SPEAKING FREELY The false monolith of political Islam
By Brendan P O'Reilly
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One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred
battles. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes win,
sometimes lose. One who does not know the enemy and does not know himself will
be in danger in every battle.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter Three
The leaders of the American government make the gravest
mistake possible for a world power. They believe their own propaganda.
Elected officials and media pundits warn American citizens of the
ever-increasing peril of "Islamic terrorism”, "Islamic fundamentalism" or the
supposedly extant ideology of "Islamofacism".
A multitude of states and organizations with extremely divergent objectives and
methods are grouped together as a part of this monolithic threat. Hezbollah in
Lebanon, the government of Iran, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas in Gaza and the
Somali al-Shabaab are but a few of the many faces of the same worldwide monster
in the eyes of many American leaders. These groups are said to be a united
force of evil brought together by Islamist ideology and a hatred of America.
"Terrorism" (always implicitly if not explicitly associated with Islam) is the
open-ended boogeyman of the American psyche, used to justify foreign wars and
the erosion of domestic liberties. For this danger to seem real, it must be
presented as a powerful conspiracy of inherently hostile forces. A perfect
summary of this paranoid worldview is provided by Supreme Court Justice Antonin
Scalia's dissenting opinion on a case that allowed Guantanamo Bay prisoners the
right to habeas corpus:
America is at war with radical
Islamists. The enemy began by killing Americans and American allies abroad: 241
at the Marine barracks in Lebanon, 19 at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, 224 at
our embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and 17 on the USS Cole in Yemen. On
September 11, 2001, the enemy brought the battle to American soil, killing
2,749 at the Twin Towers in New York City, 184 at the Pentagon in Washington,
DC, and 40 in Pennsylvania. It has threatened further attacks against our
homeland; one need only walk about buttressed and barricaded Washington, or
board a plane anywhere in the country, to know that the threat is a serious
one. Our Armed Forces are now in the field against the enemy, in Afghanistan
and Iraq. Last week, 13 of our countrymen in arms were killed.
how Scalia calls "the enemy" an "it" - a faceless, amorphous foe capable of
changing shape and striking at will. According to the specific propaganda needs
of the American ruling elite, "It" can be Shiite Hezbollah in 1983, or "It" can
be Sunni al-Qaeda in 2001. "It" is Iraqi guerillas fighting the military
occupation of their country, and at the same time "It" is the Taliban. "It" is
the reason that the US government must destroy key provisions of our own
Besides engaging in the folly of dehumanizing this supposedly unified enemy, at
no time does Scalia think about the various motives and methods of these
non-state actors. Shooting a soldier in battle is quite obviously different
than flying a plane full of civilians into a skyscraper, and various Saudis,
Lebanese, Afghans and Iraqis have quite different reasons for disliking the
United States. Scalia's sweeping generalization is contradicted not only by
common sense, but also by Colonel Timothy J Geraghty, the commander of the
Marines in Beirut during the 1983 bombing:
It is noteworthy that the
United States provided direct naval gunfire support - which I strongly opposed
for a week - to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on
September 19 ... American support removed any lingering doubts of our
neutrality, and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in
blood for this decision. 
United States Marines were
attacked in Lebanon for intervening in the country's civil war. On the other
hand, the motivations for Iraqi and Afghan insurgents are primarily personal
and nationalistic. To conflate these disparate groups with the terrorists of
al-Qaeda is not only unfair, it is a basis for self-defeating policy. One
cannot defeat an enemy that one refuses to understand.
When former presidential candidate Herman Cain was asked about his position on
the North Atlantic Treaty Orgization (NATO) intervention in Libya, he responded
by asking "Do I agree with siding with the opposition? Do I agree with saying
that [Muammar] Gaddafi should go? Do I agree that they now have a country where
you've got Taliban and al-Qaida that's going to be part of the government?"
This confusion of North African Islamists with Afghan insurgents in the Hindu
Kush would be laughable were it not reflective of a powerful strain of American
discourse. Policymakers define the various forces of Islamism as a united
threat in order to expand their political power at home and abroad. However,
the policies enacted with this gross misunderstanding are inevitably
The past repeats itself
The American fallacy of the worldwide, ideological, monolithic enemy is not
new. During the Cold War, Americans were told that international communism was
a united front that threatened America itself. Groups as disparate as the
Soviet Union, Castro's Cuba, China, the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge were all
said to be the minions of this global communist conspiracy. This irrational
theory was one of the primary factors for the disastrous decision-making that
led to America's military intervention in Vietnam.
The Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Vietnam and the Khmer
Rouge were all "communist", but their mutual differences and animosities were
manifold. By the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split was turning into a gaping chasm,
as their armies fought battles along their border. China and Vietnam had more
than a thousand years of reciprocated animosity. The Cambodians also had a
strong nationalistic aversion to Vietnamese power.
Undoubtedly, the Soviet Union presented a very real military threat to America.
