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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 competitor, Ted Cruz, differentiated themselves from other Republicans by arguing for less involvement in the Middle East, not more. Democrat Hillary Clinton is probably more hawkish by nature, but she, too, has shied away from calling for a sizable American combat force on the ground in Iraq. Whether the U.S. air and drone campaign against ISIS waxes or wanes under the new president, the basic parameters of current U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy will likely go unchanged. There will be no D-Day in Syria.
And in any case, ISIS’ defeat would only bring a temporary respite. A decade ago, Sunni radicals were pledging allegiance to al Qaeda; a decade from now, they might well be doing the same to ISIS’ successor. The genesis of ISIS, like al Qaeda before it, lies in the broader phenomenon of radical Sunni norms in the Middle East. These are primarily the legacy of the Grand Mosque takeover and Saudi Arabia’s reaction to it.
These norms hinder the functional cooperation on terrorism with America’s allies. For example, Pakistan’s politicians are fully unable to arrest the indicted leaders of radical groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa for fear of public backlash. Saudi and Emirati authorities cannot prevent millions of dollars from going to radical groups throughout the Middle East, because radical norms have filtered down to the people. According to a Pew Research Center Poll in 2013, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 62 percent of Pakistani Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy. A 2016 poll suggested that over half of British Muslims believed that homosexuality should be illegal. Of course, that is only a snapshot, not necessarily representative of the broader Islamic community, but it is troubling for the populations of three U.S. allies.
Surely there is some link between Orlando shooter Omar Mateen’s attack on a gay club and the Middle East’s illiberal civil laws, including prohibitions on blasphemy and sodomy. Surely there is some link between those laws and Pakistan’s support for Islamist militancy. Surely there is a basic societal worldview that encapsulates all three, and surely it is not particularly uncommon. Not the majority view, maybe, but not uncommon. Even the most pluralistic, peaceful, successful states such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates contribute thousands of fighters to ISIS and raise money for the Taliban.
U.S. foreign policy must address such norms in order for Sunni Islamic terrorism to end. They may seem tangential to the fundamental interests of U.S. foreign policy, and are difficult to change, but the United States should insist. If Saudi Arabia institutionalizes freedom of worship, for example, it could have a trickle-down effect. If Pakistan’s military and intelligence services stopped supporting violently anti-U.S. and anti-Indian press outlets, eventually those stridently sectarian voices would become less influential in the national narrative and worldviews of aspiring lone wolves. Over time, changing such basic social norms would likely produce fewer Islamist radicals, not more.
None of this would be easy. But both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are in extremely vulnerable positions right now. As a result of the Iranian nuclear deal and war against ISIS, Saudi Arabia is more isolated than at any point in its history—for the first time ever, it is without a great power sponsor. Similarly, the drawdown of the United States’ war in Afghanistan means that the United States has less reason to ignore Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation and shell games with the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups. Both might be willing to negotiate.
On the other hand, they might not. Isolated, they might find vindication in the Islamists’ critique of the West and slip deeper into their radicals’ worldview. Even so, there would be some reason for hope. Most Islamist governments can’t function. The best weapon the United States has in Afghanistan is that Afghans experienced the Taliban and did not like the group. And it is telling that the most pro-American populace in the Middle East besides Israel is Shia Iran, where the Islamist government has made itself impoverished and unpopular.
It is important to note that Iran has also supported Islamist terrorism, but did so directly, in support of immediate geopolitical goals. Its Revolutionary Guards were effective mobilizers of Shia communities in places like Lebanon, but because it was a direct state action, Iran was able to keep a tighter rein on its clients’ actions and evolutions. And there were also consequences to that directness. When Iran foundered, whether economically or militarily, its foreign and domestic policies were there to be blamed.
Unfortunately, there is no qualitative solution to radical Sunni terrorism. There is no way to categorically eliminate the source. Thirty-five years after the genesis of modern Islamic radicalism, many of its tenets have taken deep root. There is only the hope that the frenetic energy of Sunni extremists will make so many enemies that they will eventually exhaust themselves, and after enough Talibans and Islamic States, the age of terrorism will be over. The radicals will dwindle to a point where communist and fascist radicals are now: a discredited voice in the wilderness. In the meantime, America must protect itself, and be vigilant.