How Islamist Radicalism Ends

Ideology and Foreign Policy

Flags at the Washington Monument fly at half staff to honor those killed in last weekend's shootings at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, in Washington, DC, June 13, 2016. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The murder of 49 people in Orlando on Sunday was unprecedented in scale, but it otherwise followed a very familiar script. The condolences. The calls for tolerance. And, as always, a key question quickly became a political football: What should the United States do? And that question is, itself, part of an even larger puzzle: How does this end?

Islamist terrorism is not a constant. The threat of violent Sunni Islamism was essentially nonexistent until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution and Afghan jihad became symbols of the potential power of political Islam. After Sunni gunmen took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and demanded the overthrow of the monarchy, Saudi Arabia poured money into Islamist charities, schools, and religious foundations to bolster the monarchy’s religious credentials. Radicalism began to take root. A few years later, after the Gulf War, modern al Qaeda was born, its members already with a Soviet scalp on their belt. The United States, as the guarantor of regimes throughout the Middle East, absorbed its fire. Because few of those states functioned, and since none were free, the Islamists’ critique found fertile ground. And on the fringes came the militants.

It is hard to defeat an ideology. The allure of fascism lasted until Nazi Germany’s crushing military defeat in World War II and the revelation of its crimes. Communism’s defeat was different, and not quite so comprehensive. It came after decades of containment, when its internal failings rendered the system unsustainable. With their symbols shredded and their resources exhausted, communism and fascism lost their appeal.The Orlando killer, in phone calls with the FBI, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), which is only the most modern symbol of Sunni Islamic extremism. It must be destroyed, but unlike during WWII, the United States today is on a budget. Whatever their rhetoric, none of the finalists in the 2016 presidential race have called for a major American invasion of ISIS lands. Both Donald Trump and his most successful primary

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