Friday, August 7, 2009

Obama Administration Says: Hooray for Jihad! (Proper Jihad, of course)

By Barry Rubin

I’m beginning to understand the Obama administration strategy, at least in its initial phase, as a “bridge too far” approach. That expression came after the heroic Allied operation at Arnheim in World War Two, when what seemed a clever idea—to capture a key bridge far ahead of the existing Allied lines—turned into a military disaster.

For example, take Obama’s Cairo speech. He didn’t just try to build good relations with Muslims but to whitewash the history and practices of Islamic polities and peoples completely. Or he doesn’t just try to engage Iran but to do so by removing all criticisms of the regime and most of his potential leverage over it. (Yes, I know that movement toward increased sanctions is supposed to be happening but the Obama administration has been taking its time and, to use another expression: Too little, too late.)

This reflection is generated by a major speech just given by John O. Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor. He declares the “war on terrorism” is over and redefines it as a war on al-Qa’ida and its partners.

Much argumentation is adduced to justify this alteration and some of it is certainly persuasive. But there are two extraordinarily important points that go unnecessarily too far and may be extremely damaging in the future.

The first is that the United States is not at war with “terrorism” in general but only those terrorists who directly attack the United States. But what about terrorists who attack allies? While most obviously this refers to Israel—does the United States not view Hamas and Hizballah as its adversaries any more?--there are many other examples.

“Fortunately,” one might be able to define terrorists in Indonesia, the Philippines, Morocco, Algeria, perhaps Somalia, and Afghanistan as linked to al-Qa’ida but what, for example, about those attacking India, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Russia, Colombia, China, or Lebanon (those shadowy Syrian-directed groups)?

In other words, this new administration position could be defined as a counterterrorist isolationist policy which sends the message: Know, thou terrorist, that you can attack anyone but the United States and we will not view you as full enemies.

So, American allies, if your people are blown up at a movie theatre or gunned down at a school or if someone explodes a bomb on an airliner full of passengers, you better hope that you can link the group responsible to al-Qa’ida or forget about getting strong U.S. support.

Second, and really shocking, is that the U.S. government has validated the concept of Jihad. Can one think of another example in history where the United States officially defined a religious concept?

Here are Brennan’s words:

“Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against `jihadists.' Describing terrorists in this way--using a legitimate term, `jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal--risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself. And this is why President Obama has confronted this perception directly and forcefully in his speeches to Muslim audiences, declaring that America is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

The U.S. government has now officially defined Jihad as a purifying act taken to achieve a moral goal. In Washington this seems brilliant—we will deny the terrorists the ability to use Islamic symbols and show they are not really properly Muslims but renegades!

Yeah, that will show them, no doubt. But, you see, there’s one problem. Hundreds of millions of Muslims are unconcerned with how the U.S. government defines their religion. The definition of Jihad in practice has been—depending on your viewpoint—either altered or applied much more vigorously during the last few decades.

For example, and this is really an innovation, suicide bombing under proper conditions--that is, killing the "right" people--has been defined by many clerics whose credentials to issue fatwas are stronger than Brennan's as a purifying act in pursuit of a moral goal. Wiping Israel off the map has been defined as a moral goal, too.

In fact, the Obama administration's fatwa used precisely the same definition employed by al-Qa’ida in attacking the World Trade Center. The United States, it argues, attacks Muslims both directly and indirectly, by supporting governments like those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, for example. Holy struggle? Check! To obey God and smite the devil’s allies. Moral goal? Check! The defense of Islam and Muslims against ruthless aggression.

What will Muslims make of this new U.S. policy? Some, those who are least politically active, will like it. Others, the most extreme, will view it as a lying trick and ignore it. And still others, supporters of revolutionary Islamism but more “moderate”--in purely relative terms, of course, as they still back the transformation of society into an Islamist dictatorship--will consider it as a signal of support for their cause.

Almost every influential, publicly active Islamic cleric defines murdering Israelis as appropriate Jihad. A very large number, probably a majority define killing Americans in Afghanistan or Iraq as proper Jihad. Even in general, the issue in defining "proper" Jihad is not so much to avoid killing civilians but killing “innocent” civilians, and that definition can be rather problematic.

And, no, it doesn't matter if you find Muslim professors or writers in North America or Europe who give you their personal, reformist, view of Islam along with a more benign interpretation of Jihad. We are not talking here about a theoretical or academic issue but the actual interpretations used by those clerics who influence thousands of followers in the Middle East.

Does a group of amateurs with the most limited grasp of Islamic theology and law—and whose expert advisors are often not much better—really need to decide that Jihad is legitimate and always good? Do we now have official U.S. government approval for the wars of Islam in the seventh century as good and proper?

What next? A definition of the Crusade in Christianity as a purifying struggle for a moral goal? After all, they sought to free the Holy Land from the infidels, right? All those massacres were regrettable byproducts but justified at the time, just as the definition of Jihad justifies such things today.

And by the way,  Brennan also said that while Hizbzllah began as a purely terrorist organization in the early 1980s it has evolved significantly over time: “I am pleased to see that a lot of Hizballah individuals are, in fact, renouncing their type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.”

I can't think of a single "Hizballah individual'"who has done this--not one! Yes, they participate in the political process because that is the job given them by the organization, while others carry on with their militia and terrorist activities. Do they act in "legitimate fashion"? Well, if you consider using Iranian money to buy votes and threats of mayhem to keep people from criticizing them, I don't think of this as "normal" politics in any democratic sense of that term.
But now we have the presidential advisor on counterterrorism acting as an apologist for Hizballah. Scary, right?

Like many moves of the Obama administration, in domestic policy also, this is visibly mistaken. Spotting these errors is simple and should have led to their being avoided. But so sure is it of its ideological approach; so arrogant over its class and credential privileges, so certain that criticism of media and academia is silenced or turned into praise, that warnings of, "Hey, captain, change course. You're heading right for the rocks!—aren't being heard, much less heeded.

This is the basic formula for policy disaster throughout history. Funny that all those songs about the Vietnam war have come home to roost for those who think they are doing the opposite. Here’s how the Stalinist troubadour Pete Seeger put it referring to President Lyndon Johnson:

“Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Click here to read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

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