WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2015 – “We are at war with Islam,” some say, demanding a counter-jihad that includes rounding up all American Muslims and a military crusade against the entire Islamic world.
“Islam is a religion of peace,” others protest, denouncing critics of Islamist terrorism as “Islamophobes” while inviting thousands of unvetted Muslims, terrorists included, into the U.S.
Both positions are dangerously false.
We are at war, but not with Islam per se. Our enemy is a totalitarian ideology that blesses force to extend its caliphate over the entire world. The Islamic realm, a place that has rarely known peace, is now in a state of raging civil war, pitting Shiite Iran against Sunni Arab states, ISIS against traditional Arab regimes, absolutists against moderates and atavists against modernists.
Curiously, the Islamic Civil War—a crucial inflection point in the history of Islam and of the world—presents the U.S. with both crisis and opportunity.
The crisis is self-evident.
Radical Islam is an existential threat. It would destroy Western civilization, seize our lands, and convert or kill our people. Only the oblivious do not see that ISIS will sever heads, sell women into rape slavery, and unleash seventh-century barbarism wherever it prevails. ISIS is drawing adherents from all corners of the earth, and it has opened a front on our soil. All of this is obvious except to the willfully blind–or to enemy sympathizers and subversives.
And Iran’s threats to annihilate Israel and its chants of “Death to America” are not idle.
The opportunity is harder to discern. But it is present. There is a side whose victory would be a blessing for the U.S and the West. We must ally with that side, join its fight and ensure its victory as the basis of our policy towards ISIS and Islam more broadly.
Yet before intervening in the Islamic Civil War, and with the lessons of our intervention in the Vietnamese civil war in mind, we must first understand the four possibilities for governing the broad swath of the globe in which Islam has taken root. It is necessary to understand what each side in the Islamic Civil War intends and to decide which of the two opponents is in our best interest to champion.
- Secular authoritarianism has been all but evicted from the region by deliberate fiat of the Obama administration together with radical Islamists. Mubarak, Qaddhafi and the leaders of Yemen and Tunisia were forced from power with U.S. collaboration; Syria’s Assad hangs by a thread. The merits of these ousters continue to be debated. Chaos and bloodshed rather than democracy, liberty and rule of law have followed the demise of these dictators. Yet few in the region call for the return of Arab strongmen even if they did keep imprisoned Islamist radicals out of circulation.
- Islamist totalitarianism is the governing philosophy of contemporary Iran and of ISIS. It tolerates no dissent from its radical interpretations and utterly rejects coexistence. It annihilates apostates, heretics and dissenters, murders gays, crucifies Christians, kills raped daughters to preserve “family honor,” and glorifies toddlers stabbing Jews. It is incommensurable with Western Civilization. It must be eradicated.
- Secular constitutionalism was motivated by the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. The notion that citizens of a multiethnic state in the heart of the Islamic world would welcome liberation from secular autocratic Saddam Hussein was not as far-fetched as the idea that Sunnis would embrace permanent minority status under a Shia-led democracy. Hindsight has proven how foolish it was to hope that the rule of law and the paper protections for life, liberty and property without regard to sect or creed that the secular Iraqi constitution guaranteed in theory would adequately compensate Sunni or Kurdish minorities for their diminished status in Shiite Iraq or protect them against Shiite retribution for Saddam’s abuses in practice. This is true because in Iraq and the Islamic world the history of secular governance is one in which power is exercised to reward tribal, ethnic and creedal affiliations. Religion, as a source of faith, a way of life, and a basis for governing matters in politics. Secular constitutionalism is distasteful to many Muslims in post-autocratic, pluralist states.
- Islamic constitutionalism alone counters radical Islam and lights a pathway to peaceful coexistence. The Gulf Arab States — Egypt, Jordan and pre-Erdogan Turkey — managed to evolve a formula that weaves together strands of Sunni Islamic culture, faith, and law, traditional institutions of Arab governance and aspects of the rational British administrative state to create stable, legitimate regimes that govern Islamically but rather lightly, meet public needs and encourage commercial engagement and collective security with the West.
