Asymmetrical warfare was supposed to benefit the insurgents. For the price of a
few flying lessons a gang of jihadis brought down the World Trade Center, a
terrorist with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and powdered Tang can blow up an
airplane, and a few pounds of plutonium can cripple a major city.
Meet the Reverend Terry Jones, asymmetrical warrior. It appears that pinpricks
can produce chain reactions in the Islamic world. The threat may be termed
asymmetrical because Islam is more vulnerable to theological war than
Christianity (or for that matter Judaism).
As the youngest of the major religions (apart from Sikhism), Islam must defend
its historical narrative more fiercely than the older religions. Islam never
withstood the withering criticism of Enlightenment scholars from Spinoza to the
Jesus Project determined to discredit sacred texts. And because the Koran is
not a human report of God's word, like the Christian and Jewish bibles, but
rather the "uncreated word" of Allah himself, any challenge to its authority
cuts at Islam's credibility. The fact that Islam has established neither a
Magisterium in the Catholic sense, nor an authoritative tradition like that of
Orthodox Judaism, leaves it decentralized, divided and fractious.
United States President Barack Obama, top US commander in Afghanistan General
David Petraeus, the Vatican, and every talking head across the political
spectrum screamed in unison until this Florida fringe preacher with a
congregation that could meet in a double-wide listened, rather like Dr Seuss'
Horton hearing the Who.
Enlightened opinion prevailed, but at high cost: L'Affaire Jones demonstrated
that a madman carrying a match and a copy of the Koran can do more damage to
the Muslim world than a busload of suicide bombers. Leftists liked to brag
during the Vietnam war that a US$10 hand grenade could destroy a $10 million
plane. What's the dollar value of the damage from a used paperback edition of
the Koran, available online for a couple of dollars?
As George Packer wrote on the New Yorker website on September 10, "Reason tries
in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing
claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up ... One man in
Gainesville who represents next to nobody triggers thousands of men around the
globe who know next to nothing about it to turn violent, which triggers more
violence ... it's so easy to get people to go crazy. If I wanted to, I could
probably start another India-Pakistan war all by myself." Several of the
world's intelligence services doubtless are thinking along the same lines.
Instead of trying to stabilize the Islamic world, suppose - just for the sake
of argument - that one or two world powers set out to throw it into chaos. I am
not advocating such a strategy, only evaluating its effectiveness.
It is a misperception that America is the main object of Muslim rage. Most
Muslim rage is directed against other Muslims. Religious violence perpetrated
by Muslims against other Muslims is a routine feature of life in Pakistan,
Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Of the 1,868 acts of
religious violence listed by the Global Terrorism Database, all but a handful
were conducted by Muslims on Muslims. America has done its best to suppress
such violence. What if America (or Russia, or India, or China) were to incite
The Islamic world's claim on Western attention rests on its propensity to fail.
America has spent a trillion dollars and 5,700 lives to prop up notionally
pro-American regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention $2 billion a year
to Egypt, and several hundred million each to Jordan and the Palestinian
Authority, as well as smaller sums to other Muslim countries.
America will continue its efforts to stabilize fractious Islamic lands for the
foreseeable future. Obama holds a personal as well as an ideological commitment
to foster friendship with the Muslim world, and the Republicans will not admit
that they were mistaken to commit so much blood and treasure to nation-building
in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But America's attitude might change. Iraq may descend into civil war,
especially now that the Americans have armed and trained 100,000 Sunni fighters
in the so-called Sunni Awakening, Petraeus' "rent-an-Arab" strategy to contain
communal violence until American troops could leave.
Pakistan's Punjabis might weary of the Pashtun tribes who have made common
cause with the Taliban and Afghanistan. The Balochis, whose homeland is divided
between Iran and Pakistan, might revolt successfully against both. Iran -
particularly if an Israeli strike crippled its nuclear ambitions - might turn
aggressive towards its neighbors. Lebanese Sunnis might have it out with the
Some future American administration, though, might throw up its hands in
frustration, and a future intelligence chief might whisper to the president,
"If they want to kill each other, why not help them?" That was America's stance
during the Iran-Iraq War. Divide-and-conquer served the British well; that is
how they managed to rule India with only 3,000 regular army officers, most of
whom spoke local dialects and donned local dress.
Unlike the British, America has little aptitude for manipulation. Americans
believe that everyone is like them and that all movies have happy endings. To
start with, Americans don't learn languages. According to the Modern Language
Association's (MLA's) 2006 survey of instruction in foreign languages, American
universities enrolled only 2,463 students in Arabic at the advanced level. Of
those "advanced" students, perhaps one in 10 would become expert. Apart from
immigrants, whom intelligence agencies employ only with great caution, the
prospective hiring pool of advanced students in Arabic is measured in the
Among other languages spoken in Muslim countries, the MLA reports the following
number of students (but does not tell us how many are "advanced"): 0 Albanian,
94 Bengali, 243 Farsi, 301 Indonesian, 5 Kurdish, 5 Malay, 103 Pashto, 4
Somali, 624 Turkish, and 344 Urdu. Even if America set out to promote sectarian
conflict in the Muslim world, it would have great difficulty making its
Russia has more urgent reasons to sow discord in Muslim countries, and
centuries of experience in doing so. Simply because America has committed its
reputation and resources to stability in the Muslim world, Russia has an
interest in promoting the opposite. Russia views the world as a chessboard, in
which pressure on the flanks increases its control of the center of the board.