However, instead of wisely exploiting it's differences and rivalries with other
communist nations for geological gain, the leaders of the United States
implemented aggressive policies based on sweeping generalizations and
simplistic thinking. Instead of viewing the conflict in Vietnam from a regional
or historical perspective, Lyndon Johnson spoke of "the battle against
America went to Southeast Asia to fight "communism", and was therefore defeated
by the same nationalistic forces that had fought empires for time immemorial.
Instead of learning from the military defeats of the Mongol, Chinese, Japanese,
and French empires in Vietnam, the American government jumped headlong into a
war to fight it's own cartoonish hallucination.
The end result was more than 58,000 dead American soldiers, more than a million
dead Vietnamese, and the toxic legacy of Agent Orange. Countless lives were
ruined by drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, and billions of
dollars wasted. For what end?
After the United States pursued a more realistic policy by engaging China and
withdrawing from Vietnam, the monolith of international communism crumbled. The
only thing that had united the interests of Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, and
Cambodian communists in Southeast Asia was a common enemy. Once that enemy left
the region, these supposedly united forces began fighting each other. The
Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge, and China responded
with a brief but bloody attack on the northern border of Vietnam.
Today Vietnam is a de-facto ally of America against a rising China, despite the
fact that both nations are "communist".
Geopolitics 101 Therefore, the best warfare strategy is to attack the enemy's plans, next is to
attack alliances, next is to attack the army, and the worst is to attack a
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter Three
Iran, as the most significant Islamist regime in opposition to American
domination, is the archetypical "bad guy" of American discourse. Undoubtedly,
the Iranian regime supports the Syrian government, Hamas and Hezbollah as a
counter to US and Israeli hegemony.
However, Iran's backing of these groups is based more on mutual interests than
an ideological alliance. Syria is a secular state; Hezbollah is Shi'ite, and
Hamas Sunni. The main force binding these political actors together is their
mutual animosity with Israel. This coalition would be likely collapse in the
event of a reasonable negotiated settlement between Israel and the
In the past few years, American officials have accused Iran of aiding Iraqi
insurgents and the Taliban. Such an alliance, if it exists, would be the direct
result of the utterly incompetent foreign policy of the United States. Iraq and
Iran fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s.
Furthermore, Iran has a long history of backing anti-Taliban militias in
Afghanistan. In 1998, Iran almost went to war against the Taliban after Taliban
forces murdered eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar al-Sharif. Iran strongly
condemned the September 11 attacks and welcomed the overthrow of the Taliban,
going as far as to provide useful intelligence for attacking Taliban targets
during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
Their reward? To be labeled part of the "axis of evil" in 2002 along with
archrival Iraq and distant North Korea.
The differences between to the Iranian regime, Iraqi guerillas, al-Qaeda and
the Taliban go far beyond important matters of nationality, culture and sect.
For example, when the Taliban were in power they banned women's education. On
the other hand, 65% of undergraduates in Iranian universities are women .
It seems al-Qaeda would almost certainty disapprove of the Iranian government's
subsidizes for gender reassignment surgeries, or the provision in the Iranian
constitution that mandates a Jewish member in the Iranian parliament.
Even al-Qaeda and the Taliban are only presently unified by their current
animosity to America. In October 2001 the Taliban offered to turn over Osama
bin Laden for trial in a third country if the United States stopped its bombing
campaign . The ongoing debacle in Afghanistan could have been avoided if the
American government had been wise enough to make a distinction between
different groups of Islamic fundamentalists.
Willful ignorance of one's supposed enemies is not even the most damaging
effect of America's continued rhetoric about the monolithic face of political
Islam. Describing these various groups and regimes as a unified threat is a
By aggressively intervening in the Greater Middle East, the United States has
created an interest for a variety of Islamist state and non-state actors to
cooperate with each other. It is unthinkable that Iraqi nationalists, Iran, and
the Taliban could work together - except in the face of a common enemy.
Political Islam is no more a unified alliance than were the various communist
movements and government. If and when the United States ends its military
interventions in the Muslim World, the various forces of political Islam are
likely to turn on each other.
If the United States is serious about tackling the threat of transnational
terrorism, it needs all the help it can get. Nationalist elements with rational
goals must be engaged. Instead, the American government seems bent on creating
as many enemies as possible.
It's policies of continued occupation in Afghanistan, threats against Syria and
Iran, and ongoing antagonism to Hezbollah and the Palestinians are creating
precisely the unified front it says to fear. Beyond these current follies in
the Muslim world, the US seems bent on hostility towards it's Pakistani ally
and the much more significant powers of Russia and China. These actions stem
from a twisted worldview and the lack of the basic elements of strategy.
When weapons are blunted, and ardor dampened, strength exhausted, and resources
depleted, the neighboring rulers will take advantage of these complications.
Then even the wisest of counsels would not be able to avert the consequences
that must ensue.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter Two
Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He
is author of The Transcendent Harmony.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to
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