My Weekly Reader 1 April 2017.

Since 9/11 the imperatives of the war against radical Islamism have imposed an un-true interpretation of the enemy.  The radicals (Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS) form a minority within Islam, their most common targets are fellow Muslims, and the assistance of Muslim states is essential to victory over the Islamists.  Hence, it has become commonplace to describe the radicals as not truly Muslim, as heretics at best.

To argue differently is to open oneself to charges of Islamophobia.[1]  Nevertheless, radical Islamism diverges from contemporary Islam much more than it diverges from foundational Islam.  Originally, the Prophet Muhammad preached a single community of Believers (the “umma”), led by puritanical religious figures (a theocracy), and living in permanent hostility to Unbelievers (the conflict between the dar al-Islam/House of Peace/Islam and the dar al-Harb/House of War/Unbelievers).  Jews and Christians, the “Peoples of the Book,” were tolerated in return for payment of a tax, bit barred from proselytizing.  Slavery remained a hall-mark of Muslim societies from the time of the Prophet through the 19th Century.  Subsequently, mainstream Islam moved toward what Western observers think of today: fractured into nation states too weak to pull a hobo of their sister; economically stagnant in the face of swiftly rising populations; ruled by tyrannical soldiers and monarchs, and struggling to reconcile “modernization” in all its forms with core cultural values.

Gilles Kepel and others have argued that dissatisfaction with these governments sent people streaming toward a renewed religious commitment in the last decades of the 20th Century.  Some of those people turned back to a fundamentalist version of Islam.  The fruit of this commitment has been harvested in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, France, Germany, Spain, and Britain.

It’s not difficult to narrate the rise and fall of the Islamic State.  It’s just difficult to explain—comprehend really—why people are willing to give their lives in support of it.  Graeme Wood argues that the “foot soldiers [of ISIS] view their mission in religious terms and spend great energy on piety and devotion.”[2]  They are filled with religious passion.  Dexter Filkins isn’t sure this is actually the case.  His own experience as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times leads him to believe that “the motives for joining a militant organization were varied and complex.”[3]  Psychopaths and sociopaths found a justification, not a motivation, in religion.  Possibly Wood’s response would be to point again to the identity between the theology of ISIS and the theology of early Islam.  In the 7th and 8th Centuries the Arabs over-run vast tracts of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires.  Historians conventionally describe these armies as fired by a passionate religious enthusiasm.  Would Filkins argue that they actually were madmen and criminals?

The two different strands of interpretation can be reconciled if one understands that religious faith is intended to redeem those who feel themselves to be ruined by sin.[4]  Religion may become a tired and stifling bourgeois convention that upholds the established order.  It doesn’t normally start out that way.  So, perhaps ISSIS recruits a wide range of troubled people who are self-aware enough to embrace beliefs that may heal or channel their flaws.

[1] It isn’t immediately apparent why mouthing ignorance-based platitudes favorable to Islam is less Islamophobic than is mouthing ignorance-based platitudes hostile to Islam.  Both approaches seem to be based on an indifference to learning about Islam.

[2] Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State (2017).

[3] Dexter Filkins, “On the Fringes of ISIS,” NYT Book Review, 22 January 2017.

[4] See, for one example:

The Current Crisis of Political Islam.

“Our minarets are our bayonets, our domes are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks.”[1]

In the wake of 9/11 the George W. Bush administration made a correct judgment about the origins of the terrorist attacks.  The Middle East is deeply messed-up for reasons that have little-to-nothing to do with Western imperialism or oil companies or American engagement with authoritarian regimes.  The Bush administration then made a spectacularly wrong decision about how to address the problem.  In 2003, the United States led a “coalition of the willing” in an invasion of Iraq.  The ripples from that attack have not yet subsided.  The Americans over-turned the long-standing domination of the Shi’ite majority by the Sunni minority; the Shi’ites hungered for revenge while the Sunnis launched a bloody insurrection; al-Qaeda poured gasoline on the fire when it had not before existed in Iraq, then–when defeated in Iraq—retreated into Syria, where it evolved into ISIS; and the Iraqi Kurds began to pull away to create a proto-state that would exert a magnetic pull on Kurds in Syria and Turkey, so an important American ally faced an existential crisis.

