When Civil Wars Converge

Printer Friendly
Short URL:  goo.gl/oLFKj2

"There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America."
Patrick J. Buchanan
Address to the Republican National Convention
August 17, 1992
236 days after the collapse of the USSR and
536 days after the end of the Persian Gulf War

More than a few leading Western figures, elected officials and public intellectuals alike, have declared the January 15 Islamist extremist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, a new chapter in the jihadist terrorist threat. The daytime attack on defenseless journalists on the streets of Paris was incontestably barbarous. Nevertheless, coming shortly after the videotaped beheadings of Westerners in fall 2014, and almost thirteen years after the first net broadcast of a decapitation, jihadi depravity should cease to shock. (Cruelly and mercifully, it does not). Nevertheless, the Charlie Hebdo attack is not a new phase in that the jihadists’ bloodthirstiness has deepened or their tactics have changed.

Charlie Hebdo marks a new phase because the act demonstrates they do not “hate us,” but that they simply know its enemy better than the enemy knows them. The debate on how to confront the menace invariably asserts the prospects for peace are limited because the jihadist assault reflects a broader civil war underway within the civilization of Islam and only the honorable defenders of the faith can ultimately cleanse their religion of this malignancy. An Islamic civil war may or may not be underway, but if put on the couch, the West might be guilty of projection, refusing to acknowledge the civil war simmering within itself. Discord within the West is increasingly evident and no moment in a war is more perilous than when the enemy has finally discovered its adversary’s weakness and the adversary has not.

Islam’s Civil War

The depiction of an Islamic civil war concerns the rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism in the modern era. The schism between the Sunni and Shia branches dates back to Islam’s founding in the seventh century, but the extant political circumstances affecting international security are traceable to events in this century.

In broad strokes, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the retreat of European imperialism produced the collection of regimes across North Africa and Southwest Asia now serving as ground zero for the turbulence raging within Islam.

The bonds of a shared Arab history and the promise of a pan-Arab future united the region briefly but, the structures and secularism inherited from former colonial powers and new Cold War patrons proved incompatible with publics still given to tribal allegiances and religious pieties.

In 1979, three events signalled the impending end of this brief chapter in Islam’s history. In Iran, Shia fundamentalists under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established an Islamic republic guided by the clerisy. In Saudi Arabia, religious fanatics seized the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, seeking the overthrow of the ruling Saud dynasty and the founding of an Islamic theocracy. Lastly, in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union invaded in a bid to secure a communist regime struggling to remain in power.

By 1999, the Shia fundamentalist republic in Iran had consolidated its position and began a bid for regional hegemony. The Saud dynasty survived the seizure and responded by sponsoring extremist Sunni Islamism abroad, planting seeds across the region, none more so consequently than in Afghanistan. The Afghan jihad succeeded not only in evicting the Soviet invaders but also in triggering, in part, the superpower’s ultimate collapse. The insurgency fragmented in the aftermath and ultimately yielded to the Taliban, a movement that adhered to the Saudi brand of strict Sunni fundamentalism and the imposition of Islamic law.

While Shia and Sunni fundamentalism had captured only two states, Iran and Afghanistan, their existence galvanized pockets of religiously motivated opposition across the region, discontent which the respective leaderships would encourage overtly and covertly.

In the latter, the presiding Taliban would also permit Al Qaeda to undertaken its terrorist operations against the United States, culminating in the attacks on September 11, 2001.

America would retaliate immediately by overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and attempting to change the regional geopolitical calculus by establishing a democratic republic in Iraq. Previously a country governed by a ruthless secular dictatorship helmed by an elite drawn from the Sunni minority, Iraq ended up in the hands of a Shia sectarian political party friendly with Iran. The sudden upheaval left the country vulnerable to the opportunism of Sunni and Shia fundamentalists, including Al Qaeda infiltrators and Iranian operatives.

As noted previously, the ensuing civil war became a proxy battleground for external powers and movements, akin to the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. Moreover, a smoldering cold war began heating up in Iraq between sides supported by Shiite Persian Iran and Sunni Arab powers, led by Saudi Arabia, which funneled resources and fighters into the country.

