Ten years after the horrific wounds he inflicted on the American people, Osama bin Laden is dead. His death brings a sense of closure to many eager to see justice served. With the most recognizable jihadist dead and gone, Americans have been prompted to reflect on the decade-long “War on Terror.” In fact, some have declared victory: Peter Bergen, journalist and bin Laden authority, claimed that “killing bin Laden is the end of the war on terror. We can just sort of announce that right now.” President Obama concurred:
By us killing Osama bin Laden, getting al Qaeda back on its heels, stabilizing much of the country in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can’t take it over…. [I]t’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility.
After so many years fighting wars on multiple fronts, many weary Americans have argued that now seems as good a time as any to call it quits. Optimists will point to the absence of attacks by major terrorist organizations on U.S. soil since 9/11, the death of several top al Qaeda leaders, and the decreasing intensity of the Iraqi insurgency (albeit from levels that were best described as an “inferno of terror”) following the recent troop “surge.” Viewing bin Laden’s demise as a turning point, it seems plausible that, as President Obama has claimed, “we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission” in our war against the jihadists. With plans moving forward to reduce the number of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, some officials have argued that we’ve eliminated the most pertinent threats to America.
Yet for many, this declaration of victory rings hollow. It certainly lacks the resonance of the surrender of Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, and events of the last decade clearly show that the threat of attack has not been eliminated. Consider the escalation of jihadist attacks since 2001: an incomplete list includes the 2002 attacks in Bali, in Mumbai in 2003, 2006, 2008 and again in the summer of 2011, in Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005.
Added to those are the “homegrown” terrorists who have recently become major threats. The plans of the “underpants” and Times Square bombers were foiled, but the Fort Hood shooter was notoriously and tragically successful. Self-radicalized individuals are becoming more common, and they are actively looking for ways to harm America. This is not what a victory looks like.
What is it that drives these people to prosecute their jihad or “holy war”? What is the end goal that they hope to bring about with their barbaric tactics? One jihadist currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh summarized his political goals: any law not dictated by Allah is a violation of Islam. What the jihadists want, from their own lips, is to spread a totalitarian Islamic theocracy (sometimes called “Islamism”). Secular laws protecting the rights of free speech, property, and religious worship (or lack thereof) are therefore unacceptable; on the other hand, laws prescribing the stoning of adulterers or banning women from driving are consistent with this legal philosophy. In the last decade, it is shocking how many nations and governments have moved in the latter direction.
One example is the rise of Hamas and the Palestinian opposition movement. Hamas has been classified by many governments as a terrorist organization for its willingness to use suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets. Its charter calls for the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state and the obliteration of Israel. After its 2006 victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, it began to adopt tenets of Islamic law. Palestinian researcher Dr. Kaled Al-Hroub observed that many actions of the new government are alarmingly similar to the totalitarian practices of the Taliban government:
We are talking about a long series of deeds, from the indirect coercion of female students to wear a hijab (without administrative memos or written orders), to the persecution [of girls] in restaurants and cafes, to the ban on smoking hookahs and ‘searches’ for immoral pictures on private computers.
Then there is the rise of Hezbollah, a small Shiite Muslim militia in Lebanon that has grown into a major political power and leads the current ruling coalition. While Hezbollah’s initial goals included the establishment of an Islamic state, they have since limited themselves to the more “modest” goal of destroying Israel. They pursued this goal vehemently through rocket attacks on villages near the border with Israel, which culminated in war in 2006.
Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqi politics has come to be dominated by groups that advocate for an Islamist state. The constitution developed for the new government forbids laws contradicting the teachings of Islam. What this will bring in the short term is unclear, but its logical conclusion is Islamic theocracy.
In Egypt, Yemen and Libya, dictators have been overthrown by popular uprisings, but the only viable political coalitions are dominated by Islamist factions. In all the countries of the “Arab Spring,” popular unrest has drifted towards ever-increasing Islamism. Even Turkey, once the star example of a “moderate” Islamic nation, has begun to strip away the explicitly secular elements of its government. The Arab-Islamic world, for a variety of reasons, has moved ever closer to a community of nations dominated by Islamic law.
While it is true that not all who desire to establish Islamist states advocate violence or terror to do so, it’s also true that the goal of establishing Islamic theocracy is the end result that the jihadists are aiming for. Even if the vast majority of countries that establish Islamist governments never directly attack us, they are—either passively or democratically—going where the jihadists want them to go. If the Middle East becomes a community of Islamist states, they will have far more in common with the most potent threats to America than with America herself.
Consider Iran, the archetypical example of an Islamist government, and a major force motivating those who wish to create their own version of the same. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has consistently and flagrantly committed acts of barbarism against America, and more broadly against all nations and individuals they have identified as infidels. Iran facilitated the 1979 attack on the American embassy and subsequent hostage crisis; they issued a religious “fatwa” commanding loyal Muslims to murder Salman Rushdie for blasphemy; their terrorist proxies killed American troops in their barracks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Iran has continued to make itself an ever more ominous threat to secular nations and their citizens.
Today, Iran’s leaders claim to be major actors in bringing about the apocalyptic events associated with the “12th Imam,” a disturbing thought for a nation that continues to attempt to refine weapons-grade nuclear material. Additionally, recent intelligence reports from Obama’s own Treasury Department provide evidence that Iran continues to funnel money to Al Qaeda (showing that the Islamist vs. Infidel conflict trumps that between Sunnis and Shiites).
