Not long ago I testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on what the Committee called “Islamist terror.” The Committee, unlike the Administration, chose to align that adjective (Islamist) with that noun (terror) in defining a global problem.
“Islamist terrorism.” The very phrase is contentious.
No one wants to make this problem harder by unfairly branding and alienating a quarter of the world’s population and even in this construction no one should be thinking this means all of Islam or all Muslims.
But the revered Chinese strategist Sun Tzu did say something about knowing your enemy and we risk confusing ourselves if we ignore the religious and ideological roots that some use to justify their violence against us.
In the Cold War, a lot of Soviet actions could be explained as extensions of Czarist imperial ambitions, but that didn’t stop us from studying Marxism in theory and Communism in practice to better understand that adversary. Ideas count.
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So how to do this now, in the current conflict? For starters we should acknowledge that we are discussing one of the worlds great monotheisms and that Islam, Christianity and Judaism all trace their roots to the same deserts, that we are all people of the Book and that we are all children of Abraham. And the humility that should create needs to be reinforced by a realization that as a largely Judaeo-Christian culture, we need our views to be informed by scholarship, often Islamic scholarship.
But none of that means that Islam is irrelevant to our security debate or that we are incompetent or that it is somehow illegitimate for us to discuss it at all. This great monotheism is now sadly consumed by violent internal and external struggles that routinely affect our own security. There are at least three wars going on and the common thread across all three is Islam.
The first is an intra-Sunni battle, Sunni based violent extremists against the Sunni states in the region — ISIS against Jordan, ISIS against Egypt, ISIS against Saudi Arabia — with fundamentalists trying to construct an Islamic caliphate at the expense of traditional Muslim states.
The second conflict is Sunni-Shia, the continuation of a succession crisis following the death of the prophet that began in 632. Here we have the so-called Shia Crescent — Iran, much of Iraq, the Alawites in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon — against the Sunni monarchies and states like Egypt. The worst of the current violence we are seeing, like the horrific mosque bombings in Yemen, reflect this struggle. And the recent Saudi intervention there suggests this war will become more dominant and more violent as we go forward.
The third conflict is the broad challenge of reconciling Islam with what we in the West call modernity. We should avoid cultural arrogance here since Christendom went through a similar crisis in the 17th century. At the end of the 30 Years War then, Europe broadly decided to separate the sacred from the secular in its political culture. I know that is an oversimplification, but it is instructive, and it led to a growth in religious tolerance that has characterized the best of Western life since. It remains to be seen whether or not Islam will follow this same arc or if religion will remain the business of the state or — in an extreme form — replace the state.
Much has been made about recent administration comments that what we really have here is a lack of opportunity and that many of these issues could be solved by more jobs and better economic development.
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There is actually some truth to that. When at the CIA, I was fond of saying that many jihadis join the movement for the same reasons that young Americans join the Crips and the Bloods: youthful alienation, the need to belong to something greater than self, the search for meaningful identity. But it also matters what gang you join. And this gang, at its senior levels, espouses horrific violence through references to the holy Koran.
So this is a struggle over ideas, and unfortunately it is a struggle over which we have only limited influence. We can try to set the conditions for success, working to empower and protect moderate voices. We also have to look to our own safety by resorting to force to kill or capture those already committed to doing us harm.
But over the long term, the real resolution lies within Islam itself. Here, the recent speech by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt to the scholars Al-Azhar University, the great seat of Sunni scholarship, is encouraging. The president told the theologians that they have to get their act together and correct and discredit what he views to be gross misinterpretations of Islamic scripture by the jihadis.
Over the holidays, Mr. el-Sissi also attended Mass and wished his Coptic fellow citizens Merry Christmas. Mr. el-Sissi is an observant, pious Muslim so his words and his actions should carry some weight and offer us some hope.
Mr. el-Sissi has governed autocratically, but on this question he has been forward leaning. There is something for us both to learn and support here. He thinks there is an issue within his religion.
Why would we argue?
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.