Like many people, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in the wake of the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo. One thing that I’ve noticed is that self-identified progressives seem to be at a loss about how the West should address radical Islam.
On one side we have those who basically say that radical Islam is the fault of centuries of colonialism and imperialism. While I would agree with that assessment to some degree, we can’t go back in time to stop the “Scramble for Africa” or any of the other disgraceful acts committed in the name of colonialism. Bringing up the colonial past may provide a useful context to how we got to where we are today, but it doesn’t provide us any information about what we should do about radical Islam in 2015. Besides, Western colonialism/imperialism doesn’t explain the rise of Wahhabism in eighteen century Arabia or how this particular interpretation of Islam became the normative form of the religion for many believers (I think the answer lies in our fair weather friends in the House of Saud and their petrodollars, but that’s a story for another post).
I think that part of the reluctance among some progressives to criticize radical Islam (other than a reflexive desire to identify with what they perceive to be the underdog or to not ape conservative Islamophobia) has to do with the fact that it has replaced revolutionary socialism as the primary anti-imperialist (and anti-capitalist to some extent) ideology of our time. It becomes a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend; if radical Islam professes to be against Western hegemony, imperialism, and exploitation, then perhaps it’s not that bad. Perhaps the most high-profile adherent to this school of thought was French philosopher Michel Foucault, who was seduced by the anti-capitalist and anti-imperial possibilities of the Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini, despite living a lifestyle that would get him flogged or executed if he actually had to live in Iran.
However, in addition to being anti-West and anti-imperialist, radical Islam is also misogynist, anti-LGBT, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic. In other words, its values are completely antithetical to those that any progressive worth his or her salt should espouse. To use another example, Catholic social teaching is pretty anti-capitalist as well, but few secular progressives would consider Pat Buchanan-style paleo-conservatives, distributists, or Catholic integralists to be their allies, because they know that the ideology behind the anti-capitalism is rotten. If we would not accept this kind of thinking in our Christian or Jewish allies, why should Islam be exempt?
Then on the other side, we have people like Sam Harris and Bill Mahrer who single out Islam for particular censure and believe that it must be fought in the same way we fought the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I can appreciate the uncompromising commitment of such people to Enlightenment values, but I don’t think that we can fight against a supernaturally based religion in the same way that we did against the political religion of communism. While Soviet-style communism had many of the characteristics of a religion, it also claimed that it could provide greater material comforts than American-style capitalism. When the Soviet regime failed to live up to its promises, disillusionment set in. However, radical Islam does not pretend that its followers will lead healthier, more prosperous lives. Instead, it trucks in moral superiority, the knowledge that the people of the ummah are a purer, more wholesome community than those unfortunate kuffars (you can see the same dynamics at work in other religions). The people behind the Iron Curtain were intrigued by American music, jeans, and cars, whereas radical Islamists claim that there is nothing in Western culture that interests them. Given this, it is unlikely that American soft power will influence “hearts and minds” in the same way that it did during the Cold War.
If soft power isn’t the answer, hard power seems to have been even less successful. Since the beginning of the “War on Terror” in 2001, the United States and its various allies have been bombing, nation-building, drone strikes, and secret prisons, and it hasn’t slowed down the march of radical Islam. If anything, our meddling in the region has made things worse, whether the torture in Abu Ghraib or the complete and utter mismanagement of formerly secular Iraq, which created a vacuum that radical Islamicists were more than happy to fill. Exercising hard power may make us feel like we’re “sticking it to the terrorists,” but it’s not reducing the number of recruits to radical Islam.
So what should be done, then? I have no idea. If I did, I’d be running the State Department, or at the very least getting some papers published in Foreign Affairs. Given that the terrorists involved in the Charlie Hebdo killings were radicalized in prison, it would behoove the various governments of Europe to increase economic opportunities and find ways to integrate the dispossessed into mainstream society (of course, it’s difficult for white Europeans to find jobs these days too, which is why we see a rise in right-wing populism). Perhaps the people of the Islamic world will have to live for several centuries under a “caliphate” before they finally get sick of it and demand a secular democracy, much like their peers in the Catholic world once did, but we in the West can’t wait for two hundred years.