One additional effect appeared in the question whether an Islamist government could–or should–come to power by democratic means.  The implications of the question reach very far.

First, there is Islam in general and then there is Islam in the Middle East.[2]  Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, made a transition to democracy in 1999.  Islamists have made no head-way in gaining power there.  Although far from a democracy, in Pakistan Islamist parties have made little progress trying to displace the military-dominated government.  Both examples might encourage Americans seeking to understand the international security environment.

In contrast, for decades, Middle Eastern autocratic secularist governments built a dike of policemen and prisons to hold back a rising tide of popular support for Islamists.  As their numbers grew and as violence failed to open the road to power, Islamist political movements endorsed “democracy.”  Some observers believe that, for Islamists, democracy means “one man, one vote, one time.”[3]  Since its’ founding in 1979, Iran’s Islamic Republic has put meat on the bare bones of this suspicion.  The clergy always have the last say in political decisions and candidates for office often find themselves disqualified on the say-so of clerics.

The great problem is that Islamists believe that there is only one right road, not many roads, to Salvation.  They believe that they are in the left lane with an EZ-Pass and everyone else is on the off-ramp to Hell.  This is an idea that has not held sway in the West for hundreds of years.  The anti-unbeliever face of this belief troubles Westerners struggling to define a policy toward Muslims that does not violate their own core values.  At the same time, Westerners seem inattentive to the anti-wrong-believers face of this belief.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war is tearing apart the whole region.  Saudi Arabia has spent decades propagating a puritanical (Wahhabi) version of Sunni Islam that is congruent with radical Islamism.  The Shi’ite majority in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq immediately began to grind the faces of the suddenly displaced Sunni majority.  Relatively secularized Muslims recoil from even peaceful Islamists into the arms of the traditional authoritarians.

Tritely, values differ across cultures.  Politics follow.  Often, so does tragedy.

[1] Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

[2] Vladimir Trofimov, “The Crisis of Political Islam,” WSJ, 23-24 July 2016.

[3] Thus, Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said that he saw democracy as “a vehicle.” His course as prime minister and president of Turkey makes it clear that he doesn’t see it as an end in itself.


There’s this story I read. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the German Federal Republic, isn’t afraid of most things (she grew up in the German “Democratic” Republic), but she is afraid of dogs. She went to meet Vladimir (“Vlad the Impaler”) Putin. Putin made sure that there were a couple of big, aggressive dogs present. Why? Because he’s a son-of-a-bitch, that’s why. Merkel didn’t bend at the meeting. Still, that is who President Obama is up against.

Putin wants President-for-Life Bashar al-Assad to keep running Syria. Assad is opposed by a bunch of conservative Sunni Muslim rebels (some associated with Al Qaeda), and some “moderates” who keep disintegrating every time the US tries to stand them up as a fighting force, and ISIS. Putin seems determined to use Russian air power to beat up on the non-ISIS rebels to reduce the pressure on Assad. Once that goal is accomplished, then they can think about what to do about ISIS. Well, that seems to have been the plan until ISIS claimed responsibility for the crash of the Russkie airliner flying out of Sharm el Sheikh.[1] Now Putin probably is thinking about the brilliant “montage” work done by Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather.”[2]

Then ISIS appears to be behind the Paris terrorist attacks. Yes, this has got Americans hyperventilating. However, it has got the French thinking about wasting somebody and the sooner the better. You don’t want to get your ideas about the French from Republicans[3] or from Warner Brothers’ cartoons.[4] If they can’t get the answer they want from President Obama when French President Francois Hollande visits Washington, then he will be on the next thing smoking for Moscow. They aren’t likely to get the answer they want in Washington.[5]

What to do? First, recognize that the US is not leading the coalition against ISIS. That coalition consists of Shi’ite Iran, Shi’ite-ruled Iraq, the Kurds (who are fighting for the existence of an independent Kurdish state more than anything else and who will send in their bill as soon as ISIS is beaten), the Russkies (regardless of how Josh Earnest phrases it), the British, and the French. Even the Germans may be compelled to take a role. Who isn’t in that coalition? The Sunni Gulf States and Turkey. None of the above give rip about what the US wants. This is a matter of real importance for these countries, as opposed to a political debating point in the US.

