By Joe Campbell
November 15th, 2007
Olivier Roy, a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and a lecturer for both the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. Roy has written a number of works about Islam and secular Western societies and the inherent conflicts between the two.
In his presentation last week entitled “The Future of Radical Islam in Europe”, he made a few comments about Islam that presented the issue in a way I had not thought of it before. Regarding terrorism and islamism, he said:
…for me it’s a generational phenomenon. It’s a youth phenomenon. It’s not the expression of a traditional society. And it’s why — for example, I compare this with the wave of [student unrest] in the West during the ’60s and ’70s.
I am surprised that I never thought of islamism his way before. It certainly makes sense though. It does not make terrorist attacks any less dangerous, but it has profound consequences for dealing with islamism oth tactically and strategically. It also is worth noting that Roy is basing his statements on the French student unrest which was far more destructive and radical than the American equivalent. But in both cases, the young rebelled against their parents’ hypocrisy, some in violent and radical ways. In America though, as well as in other countries, an opposing and slightly younger movement emerged from the same generation opposed to the hypocrisies of both their fellow youth and of their parents. If Roy is correct, we should look out for this counter-movement.
More important though: if the bulk of those men (and theoretically women) whose terrorist threaten America are disaffected youth embracing a self-shattering and self-promoting understanding of religion, doesn’t it flatter them to declare war on them? If our enemies are primarily motivated by our foreign policies or domestic policies, by who we are, or by a desire to purify the world of kafir, our options are stark. But if instead, islamists are primarily young people who are disaffected with the world and, in seeking to lash out, use our foreign and domestic policies and other elements as excuses to attack us because they feel they must attack someone, our strategy must be substantially different.
Know Thy Enemy
Sun Tzu wrote that one must know one’s enemy in order to ensure your victory over him. This is the fundamental flaw in the War on Terrorism: we do not know our enemy; and worse than mere ignorance, we are confused about who our enemy is. If we examine the problem that confronted us on 9/11, we see two distinct issues that combined on that day to devastating effect:
- the rise of islamism as a major force in the Muslim world;
- the magnified power of individuals to take advantage of society’s practices and use our technologies against us.
Neo-conservatives have portrayed our opponents as the Islamic world itself. They have declared the conflict civilizational, as a war that will last generations, as a cancer within the religion of Islam that has affected the majority and infected a large minority. They see opponents driven by an Islamic ideology and determined to create an Islamic caliphate spanning the Middle East. But if Roy is right, then the conflict is instead generational and our opponents are the disaffected youth who, not knowing quite where to direct their anger, direct it at us as the predominant power in the world. He sees the roots of the conflict in a rebellion against the compromise that has dominated the Islamic world of their parents.
Certain leaders from the older generation have ridden to power on this discontent, stoking it and guiding it. But in the end, these youth are more confused than ideologically driven. Our best policy is to do what we can to avoid radicalizing them. In this, our policy so far, has been a disaster. By torturing detainees, invading Iraq, occupying Iraq, reducing civil liberties at home, and propping up dictators around the world, we play into the hands of those leaders who seek to radicalize the young.
I do not mean to play down the serious threat that terrorism poses to our society or even to say that islamist terrorism is somehow less significant. Rather, as Sun Tzu said, we must understand our enemy and determine how best to undermine him. So far, our actions have united our enemies and galvanized the islamist movement. Perhaps it is time to consider that there is something flawed in our original reasoning.
If the current batch of radicalized islamists more closely parallel the the Weathermen or the more radical European terrorist groups of the 1960s than the Nazis and Communists, then we need to re-think our strategy.
A better tactic than trying to transform or wage war on a civilization, would be to undermine the leaders who are attempting to radicalize the disaffected youth. This doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it would be a better approach than our current one.