The United States has since withdrawn its forces, but this conflict endures and exemplifies the civil war in its bloodiest form. Within Iraq and elsewhere, Shia and Sunni fundamentalism contend with each other (and more secular camps) for supremacy and the voices for an alternative future within their respective branches are virtually nonexistent.

The uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011 offered a glimmer of hope, but they heralded not 1989, but 1848 -- not the advent of a possible modern liberal Islam, but the constancy of power and tradition.

Superseding the Spanish Civil War analogy, one former American diplomat has likened the conflict to the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe in the seventeenth century.

As recommended previously, the lessons of the Thirty Years War demonstrate the proper course is to conserve power, send money and materiel before men, employ surrogates and proxies wherever and whenever possible, and exercise force only when necessary.

Lamentably, however, the West has no faction it can support. The belligerents are equally odious and the representatives of an honorable Islam are either tentative or powerless.

Jihadists have commandeered the inter-civilizational discourse and, as repeated terrorist attacks have shown, they want to ensnare the West in the middle, remembering the outcome and Afghan jihad, but that, more importantly, knowing violence only strengthens the radicals and undermines any would be peacemakers.

And this knowledge, in combination with events since the economic crisis of 2008, is what has alerted jihadists to the civil war latent in the West and prompted their shift in targets.

The West’s Civil War

When Al Qaeda conceived of the operation that unfolded on September 11, 2001, the targets were clear from the outset -- the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the White House. Each and every one a symbol of American global power.

Successive attacks in America and the West may have been lesser in scale and symbolism, but they have also rarely deviated from targeting common citizens. The political and economic elite are always under threat, but rarely have their representatives or even its sphere been a target.

Until now.

Charlie Hebdo was a peripheral publication, numbering only 60,000 in typical production runs. But this time the jihadists had murdered journalists; more pointedly, their targets were publishers of satire and irreverence, members of the patrician elite whose milieu is the community of cosmopolitan “global citizens” who fashion themselves the vanguard of a progressive future.

After the September 11 attacks, America embarked on a war against terrorism, but many European leaders and members of the elite declined to stand with America unconditionally, deeming the offensive regressive.

Thirteen years (and numerous attacks) later, it took the Charlie Hebdo murders to finally stir European elites to the evil of terrorism and inspire them to finally walk arm-in-arm against it.

Except it is too late.

In striking an individual who wielded a pen and not a sword, the jihadists wagered the people would rally around the flag but that such unity would also be fleeting -- and illusory.

Indeed, only a few days had to pass to confirm this wager. In one major media venue after another, the immediate analysis lamented not the grotesque specter of jihadism, but the manner in which right-wing political parties would be beneficiaries at the ballot box.

In murdering the defiant voice of “left-wing pluralism,” jihadists shrewdly recognized the disconnect between patrician elites and their plebeian publics.

Prior to Charlie Hebdo, European leaders and elites were content to let their cowboy American cousins embark on another foolhardy crusade while proceeding with their continental integration project, despite its structural defects and the objections of an increasingly restless opposition. After Charlie Hebdo, the European elites somberly denounced jihadism, but the reality was horror at the murder of their fellow patricians.

Superficially, the jihadists had attacked the inalienable right to the freedom of expression, but they knew more than a few patricians shared Charlie Hebdo’s readiness to castigate religion in general.

In truth, patrician elites share the publication’s contempt of those who remain committed to faith and the continued evisceration of religion is integral to their ambitions. (It is no wonder, in the end, that the global patrician elite cannot imagine how or why anyone will “cling to their guns and religion,” when they too have already turned on their homeland’s heritage and shared values.)

The patrician elite and plebeian public came together, but for different reasons.

The patrician elite marched to defend their right to blaspheme; the public marched to denounce Islamic extremism.

If elites were genuine in their declaration of solidarity with their publics, they would heed their calls for stricter immigration and decelerated integration.

However, calling for such remedies is condemned as xenophobia and racism.

