You Don't Get the Problem in Afghanistan
I’m very under it this week between a couple of overdue projects and a sick kid at home, but I will eventually have some things to say about Fred Kagan’s characteristically thoughtful response to my column on Afghanistan last week — and maybe even about Max Boot’s diatribe at Contentions. For present purposes, I want to note a report in today’s Washington Times. The Grand Mufti of Egypt — who unquestionably is a "moderate" by Islamic standards — is urging President Obama not to send more troops to Afghanistan. His rationale elucidates a central flaw in the McChrystal strategy touted by Fred.
Adopting the conventional Western wisdom about Islam (which is probably best exemplified by Larry Wright’s otherwise worthy history of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower), General McChrystal and Fred miniaturize what we’re up against. By their lights, our enemy is a fringe element of Muslims who hold the controversial view that Muslims resistant to their severe interpretation of Islam are apostates and can properly be killed under Islamic law. The Islamic term for this view, by the way, is takfir. Fred describes it as an Islamic "heresy" although, as Bernard Lewis has explained, heterodoxy is a Western concept that doesn’t have a precise Islamic analogue. Because the takfiris are engaged in "anti-Islamic" violence, the McChrystal/Kagan thinking goes, we can exploit their "heresy" and win the majority of Afghan Muslims to our side.
This confuses a couple of very important things. First, the point of disagreement between the takfiris and other Muslims is primarily over the propriety of killing Muslims. The fact that there is discord between them over that point does not mean the majority of Muslims will side with us over the takfiris. We are non-Muslims, and whatever differences Muslims in general have with takfiri Muslims, their differences with us are more thorough-going and profound.
Second, the fact that most Muslims see takfiri violence against Muslims as violative of Islamic principles does not mean that they see takfiri violence (or, indeed, violence by any Muslims) against us as violative of Islamic principles. To the contrary, as I explain in my column, mainstream Islamic ideology (not just takfiri ideology, not by a longshot) holds that infidel military forces operating in Islamic countries must be fought until they are driven out, especially if they are sowing the seeds of Western culture and governance.
Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Egyptian grand mufti, reaffirms, as the WTimes puts it, that "Muslims reject the idea of occupation and the use of force." They want American troops out of Afghanistan. They also reject the notion that the takfiri "heresy" will split the Muslim community to our advantage. As the sheikh explains, moderate Muslims do not regard takfiris as non-Islamic because to do that would be to engage in the same erroneous reasoning as the takfiris, thus creating a "circle of apostasy." Rather than "increase the gap between us and them," Gomaa would have moderate Muslims embrace the takfiri and try gradually to modify their extremism.
This reflects a central truth about Islam: the unity of the umma, the global Muslim Nation, takes precedence over all. A U.S. strategy built on the premise that mainstream Muslims will be won over to our side against their fellow Muslims in an Islamic country is built on wishful thinking. It’s not a question of whether Muslims reject the takfiris’ extremism. Muslims constantly fight amongst themselves, often with deadly force. The question is whether such infighting means they will prefer us. They won’t — certainly not on a mass scale.
And it’s critical to note that Sheikh Gomaa — Mubarak’s hand-picked cleric — is about as good as it gets for us. As I pointed out in the column, the chief theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, issued a fatwa in 2004 calling for the killing of American troops in Iraq. Qaradawi is no takfiri. In fact, he has occasionally condemned the takfiris — and he has famously engaged in some heated exchanges with Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s No. 2. But none of that translates into support for us. To the contrary, Qaradawi and the tens of millions (or more) who follow him see us as the principal enemy and support bin Laden & Co. to the extent they take action against our troops.
There was bitter condemnation of al Qaeda in the Islamic world in 1998 after the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Yet, after 9/11, there was dancing in the streets. The explanation is simple: Over 90 percent of those killed in the embassy bombings were Muslims; by contrast, almost all of the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 were Americans, and the devastated city was New York, not Nairobi. Muslims have lots of complaints about Muslim terrorists, but the thought that this means they’ll be coming over to our side is a fantasy.