In the last two months there have been over 75 attacks by various jihadist groups in at least 21 countries: this is a rate of one-and-a-half attacks per day. These acts have left over 1,169 dead, and many more injured and maimed. The countries and territories attacked include Jordan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, France, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Malaysia, Turkey, Mali, Palestine, Cameroon, Saudi, Thailand, and Germany. Sixteen of those are Muslim-majority territories.
In Turkey on July 15-16 a military coup was suppressed, and the broad governmental clamp down that followed has resulted in the detention of over 15,000 people, including more than 8,000 formally arrested pending trial. Teachers, lawyers, and police have been dismissed from their jobs in large numbers, and many have had the qualifications on which their livelihood is based revoked. The list of closed independent media outlets and arrested journalists grows daily. The focus of the clamp down, as identified by Turkish President Erdogan, is the cleric Fetulah Gulen and the Hizmet (service) movement which follows his teachings. Tens of thousands of individuals believed to have links to this movement have been suspended or placed under investigation. And the Turkish government is entering extradition proceedings for Fetulah Gulen, who lives in Pensylvania.
This week’s post takes a look at the explosion of Islamist terrorism around the globe and considers how we should respond. It also takes a look at Fetulah Gulen and the Hizmet movement as an example of moderate, and even compassionate Islam, and concludes that it is precisely by supporting such interpretations of Islam and their followers that the forces of terrorism can ultimately be subdued.
What Does ISIS Want?
The Islamic State, ISIS, is not seeking a World War, but rather is striving to ignite a World Civil War. It does not want a war between states, but perpetual civil war as a context for building a new world order. And the ideology it offers its recruits transports them out of their ordinary lives – circumstances sometimes of poverty, but equally often of mundane evenings at the local chippie, or watching the football game – into the incredibly meaning-rich environment of an apocalyptic battle clothed in medieval language and culture.
These are perhaps bold words, but they draw from a growing body of literature about what ISIS really wants and how it is going about it, including articles by ISIS itself and texts it follows in jihadist war theory. If you care about this topic (which you should: it is one of the most important and powerful movements in the world today), you should explore and read broadly about it. A couple of particularly good articles you might consider are:
- What ISIS Really Wants;
- ISIS Wants a Global Civil War;
- The Islamic State Magazine;
- Interview with Graeme Wood (who wrote the article in The Atlantic listed above).
The link provided to the Islamic State magazine takes you to lengthy and heavy-to-read text, but it is closest to the root theology, and is a particularly rewarding read. In particular take a look at the article on pages 30-33, titled, “Why We Hate You And Why We Fight You”. It follows jihadist war theory as first published in a book on the subject which appeared online around 2004 and was attributed to an ideologue who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Naji. Naji instructed followers to incite ethnic, sectarian, and religious hatred throughout the world so that societies end up dividing along mutual mistrust and a desire for revenge. Naji’s hope was that Sunni Muslims would then largely be blamed—as they now are—as the cause of this intolerance and violence, rendering them hated and left isolated. Naji even highlights the importance of provoking heavy state military responses against Sunni Muslims everywhere, so that entire populations of Sunnis feel suspected and attacked by everyone else around them, and turn in on themselves. The idea is that through such division Sunnis would find no refuge from angry non-Muslims and over-reacting states, except in jihadists who would embrace them. In turn, Sunnis would end up swelling the ranks of jihadists’ militias as they began to protect themselves against reprisal attacks.
It is interesting to note the importance of attribution in the work of ISIS. For example Mateen, who was responsible for 49 deaths at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, had little or no direct contact from ISIS before he acted, and there is no indication he received direct orders. However in the public mind he is seen as an arm of ISIS. Conversely ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack on the Istanbul airport, which many see as part of a delicate dance with Erdogan, who has permitted Turkey to act as a de facto enabler and even supporter of Islamist terrorism. An unattributed act of terror serves to warn him of the power and influence of ISIS without putting him in conflict with it. The genius of a terrorist movement in general and ISIS in particular is that it is not limited to or constrained by its direct hierarchy, but can pick and choose with whom, among those who identify with their ideas, they wish to identify. It is not fighting a war so much as inciting civil war, and as such it plays by different rules.
Turkey and Erdogan; Gulen and Hizmet
Let’s step aside from the discussion of ISIS and terrorism to look at the situation in Turkey for a moment.
I have the privilege and pleasure over the last several years to have worked with and become close friends with members of the Hizmet movement. Most are Turkish nationals, and as I have gotten to know them, I have also developed an affinity and affection for Turkey and developed a familiarity with its domestic politics. As such I grieve for my friends, for their families, and for their country.