Moscow's on-again, off-again deal to supply Iran with an advanced anti-missile
system, for example, represents a bargaining chip that it can use with
Washington for a variety of purposes.
There is a deeper Russian interest in fostering Muslim weakness, though. Before
mid-century the Russian Federation likely will have a Muslim majority. Russia
already depends on 12 million guest workers, overwhelmingly from Turkey or from
the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. Some analysts, for example
Stratfor's George Friedman, predict that Turkey will challenge Russia for
control of the Caucusus. At the moment, Russian and Turkish interests are
linked. Turkey wants to export Russian oil and employ its surplus workers
building Russian infrastructure. But this may not be true forever, and Russia
must guard against the rise of a new Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey.
Turkey is a hotbed of prospective heresies, often rooted in ethnic substrata
that resisted the mainstream Arabic model of Islam. Between 15% and 30% of
Turks adhere to the Alevi sect, a nominally Shi'ite sect whose character is
hard to define; different scholars attribute influences from Gnosticism,
Zoroastrianism, and even Byzantine Christianity. The most prominent Alevi
scholar in the West was the convert Muhammad Sven Kalisch at the University of
Munster in Germany. Professor Kalisch since has repudiated Islam and resigned
his position as chief instructor of Muslim pedagogues for the German school
system, although he continues to teach at Munster.
Kalisch, as I reported at the time, scandalized the Muslim world with a 2008
paper claiming that the Prophet Mohammed was a figure of myth . Citing the
work of Western Koran critics, Kalisch claimed that the prophet's life was the
fabrication of 8th-century apologists:
It is a striking fact that such
documentary evidence as survives from the Sufnayid period makes no mention of
the messenger of god at all. The papyri do not refer to him. The Arabic
inscriptions of the Arab-Sasanian coins only invoke Allah, not his rasul
[messenger]; and the Arab-Byzantine bronze coins on which Muhammad appears as
rasul Allah, previously dated to the Sufyanid period, have not been placed in
that of the Marwanids. Even the two surviving pre-Marwanid tombstones fail to
mention the rasul.
Islam, he concluded, was a revival of
the old Gnosticism expunged by Christianity and embraced instead by the Arabian
tribes. In spite of the provocative character of his claims, Kalisch was
defended by the large community of Alevi Turks resident in Germany.
Kalisch appears to be the theological equivalent of a lone gunman. He devised
his thesis quite on his own, and quashed the controversy he created by abjuring
Islam. Nonetheless, he showed how simple it is to invent new Islamic heresies.
With handful of provocateurs and a small amount of funding, his project well
might have become more than a minor irritation. With a dozen scholars, a score
of operatives on the ground, and a budget of a few million dollars, a competent
intelligence service could have a handful of Muslim heresies merrily contending
for the mantle of the prophet.
Turkey may have its own reasons to meddle in its neighbors' religious affairs.
It wants to be the dominant Muslim power, and well may do so; it has the
combination of people (over 70 million), economic capability and military power
to do so, and does not want its historical rival Iran to become a regional
hegemon. A quarter of Iranians are Turkish-speaking Azeris, and an ascendant
Iran would have the means and motive to work enormous mischief in Turkey.
Far too much was made of the theology department at the University of Ankara,
which Newsweek in 2008 hailed as "the new face of Islam". A new edition of the
Hadith (narrations concerning the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed) and
a desultory gesture towards modernization made the Ankara group celebrities for
a moment - before Turkey turned towards a more fundamentalist reading of Islam
under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At the time, Sunni fundamentalist websites denounced the Ankara theologians as
agents of the Vatican, citing the presence in the department of a
Turkish-speaking Jesuit . That is ludicrous; perhaps more than any Catholic
order, the Jesuits go to extreme lengths respect other cultures and religions.
Although this particular accusation was the product of paranoia, paranoids
still have enemies. If Turkish intelligence decided to employ its university
theology departments to manufacture designer heresies for use in Iran, for
example, the capability is in place.
This sort of speculation may seem fanciful at the moment. In the context of
regional conflict, however, the prospect of asymmetrical warfare by religious
means might become far more practical. There are so many ways in which the
region might descend into religious conflict that it is pointless to make book
on the scenarios. In another location I suggested that Petraeus' temporary
success in the 2008 surge might lay the groundwork for a Thirty Years War in
the region . Weapons are there to be used, and theological weapons may turn
out to be some of the nastiest means of war-fighting at hand.