Ultimately, the patrician elite’s gesture was hypocritical, because the patrician remedy for jihadism is the mandating of tolerance, empathy, and multiculturalism.

Ostensibly, European elites have turned on the last. In October 2010, the German chancellor declared multiculturalism had “utterly failed.” Four months later, the British prime minister similarly declared multiculturalism a failure. The subtext, however, was the failure of the respective publics.

In Germany, the chancellor asserted it was incumbent upon the citizenry to ensure the country did not give the “impression to the outside world that those who don't speak German immediately or who were not raised speaking German are not welcome here.” In the United Kingdom, the prime minister assigned the blame for its failure on fellow Britons -- “We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.”

Their answer to Charlie Hebdo?

One week after the terrorist attack in Paris, the German chancellor vowed to combat intolerance in response to anti-Islam and anti-immigration marches. For his part, the British prime minister argued the tragedy justified the expansion of controversial surveillance programs, even though the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators had been under the scrutiny of French security services at one time.

The manifestation of increasing political polarization and a widening gulf between the patrician elites and plebeian publics is unsurprising.

In May 2o14 European Parliament elections, Euro-skeptic and anti-immigration parties surged to historic highs. In France and the United Kingdom, anti-union and anti-immigration movements took a quarter of the popular vote, ahead of the ruling parties.

In country after country, public disenchantment with incumbent political parties and institutions is cresting. According to one analysis, the proportion of the public that trusted the European Union, as high as 52 percent in 2007, has declined to one-third. Tellingly, the largest declines coincided with the countries that have been publicly grouped (and disparaged for years) as the PIIGS by the European elite. (The analysis did not include Portugal.)


If Greece exits the euro and the European Central Bank insists on proceeding with massive quantitative easing -- while refusing to address the anti-immigration discontent rippling throughout the continent -- then the European integration project will be fatally impaired, foolishly jeopardizing the civic enthusiasm that sustained European solidarity for the sake of an ill-fated monetary union and an impractical leviathan.


As argued earlier, decline and the ruin of nations is the not the consequence of imperial overreach, but altruistic overstretch -- ambitions in excess of the country’s capacity to uphold. Throughout history, elites have conceived of entitlements, empires (the Islamic caliphate in the jihadists’ case), or even evolutionary advances (a post-modern man free of religion in the instance of contemporary elites) only to invite calamity upon their publics.

The difference is the former possesses faith and, because of it, will pick up a sword; the latter, thoroughly debellicized, possesses neither faith nor a sword.

Nor is America immune from impending discord.

While the United States certainly wields a mighty sword, its endurance is in doubt.

As in Europe, a small but vocal opposition to immigration and the dismantling of tradition has emerged. As in Europe, these opponents are condemned as xenophobic and racist.

As in Europe, the incumbent leader is a post-modern citizen of the world. His autobiographies and exceptional speeches precluded a serious examination of his relationships with an unrepentant former domestic terrorist and an anti-American pastor. His principal achievement has been establishing government writ over one-seventh of the nation’s economy. His administration has been undeterred from harassing opposition groups and exposed as downright disdainful of the “stupid American voter.” He has been rebuked at the polls in successive congressional elections and his response has been to threaten executive fiat.

Facing the same threat as his European counterparts, his decision has been to banish “Islamic extremism” from the discourse of national security while enthusiastically encouraging immigration, both legal and illegal.

His goal, of course, is no less than the “fundamental transformation” of the country.

In the wake of the Persian Gulf War victory and the end of the Cold War, America was secure and poised for a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. America was on the precipice of becoming a “normal” country.

The designs of Islamist extremists derailed that future; how long before they return to America, exploiting the same vulnerability by which they are destabilizing Europe?


While publics are marched into tragic wars against each other, the common decency within them can and has broached civilizational divides and made them brothers before any ambition of united nations or a restored ummah has ever come close to succeeding.

When Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell met Afghan villager Mohammad Gulab, no one could have predicted that the two men would become “brothers in blood.”
CBS News: How an Afghan and a Navy SEAL became "brothers"

No comments: