Thursday, September 11, 2014

The ISIL challenge is an ideological battle

We are sending forces to Iraq to contribute to a military effort to suppress ISIL. We are doing so for three reasons: that ISIL is committing barbarous acts of genocide and butchery; that it openly seeks to overturn the existing political order in the Middle East; and that it is recruiting foot soldiers from our own country, who declare they will bring violent jihad back here in due course.

Should we be making such a military contribution? Or should we just police our own shores; detaining would-be terrorists if they cause problems here? One could make a utilitarian calculation that our strictly military concerns should be in our own neighbourhood. China, for example, is building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress its highly dubious territorial claims there. 

Is that of military concern? Not for the time being, anyway. Once we have Japanese submarines, we'll see. It is the nascent caliphate, not the rise of China, that is drawing our fire. It's doing so not on utilitarian or strategic grounds, but on moral ones. ISIL is openly described as evil and that is why we are lining up to fight it. Whatever one thinks of China's claims, no one is denouncing them as evil.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop came closest to defining the ISIL challenge when she observed last week that the would-be caliphate cannot be defeated by purely military means, but has to be defeated on the ideological battlefield. ISIL embodies a fanatical idea, which in turn motivates its savagery and its (one would certainly like to think) delusional ambitions. 


If we are to comprehend ISIL, we need to grapple with that fanatical idea. The fanatical idea is that once there was a glorious Muslim caliphate in which the purity of Koranic revelation provided the basis for the only possible true social order. Then history went horribly wrong, because Mongols and Western Crusaders and Turks and then Western imperialists invaded the blessed Umma and upset the applecart of Allah's plan for history. 

Since then, craven and apostate Muslims have ruled the Arab world and led it into poverty and corruption. The only hope for the restoration of Allah's divine order is jihad to overthrow all this and restore the caliphate. That should be done by the traditional Koranic means of killing unbelievers and imposing true Islam on those who submit.

If we put aside our horror at the specific deeds of ISIL and ponder their idea, we will appreciate the nature of the ideological problem we have. It is very like confronting committed Nazis – let's take the Nazi lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann as an example – and coming to realise that they really believe their anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and actually think that "world Jewry" is out to get them and has to be destroyed by any means possible.

I use the example of Eichmann, the key engineer of the Holocaust, for a number of reasons. The first is that once Nazism was on a roll, the ideological battle could not be won short of the overwhelming use of force to crush it and reopen the space for democratic order in Germany. 

The second is that there was in the 1930s and 1940s and afterwards a disastrous blending of Nazi with Muslim anti-Semitism, the consequences of which we are still dealing with now. The third is that Eichmann, on trial for his crimes in Jerusalem in 1961, was famously described by Hannah Arendt as a "banal" individual unable to morally grasp the enormity of what he had done.

Yet a splendid new work of scholarship by Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer demonstrates that Eichmann knew exactly what he had done and was unrepentant, but worked for years before he was captured and put on trial, to develop an alibi, so that he could avoid becoming a scapegoat for those thousands of other Nazis who had got away scot free with mass murder.

The leaders and foot soldiers of ISIL, who are now shooting, crucifying, beheading and enslaving their perceived enemies in northern Iraq and north eastern Syria are best seen as little Eichmanns in all the ways I have enumerated. They will not be halted by sweet reason, they are authentic and brutal fanatics, they are "banal" in that they seriously lack moral imagination; but they know very well what they are doing.

Regrettably, they need to be constrained and as good international citizens it is appropriate that we play at least a modest part in this work. But if their ideology is to be displaced – both there and around the world – a new vision for the Islamic world and for the wretched Arab world in particular, is badly needed. 

The common foundation on which such a vision ought to be developed is that when the Arabs broke out of the Arabian peninsula and conquered the Roman and Persian empires in the seventh century, they took over the classical Greek heritage in philosophy and science. That heritage, not the Koran, was the fountainhead of Islamic scholarship and science over the five centuries that followed. That was the chief glory of the caliphate, from Baghdad to Cordoba.

That heritage returned to the West from Muslim Arab sources (often via Jewish translators) just as the Mongols were sacking Baghdad. Things went steadily downhill from there for the Arab world. The question is how to revitalise that world in the 21st century. ISIL and their ilk cry "The Koran!" That's a battle cry, but it's not a solution.

The revitalisation of the Arab world needs to draw upon this history in a non-fanatical and constructive manner. There is no end to the scope for dialogue about science, civilization and the future of the Arabic world. That is the ideological challenge before us. Only when it is addressed will the evil that now looms recede. In the meantime we have to deal strategically with the Eichmanns of Islam.

Paul Monk is an author, former senior intelligence analyst and commentator on public and international affairs. Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
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