Iran offers us a picture of how the issues of terrorism and the spread of Islamist theocracy are inextricably linked. It’s no accident that the exemplar of Islamist government is also the largest supporter of terrorism. For such a country, the secular systems of law in nations like America or Israel are blasphemous. Are we to be surprised at the zeal with which Iran has seized every means within its power to strike at us? It’s entirely consistent with the political goals and ethical code of the Iranian rulers to fund terrorism, pursue and deploy weapons of mass destruction, and destroy the only non-Islamic nation in the Middle East.In just over 30 years since the birth of the Islamic Republic, Iran has become the single largest threat to America; we would do well to be wary of the formation of other such Islamic states in the Middle East. In three decades Iran has: taken Americans hostage, funded organizations that have been in direct armed conflict with the U.S. military, issued death warrants for citizens of Western nations, and openly trumpeted its intentions to
obtain nuclear weapons.
We have responded with a great deal of talk, some minor trade sanctions that accomplish nothing, and the offer of an “open hand,” when President Obama promised, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” The result? Richly deserved scorn. President Ahmadinejad responded: “Resistance will continue until Iran sends its enemies to the morgue…. [The U.S. and Israel] are on the verge of collapse and gasping their last breath.” Why does Iran maintain its belligerence? Because we have shown them that doing so brings no retaliation.
For ten years, America has been engaged in two foreign conflicts, which have mutated into bizarre hybrids of military occupation, nation building, and humanitarian aid. The results of these conflicts and strategies speak for themselves; meanwhile the nation that has made itself into the most serious legitimate threat has openly attacked us, and ridiculed us for our weakness. Is it any wonder that Islamism has
begun to spread throughout the Middle East given that Iran has so successfully defied and attacked the world’s superpower?
What has happened to the few leaders and thinkers who have spoken out against Islamism? In the Netherlands, historically a safe haven for political dissidents, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of Dutch parliament, faced a revocation of her citizenship due to her outspoken opposition to barbaric Islamist practices like honor killings and genital mutilation. After a prolonged legal battle, Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands to live in the United States.
Geert Wilders, another member of the Dutch parliament, recently faced criminal charges of “hate speech” for helping to create a film which discussed the connection between the Koran and violent Islamist practices. Although he was acquitted, his prosecutors made an ominous statement that should make one’s blood run cold: “It is irrelevant whether Wilders’ witness might prove Wilders’ observations correct. What’s relevant is that his observations are illegal.”
If we reach the point where it is illegal to make true observations of practices in the Muslim world and connect them to the motivations of terrorists, then the ideals of free speech and free press are dying. If we are willing to see a man silenced for saying that a culture of Islamic theocracy is not compatible with a government that protects rights, then we will have discarded one of our most cherished ideals in order to appease our enemies.
Why has our response to the threat of Islamism been largely self-destructive? The most fundamental reason we have not defended our interests is because so many in the West have abandoned the conviction that our ideals—liberty, individual rights, and personal self-determination to name a few—are worth defending.
We have to be able to proudly assert that the Constitution of the United States is superior to Sharia Law, that a society where women have the right to become lawyers, doctors, business leaders, or soccer moms is superior to one in which women require a male escort to leave the house, that a society that recognizes the rights of apostates, blasphemers and homosexuals is superior to one in which they are killed by stoning, that freedom is superior to submission, and that reason and trade are superior to faith and violence. We have to grasp that our ideals are the ones that have cultivated human flourishing, and that such flourishing is impossible under Islamist values.
How do we attain victory over the jihadists? We must acknowledge that they are our enemies to the core. They are not misguided idealists who employ violent tactics in pursuit of a worthwhile, peaceful goal. We have to recognize that their means (strapping C-4 to their chests, blowing up subways, and crashing planes into buildings) and their ends (establishing a society ruled by Islamic values and laws) are inextricably linked with one another. A society in which laws are determined by “divine revelation” cannot foster rational disagreement or peaceful conflict resolution. When right and wrong, true and false, legal and illegal are matters understood only by faith, there is only one method to resolve differences: force. Both the means and the ultimate end of establishing Islamic theocracy are anathema to the Enlightenment ideals that have guided Western civilization. To eliminate the jihadist threat, we must oppose not only terrorism and violence, but also Islamic theocracy and Sharia Law.
Undoubtedly we currently face serious and imminent threats. A good start in resisting these threats would be to eliminate the hostile regime in Tehran. Next, we must stop pretending that governments of Islamist nations like Saudi Arabia are our friends, and ensure no aid flows from these nations to our enemies. We must cease our friendly treatment of “allies” like Pakistan who undercut our military efforts. We must acknowledge that when a nation or entire region moves towards Islamism, it becomes more dangerous.
But more importantly, we must re-learn the greatness of the West and the ideals of reason and freedom that are at its foundation. We must have the conviction that our way of life is worthy of protection from those who would destroy and supplant it. We must know at a fundamental level what it means to say—as so many of us did that day 10 years ago—“I am proud to be an American.”
Alexander Hrin completed his Bachelor’s in Engineering Physics and Masters in Applied Physics from the Colorado School of Mines. He is currently teaching at a private elementary and middle school in Southern California.
Photo by Michael Rieger, FEMA.