The best exemplar of Islamic constitutionalism is the United Arab Emirates, a nation of desert tribes who subsisted by seasonal pearl diving a mere half-century ago but now boast one of the highest global standards of living, outstanding medical care, a safe and cohesive society and the breathtaking metropolises of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Although the UAE constitution establishes Sunni Islam as the state religion, the call to prayer sounds five times daily and courts apply Sharia law, the non-Muslim majority is left unmolested to live and work in freedom and safety, drink champagne, attend Formula One races and Western music concerts, even celebrate Christmas.
While UAE officials maintain a vigilant internal security apparatus against Islamist totalitarians like ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iranian covert operatives, Westerners are welcomed guests who participate almost fully in national life.
The country, modern, efficient, clean, prosperous and Islamic, earns its reputation as the Switzerland of the Middle East. Somehow, it reveres and celebrates its Islamic history while pressing innovation further and faster than any other nation while remaining inclusive.
And because of all this, it is a prime target of Iran, ISIS and other Islamist totalitarians.
In sum, the Islamic Civil War is being fought to determine whether Islamic constitutionalism or Islamic totalitarianism will govern the Islamic world. The West desperately needs Islamic constitutionalism and its prescription for peace with the West to prevail over Islamic totalitarianism and its call to global jihad.
However, the Obama administration has grabbed every opportunity to reinforce Islamic totalitarianism. In North Africa and the Middle East, it has evicted secular authoritarian allies, withdrawn stabilizing U.S. forces, and run guns and money to ISIS. It has paved a path to a nuclear Iran and given that totalitarian regime $150 billion to fund terrorism.
Domestically, it cozies up to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)—a group deemed a terrorist organization by the UAE and other Islamic constitutionalist states that for generations have formed the nucleus of American counter-Iranian strategy.
During my years in the UAE, where I was seconded from the National Defense University to teach strategy and national security to senior military and civilian government officials at the UAE National Defense College, my students’ profound dismay, shock, and anger as the U.S. slouched toward its shameful deal with Iran was palpable.
Those students itched to fight ISIS, deter Iran, and remain allied with the U.S. They feel betrayed and abandoned by the U.S. failure to lead and the U.S capitulation to Iran. Now, the UAE and other Gulf States feel compelled to respond to the U.S. decision to support Islamic totalitarianism with counter-measures of collective security, including the development of their own nuclear deterrent and the search for more trustworthy allies such as Russia, China, and even Israel.
Islam is not the only faith to suffer civil war.
In 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia, Christendom chose to exclude religion as a source of conflict, and in so doing Christian princes withdrew a particularly terrible and bloody variable from international relations. Save for skirmishing in Northern Ireland, the scourge of Christian religious war has spared their nations and the world ever since.
Yet the Islamic Civil War is raging and has involved the West for at least the last 36 years, when Islamic totalitarians captured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Every Islamist totalitarian attack since then, including 9/11, the attacks in Paris, and the recent San Bernardino shootings, is an emanation of a globalized Islamic Civil War.
We did not start this war, but we must finish it, or Islamic totalitarianism will prevail across the entire Islamic world and we will face an existential battle between the West and Islam orders of magnitude more costly and bloody than the battle we can join and win right now.
Opportunity knocks. We must avoid the mistake of declaring war against the Islamic faith. We are not at war with the entire Islamic world now—but, if we continue to choose poorly, we may be. We must cease backing Islamic totalitarians, directly through bad deals and bad leadership or tacitly through inaction against ISIS. And we must change sides in the Islamic Civil War, and battle with all instruments of power—including ground forces—on behalf of Islamic constitutionalists.
Only by leading a coalition of Islamic constitutionalist states to victory in the Islamic Civil War can we eradicate Islamic totalitarianism, negotiate coexistence with a well-governed Islamic world, end Islamist terror and craft a peaceful, prosperous 21st century.