Second, recognize that defeating ISIS will do nothing to end our long-term problem with radical Islam. Al-Qaeda gave rise to Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQIM). AQIM gave rise to ISIS. On the one hand, there are a host of similar organizations in the Middle East springing up like jack-in-the-boxes. More will arise after ISIS is defeated. Radical Islamist organizations elsewhere (Al Shabab in Somalia, Bozo Haram in Nigeria, and possibly the “Third Intifada” that appears to be rising in Palestine) show that there is no central head-quarters. On the other hand, radical Islamist movements recruit their fighters from the alienated Muslim youth of Europe and—especially—the “failed states” of the Muslim world.

We’re in for a very long haul. Sad to say, the Cold War analogy may turn out to be useful. So, “containment” or “roll-back”?

[1] Still, see

[2] See: Sergei Eisenstein,; see “The Godfather,”

[3] “Freedom fries,” “Freedom doors,” and “Freedom kisses,” etc.

[4] See: The Department of Defense ordered this movie shown before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not because it wanted to encourage soldiers to misbehave but because it recognized—as the people in the White House did not—where we might be led.

[5] One recent poll found that 76 percent of Americans oppose sending in regular ground troops to Iraq and 66 percent opposed sending in even Special Forces troops to spot for the air-strikes that are our most useful role.

What would Bismarck drive? 2.

Israel (and therefore the United States) is going to have to decide some things pretty soon.[1] First, would Israel rather have a whole Syria under Assad (weakened for a long time by its terrible civil war) or would it rather have a Syria partitioned between a mini-state headed by Assad and the rest of Syria run by ISIS? Second, is there anything that Israel can do to shape the outcome? I don’t know. Israeli intervention might bring down on the head of Israel all sorts of hostility from the Arabs, just because. The governments of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt probably wouldn’t object to Israel beating up on ISIS. How would Saudi Arabia view such action? Then, there is the tension in many Arab countries between “the Street” and “the Palace.” How would ordinary people respond to Israeli attacks, regardless of how sensible those attacks might seem to the rulers?

What will happen inside the Cauldron? ISIS can (but may not) tear apart the carcasses of Iraq and Syria. Then its advance slams up against both strong states (Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel) and hard cores of enemy peoples with their back to the wall (Kurds, Shi’ite Iraqis, Alawite and Christian Syrians). At this point, the going will get a lot tougher. Will ISIS pause to regroup or will it attempt to maintain the momentum? I don’t know. They’re a bunch of fanatics. They might try to topple a bunch of other governments. On the other hand, the original armed expansion of Islam came in stages. Maybe that analogy will authorize ISIS to pause to consolidate its base in preparation for a renewed advance. If ISIS does pause to consolidate its base, it isn’t going to have a lot with which to work. The caliphate will consist of landlocked desert without much oil. Most of the world will be hostile toward the caliphate. Still, in their own particular way, they’re “Goo-Goos.”[2] Perhaps they’ll find a way.

