Thursday, September 13, 2007

Islam Isn't the Problem

Cross-Posted at Decline and Fall.

Regarding the motivations of the insurgents I interrogated in Iraq, a week ago I wrote:

The vast majority of them weren't radical Muslims, bin Laden acolytes or Saddam hardliners; they were motivated by nationalism. They opposed the U.S. occupation of what they saw as their sovereign land (silly them!) so they lashed out in the most meaningful way they could: at the "collaborators" in their midst aiding and abetting the occupying, colonial power. It's basic insurgency doctrine, folks. In my experience, "religious fanaticism" is the veneer that some in Iraq, and even more in the West, use to cover what is essentially the struggle to get out from under the thumb of a strongman.
Later last week, The Washington Monthly published an article by Andrew Tilghman, former Stars & Stripes reporter, that came to a similar conclusion, and on Tuesday Gallup released a poll analysis that supports my anecdotal experience. (Thanks to Framing Science for the link) The pollsters discovered that political grievances, rather than religious ones, are the prime motivating factors behind Violent Islamic Extremism:

After analyzing survey data representing more than 90% of the global Muslim population, Gallup found that despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a small minority saw the 9/11 attacks as morally justified. Even more significant, there was no correlation between level of religiosity and extremism among respondents. Among the 7% of the population that fits in the politically radicalized category -- those who saw the 9/11 attacks as completely justifiable and have an unfavorable view of the United States -- 94% said religion is an important part of their daily lives, compared with 90% among those in the moderate majority. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

Gallup probed respondents further and actually asked both those who condoned and condemned extremist acts why they said what they did. The responses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, many of those who condemned terrorism cited humanitarian or religious justifications to support their response. For example, one woman said, "Killing one life is as sinful as killing the whole world," paraphrasing verse 5:32 in the Quran.

On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condoned the attacks of 9/11 cited the Quran for justification. Instead, this group's responses were markedly secular and worldly. For example, one Indonesian respondent said, "The U.S. government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing."

The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety. For example, the politically radicalized often cite "occupation and U.S. domination" as their greatest fear for their country and only a small minority of them agree the United States would allow people in the region to fashion their own political future or that it is serious about supporting democracy in the region. Also, among this group's top responses was the view that to better relations with the Muslim world, the West should respect Islam and stop imposing its beliefs and policies. In contrast, moderates most often mentioned economic problems as their greatest fear for their country, and along with respecting Islam, they see economic support and investments as a way for the West to better relations. Moderates are also more likely than the politically radicalized to say the United States is serious about promoting democracy.

Note how counter-intuitive this all seems from the Clash of Civilizations perspective through which the entire GWOT has been filtered for us. No significant difference in mosque attendance between radicals and moderates. The Quran cited only as justification for abhorring violence, not condoning it. American occupation and lack of respect are the reasons the radicals fight us, not the results of their fight against us.

The implications of a study such as this are enormous. The most obvious is that if we are going to claim to be serious about fighting terrorism, we need to focus our efforts on the factors that actually motivate people to become terrorists, not the factors we continue to insist motivate them. Killing or incarcerating a terrorist or insurgent may take one of them out of circulation, but if you create two new ones for every one you destroy, you are going backward, not forward.

I saw this dynamic when I was an interrogator in Iraq. Coalition forces would arrest an insurgent, humiliate him in front of his family, keep him in prison for months, and then release him without charges. In the meantime he learned to hate us (even if he hadn't before) and, more importantly, his family learned to hate us. While he was learning to hate us, he was in a population that was uniquely qualified to fan the flames of his hatred and teach him how he might better act on it. Meanwhile his family and close friends were now easy targets for recruitment. In getting rid of one "terrorist," we created several. Is it any wonder that the estimated number of insurgents in Iraq jumped from 5,000 (total) in 2003 to 70,000 (Sunni) in 2007, while the prison population skyrocketed from 10,000 to 60,000? (See pp. 25-26 of this Brookings Institute report for details.)

When will we realize that our presence in the Middle East and our support of tyrants such as Mubarek and the Saudi Royal Family are not only not helping ease the troubles in the region, they are the primary cause for those troubles? Middle Easterners are not stupid. They can see that America has a long history of supporting brutal dictators (remember the Shah?) and they have learned from that experience that we are not to be trusted. They see us stomping around the world with our big stick and turn to whatever means of resistance they can find to resist what they see as the assault on their culture by the biggest bully on earth. The fact that militant Islam is their only major option should not cause us to confuse their motives.