On the international stage Fetulah Gulen is currently a controversial figure. I encourage you to read up on him and especially his teachings and work, and in each case to pay close attention to the affinities and affiliations of the writers. I think your findings will align closely with my own experiences, which is that he is a Sufi teacher who teaches of life and society based on love, understanding, peace and compassion. His methodology or theory to achieve this is founded on three basic principles:
- Alleviation of poverty: if people’s stomachs are empty they are not able to care for themselves, let alone for others. If people are sick or homeless they cannot help themselves let alone others. The baseline for a compassionate world, and for a population which can create a compassionate world, is the alleviation of poverty;
- Education: the key to understanding the world is education, and in a knowledge-based world, the key to engagement and personal as well as societal advancement is education. And this is education of a broad secular kind;
- Dialog: people need to be in conversation to understand each other; and as people come to know each other, they move through tolerance to caring and to sharing. Conversely if people do not understand each other they will build walls, and may eventually resort to fighting and killing.
The principles are simple, and the movement that exists to support them has raised significant resources to live and enact them. To alleviate poverty disaster relief organizations, hospitals and other institutions have been built around the globe; for educational purposes approximately 1,000 private, secular schools have been built in Turkey and a similar number in the rest of the world; and the mission of dialog is engaged every day in interfaith events, trips, and other engagements, and by media channels that have sprung up.
Thousands of individuals around the globe are working in the institutions built by organizations founded on Hizmet principles. Many of these people are Turkish, and many are Muslim, but all are making personal sacrifices of income, career, and quality of life to support the mission. And all are manifesting the principles of the movement in their lives. All are grieving right now as their friends and families in Turkey are persecuted; as anyone who owns a book by Gulen or by his teacher, Nursi, is a target of the government; as businesses owned by their friends are foreclosed on and successful, popular, and secular schools, hospitals and media are closed.
Hizmet is one of a number of beacons of hope that Islam, which on current trends will soon become the largest faith group in the world, can be a force for great good. As always I encourage you not to take anything on trust, but to research Hizmet, as well as other groups who do profound good, such as the Aga Kahn Foundation of Ismaeli Islam which works on a global scale, and many groups out of your own local mosques which engage in local issues such as homelessness, hunger, poverty and disease. And I encourage you to support and promote those which you like!
What to Do
In his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, ” …the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” So it is with ISIS, with terrorism, and with the prominence of radical Islam. And as FDR continued, ” In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” Once again this understanding and support of the people is the key.
Here’s what that means today:
- Understand what ISIS wants. If this article serves no other purpose but to cause you to reflect that we are giving ISIS exactly what they want, then it has been worthwhile! Looking closely at the ideology and objectives of this organization and movement is a key to defeating it.
- Don’t give in to terrorism. This is a natural corollary of the previous point….
- Hold true to your principles. Yes, society should seek out and hold accountable the operatives who perpetrate terrorism. If necessary they should be killed. But above all they should be fought in a manner that holds true to the principles which bind us, principles of justice and fairness. If we abandon those principles, we have lost. And if, in order to defeat terrorism, we enact laws that compromise our principles, they are not legitimate laws and we have lost. It is in this wise that I wrote last week about the principles of a free press and strong editorial content. (Lessons From India: Editorial Quality And Freedom Of The Press);
- Recognize the diversity of Islam and support moderate and compassionate Islam. On the one hand it is easy to tar all Muslims with the same brush and see them as terrorists; and on the other it is equally easy to whitewash Islam and say that ISIS and Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with the faith. As is generally the case with polarized opinions, neither statement is completely correct. In this case, on the first hand the vast, vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and are the direct and indirect victims of Islamist terrorism; and on the second hand, ISIS ideology is drawn directly from the Qur’an, albeit a limited and narrow interpretation. This last point is especially important, both because religious ideology is especially difficult to fight, and also because Muslim moderates and sympathizers need to recognize that their religion is being hijacked from inside and that they need to fight this ideology. As Graeme Wood says, ” Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”
This is a global war of attrition, and it will run its course over years. It will present us with dark and horrible times, but it will also offer us clear choices. Yes, we must defend ourselves and kill the operatives who would kill us, but we must act within the bounds of our principles of justice and fairness. We must resist the temptation to compromise those principles. And above all we must resist absolutely and unequivocally the strategy of using terror to divide and demoralize.
Previous Blog Posts
I have previously written on this and related topics in the following posts: