system of belief, but as a code of behavior. This ideology, then, provides a direct parallel between the Cold War and the Long War. Islamism is no more purely a religious movement than Communism was purely an economic theory. Rather, its religious tenets are political in and of themselves. Furthermore, many adherents of this ideology consider themselves simply to be following the guidelines of the Koran itself. As stated in an editorial on al Jazeera’s website:

Muslims are not only obliged to live by Islam in all walks of life. It is obligatory upon them to establish living by it in a society. The words aqeemoo alddeena (Qur’an: 42:13) clearly indicate Iqaamat-e-Deen, i.e. the setting up or establishment of a way of life which is impossible without the formal power structure and legal, political, economic and military systems.

Furthermore, what Westerners regard as a more “moderate” or secularized Islamic faith that separates the religious and political is seen by the Islamists as apostasy. One cannot, in their view, truly be a Muslim if one does not follow that way of life.

The ideological parallel is the foundational similarity between the Cold War and the Long War. In both, the liberal West faces an adversarial ideology that is both universalist (that is: to be spread world-wide) and totalitarian (in that it seeks control over all aspects of life). In other words, the competing ideology is inherently incompatible with Western principles of pluralism and liberty. Islamism, however, will prove more difficult for the West to combat on an ideological level. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, one of the core elements of Western liberalism is religious toleration. This factor makes critical discussion of Islamism tricky indeed, as any attack upon its political aspects can be (and typically is) decried as an attack upon the Islamic faith as a whole. These accusations are made not only by Muslims, but frequently by Westerners with ideological axes to grind. A second difficulty lies with the very different agendas of Communism and Islamism. Communism was inherently materialistic; its promises centered upon better standards of living and equality. That these promises were not met was apparent to both Westerners and those living under Communist rule; this is why Communist societies had to build walls both physical and procedural to keep their people from fleeing to the West. Islamism, on the other hand, is not based upon promises of material well-being, but upon spiritual well-being. The political repression and loss of liberty attendant upon Islamist rule is not characterized as a regrettable, temporary expedient; rather, it is the openly stated goal. For Westerners to try to persuade people that God does not ask this of them makes the job of the mullahs and imams easier to some extent; we are indeed trying to lead Muslims away from what they feel is the literal word of Allah.

Another parallel between the Cold War and the Long War is that Europe is a central theater of the struggle. Unlike in the Cold War, however, time may not be on the side of the West when it comes to control of the Continent. In the Cold War, the superior rate of economic growth provided by capitalism led to an ever-widening discrepancy in standards of living between the Free World and the Communist bloc. Furthermore, fear of Communist domination kept the democratic governments of Western Europe as squarely in the American camp as were the majority of their populations. Over the coming decades, on the other hand, Europe will see a massive demographic shift as extremely low birthrates couple with massive immigration. The sources of this immigration vary from place to place, with that in France stemming mainly from North Africa, that in Germany from Turkey, that in Britain from the former Raj, and so forth. However, all share the characteristics that the immigrants are predominantly Muslim, and once they arrive, they are having far more children than are the native Europeans. The Muslim population of France is generally estimated at 10% of the total. Under the age of 20, that number is 30%. Thus by 2020 roughly a quarter of France’s working-age population will be Muslim. Similar patterns are taking place across the continent. These figures would not be important, except for three factors. First, European Muslims are very poorly assimilated; indeed, with each succeeding generation they become more likely to identify primarily with Islam than with the nation in which they live, even if born there. Second, the younger generations are far more likely to profess Islamist ideals. That is, they are increasingly rejecting the very ideals that European societies define themselves by. Third, the nations of Europe are democracies; they will respond to pressure at the ballot box. If a steadily growing number of voters in Europe demand a more pro-Islamist foreign policy, it seems likely that their governments will become less responsive to liberal goals.