If ISIS can’t swamp the surrounding strong governments, does that mean it can’t do any harm? That’s hard to tell. Governments find it useful as a heuristic device to link every new outburst to some earlier example. Start listening to the newspeople on the Devil Box, count how often they refer to an “Al Qaeda-affiliated” or “ISIS affiliated” something or other. On the other hand, radical Islam has a wide appeal in certain geographic and psychological realms. (See: The Islamic Brigades I, II.) So it is hard for me to tell what ISIS or Al Qaeda really controls. What does seem clear is that Islamist uprisings will continue to occur and that “foreign fighters” will continue to flow toward where the fighting is taking place. Libya, northern Nigeria, and Mali already have their share of troubles. Cameroun, Niger, and Chad are feeling the effects. Tunisia is a small place with limited ability to defend itself. Algeria survived one bloody civil war between secularists and Islamists: it could flare up again. (If that happens, the fleets of refugees crammed on fishing boats will be headed for Marseilles instead of Sicily. See: The owl and the pussycat I, II.) Whatever the formal links between ISIS and the Islamist movements in these countries, ISIS will do whatever it can to support them. Pretty much on the principle of setting fire to a neighbor’s barn so that they themselves can sleep better at night.

[1] One of those things is NOT the creation of a Palestinian state. There isn’t going to be one. The current version of Fatah is a spent force. There is no way that Israel will agree to put a Hamas-controlled government endowed with all the trappings of national sovereignty in charge of the West Bank. No Arab government has ever shown a real concern for the fate of the Palestinians. If Egypt and Jordan, for example, had wanted a Palestinian state, they could have created one on the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled thos territories between 1948 and 1967.

[2] “Goo-Goos”: derisive late 19th Century American reference to “Good Government” reformers who preceded the Populists.


In 2011, during the “Arab Spring,” an American-led coalition overthrew the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Libya under Gaddafi had been a society with several potential conflicts kept under control by the dictatorship. People of Arab descent clashed with people of Berber or Turkish descent. The American attack took the lid off this cauldron. Many tribes and towns raised “brigades” of troops to help topple the hated regime. Few of those militias disbanded once victory had been won. Instead, Libya found itself fragmented even while it sought a path to national reunification. The groups quarreled over power and shares of oil revenue.

Things got worse over the next several years. By August 2014, Libyan towns and tribes were choosing sides in a looming civil war.[1] Thus, the mountain town of Zintan recruited many former Gaddafi troops to their militia and declared against radical Islamism, while the coastal town of Misurata allied with the Islamists. As an object lesson to the rest of the country, order had broken down in the capital city of Tripoli, fighting had ravaged the city, electrical power was often interrupted, gasoline often unavailable, and municipal services had collapsed.[2]

In 2012, one Islamist group, Ansar al-Shariah, participated in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. Two years later, the group had grown more powerful. Bombings and assassinations had demonstrated its power. Other militias forged alliances with the Islamists.

In May 2014, a former general named Khalifa Hifter managed to gather some forces. He declared war on the Islamists. General Hifter didn’t bother to distinguish between “moderates” and “radical.” His attacks around Benghazi tightened the bonds between Ansar al-Shariah and the other Islamist groups. Hifter’s attacks added to the polarization of the country between those who opposed Ansar al-Shariah and those who supported the radical Islamists. That polarization had the potential to spread the fighting in Benghazi to the rest of the country.

Among his other acts, General Hifter had closed the existing parliament and ordered new elections. The new parliament was to convene in Tobruk, an eastern city close to the Egyptian border and within Hifter’s territory. It will surprise no one that the Islamists, who had been well-represented in the old parliament, declined to go to Tobruk. Instead, they announced that the old parliament would meet in the western city of Tripoli (close to the Tunisian border and within the territory controlled by Misurata). Rival parliaments in a country full of armed men is bad.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both grown alarmed over the Islamists-next-door in Yemen and Libya. The United Arab Emirates, an ally of Saudi Arabia, plays host to a satellite network that broadcasts anti-Islamic material to Libya. Qatar, which has supported Islamic causes elsewhere in the Middle East (See: Your Mind Is In the Qatar) runs a rival network broadcasting to the Islamists. At some point, the Egyptian Army may have to choose between intervention and just trying to seal off the almost 700 mile-long border with Libya.