The increasing radicalization of European Muslims demonstrates another major feature of Islamism: the more its tenets are adopted by the Muslim mainstream, the more recruits al-Qaeda and like-minded groups will have. Furthermore, these recruits will hail from a far more diverse range of backgrounds. Indeed, it seems likely that converts such as Richard Reed and John Allen Muhammad will increasingly serve as the vanguard of terrorist action. This will make it far more difficult for Western governments to combat their efforts, as in all Western nations citizens enjoy far greater legal protections than do foreigners; furthermore, they are simply less suspicious. Another problem stemming from increasingly Islamist-friendly populations in Europe is that, while they may not actively engage in terrorism, they will be at least sympathetic to its aims. In a poll of British Muslims taken by the Times of London after the July 7th bombings in 2005, 20% stated sympathy with the motives of the bombers; another poll found that 60% desired to live under Sharia. These trends will make it difficult indeed for Western counterterror agencies to enlist the support of their Muslim populations against the home-grown terror cells that will continue to arise.

The source of much of the Islamist teaching in the West is Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it must be said that Saudi Arabia, with its support of Wahabbi and Salafist evangelizing, is the most significant state supporter of Islamism. In a sense, it is the Soviet Union of the Long War, with one glaring difference: it is nominally a U.S. ally. Iran, the stated enemy of the U.S., is really more similar to China, as its Shia Islam is rejected by the majority of Muslims. It is important to note, however, that Hamas, an avowedly Sunni organization, accepts aid from Iran, and that Hezbollah, an avowedly Shia group, is increasingly cooperating with al-Qaeda. To an increasing degree, then, the desire to advance Islamist goals is trumping formerly violent fissures (this is not, however, the case in Iraq).

The question of how to fight this Long War is difficult to answer. The demographic reality in Europe is an immense complication; another is that in the United States it is nearly impossible to truly address the issue. One vital aspect of our efforts against terrorism must be in how we discuss it. To begin, Western media, political leaders, and most importantly Muslim leaders must stop using the term jihad in relation to the terrorists. Referring to them as jihadis or mujahideen implicitly acknowledges their claim to be fighting a holy struggle. We (well, most of us in the U.S., anyway) didn’t call the Viet Cong or Khmer Rouge “freedom fighters.” More generally, we should be careful to avoid legitimizing the arguments of the Islamists and their terrorist supporters by allowing them to choose the language of discussion. Similarly, we must avoid the trap of mistaking tolerance and accommodation of religious practices with symbolic acceptance of Islamist portrayals of Westerners as infidels. At Guantanamo Bay, for example, guards handling the Koran currently have to wear gloves, as they are viewed as “unclean” by the detainees. Regardless of one’s views on detention of prisoners there, it must be acknowledged that the fact that this view is accommodated implies agreement with it; the practice ought to end.

The counterterror efforts of the U.S. and its allies are vital to successfully combating groups such as al-Qaeda. However they cannot be the only methods we use. As things stand today, only one side really is engaged on every plane of conflict. If we continue to focus narrowly upon terrorism, it will horribly complicate our efforts. In order to get meaningful public support, the issue must be framed in its true dimensions. We must acknowledge its similarity to the Cold War; and explicitly declare that it will be the work of at least a couple of generations. Similarly, in order to explain it properly, a new frame of reference must be found in which to discuss Islamism. If we force ourselves to tiptoe around it, engaging in self-censorship and apology at every turn, the Islamists will certainly win any war of words. The key to victory may lie with the status of women. Sharia is, as applied in Saudi Arabia and like-minded regions, rather less than an equal-opportunity code. This cannot be overemphasized. Everywhere that women seek to be more than second-class citizens, the West has potential allies. In the end, that may make all the difference.



Russ Gottwald writes for Right Side News.

Russ Gottwald was born and raised in Richmond, where he attended St. Christopher’s School. He went on to study International Politics at Georgetown University and Homeland Security and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University, and eagerly awaits continuing to graduate level studies.

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