Back in August 2014, things looked to be sliding out of control. Observers foresaw a likely choice between the restoration of a dictator and letting the place slide into a cauldron of Islamist extremism. Especially in the latter case, Libya’s fate would have wide repercussion in North Africa and the Middle East. The recent Islamist attack on a museum in Tunisia and the nominal adherence of the Libyan Islamists to ISIS add to the urgency.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt is likely to feel grateful to the United States for having caused this problem in the first place.

[1] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Strife in Libya Could Presage Long Civil War,” NYT, 25 August 2014.

[2] In a curiosity unexplained by the author, “bicycles, once unheard of, are increasingly common.” Un-noticed by the rest of the world, someone is importing bicycles into Libya.

Bozo Haram.

Religion can have internal (esoteric) and external (exoteric) components. The esoteric approach is essentially mystical. The exoteric is essentially about adherence to the law. As institutions, churches are usually satisfied with the exoteric. Sometimes true believers want the esoteric in order to achieve union with God. In Islam, those who pursue the esoteric are often called “sufi.”

Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1956. The new nation divided between a Christian South, with access to rich oil resources, and a Muslim North, which suffered from poverty. Bitterness arose in the North, where people complained of both the evils of the Christian government and the failings of their own clergy and traditional leaders to obtain justice. A religious protest movement arose around Mohammed Marwa (c. 1920-1980, knick-named “Maitatsine”) that led to violence and deaths. The government never entirely managed to suppress support for it. Then, during the 1960s and 1970s, Sufism began to make in-roads among Muslims in northern Nigeria. Inspired by the Saudi Arabian Wahhabist-funded World Muslim League, Sheikh Ismaila Idris (1937-2000) began to push back. In 1978 he founded the Izala Society to advocate a traditional form of Islam. One of the bright lights of this movement was Ja’afar Mahmud Adam (1960-2007). He was trained as a teacher in Nigeria, then studied at the Islamic University in Saudi Arabia. From 1993 to 2007 he preached in a mosque in Kano, Nigeria. One of his followers was Mohammed Yusuf (1970–2009). About 2002, Adam and Yusuf fell out.[1]

Yusuf went his own way to found Boko Haram. He seems to have recruited many of the same sorts of people with the same sorts of grievances who had followed Marwa twenty years before. Yusuf concentrated his mission on building support in the far northeast of Nigeria, near the borders with Chad and Niger. Yusuf may have aimed at the creation of an Islamist state. Certainly, he gathered arms and young men with nothing to lose. One of these was Abubakar Shekau.[2] Shekau became Yusuf’s second-in-command.

In July 2009 Boko Haram clashed with Nigerian security forces and Yusuf was killed “while trying to escape.” Shekau took command of Boko Haram. In September 2010 he opened war against the government with a prison break that freed over a hundred members of the group. Beginning in 2011 Boko Haram has used bombings (suicide and IED) and shootings to drive the police off the street and then out of towns. As a result, general lawlessness spread throughout the north. The Army and police reacted violently, but usually against civilian target that came to hand rather than against the Boko Haram militants. Reports of massacres, rapes, and pillaging carried out by the “forces of order” became common. During 2013 the conflict spilled over into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. In 2014, Boko Haram transiently caught the attention of the world when it kidnapped several hundred girls from a school at Chibok.[3] The gory fight goes on.

As is the case in Syria and Iraq, the Islamists are up against corrupt or incompetent or non-existent governments. They aren’t fighting real soldiers: they’re fighting men with guns hired to prop up the government. They’re “filled with a terrible certainty,” while their opponents “lack all conviction.” Probably because the courts are rigged.

See: for a more detailed account.

[1] In 2007 someone shot Adam to death in his mosque. The whole area was too violent to pin the blame on Yusuf.

[2] He may be anywhere from his mid-30s to his mid-40s.

[3] I haven’t seen a lot of “Bring back our girls” posts of late on my FB feed. First there was the “ice bucket challenge,” then all the memes sent out by groups like AddictingInfo to denounce the enormities of the Republicans.