The Fallacy of Grievance-based Terrorism
by Melvin E.
The fundamental premise of much scholarly examination and public discourse is that grievances with U.S. policies in the Middle East motivate Islamist terrorism. Such assumptions, though, misunderstand the enemy and its nature. In reality, the conflict is sparked not by grievance but rather by incompatibility between Islamist ideology and the natural rights articulated during the European Enlightenment and incorporated into U.S. political culture. Acquiescing to political grievances will not alter the fundamental incompatibility between Lockean precepts of tolerance and current interpretations of Islam: Only Islam's fundamental reform will resolve the conflict.
Many scholars mark the post-World War I partition of the Ottoman Empire as the origin of Islamist opposition to the West. The idea that the Middle East would be a tolerant, prosperous contributor to the global environment today if World War I victors had left intact the Ottoman Empire is a premise in the literature accompanying the rise of twentieth-century jihadism. Historian David Fromkin argued in his influential A Peace to End All Peace that present day Muslim unrest is the direct result of Winston Churchill's early twentieth-century decisions. British journalist Robert Fisk also holds British officials responsible although he prefers to blame Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary between 1916 and 1919. Both authors are wrong, though, to base their theories of grievance on such arbitrary demarcation of eras. The roots of jihadism and its opposition to the United States as part of the non-Muslim West were cast long before World War I erupted. The interaction between the United States and Muslim states and societies dates back to American independence. Contemporary jihadism is not the result of accumulated grievance; rather it has for cultural reasons been an integral factor in Islamic societies' interaction with the United States.
The Die is Cast
Almost immediately after independence, the U.S. government found itself in conflict with the Barbary sheikhdoms of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. For centuries, these states filled their coffers by piracy, stealing cargoes, enslaving crew, and collecting ransom. European sea-going nations often entered into treaty and tribute arrangements with the Barbary leaders in order to buy immunity and curtail competition. In 1784, Moroccan pirates hijacked the U.S. merchant ship Betsy in the Mediterranean and enslaved her crew. A year later, Algerine pirates seized two more vessels, the Maria from Boston and the Dauphin from Philadelphia. The U.S. ministers to England and France, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson oversaw a peace treaty with Morocco, but the Algerine leadership refused any accommodation. In 1796, President George Washington ordered construction of six warships to form a U.S. navy and to protect U.S. shipping from Barbary pirates. In 1801, in the wake of an upsurge in piracy, President Thomas Jefferson entered into war with Tripoli, bombarding the city three years later and winning the release of American hostages. Peace did not last. With the U.S. military embroiled in the War of 1812, Algerine pirates again began terrorizing American crewmen and disrupting U.S. trade. They miscalculated. In 1815, President James Madison dispatched a squadron of U.S. Navy frigates, which defeated the pirate fleet and won reparations from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
Many historians consider the Barbary wars a sideshow relative to contemporaneous events such as the French Revolution, Napoleon's conquests, and the War of 1812, but the Barbary wars are significant to today's conflict. Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison each believed the Barbary wars to be a continuation of the American Revolution. The ground war in North America may have freed the United States from British tyranny, but the Barbary campaign was necessary to win the same freedom of action and commerce within the international community. The episode also crystallized perceptions of Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the American mind. While Americans did not perceive the Barbary wars as a conflict between Christianity and Islam per se, religion was an issue. The two sides fought, not over theological differences, but rather as a result of the divergent ideologies enabled by the two faiths. Washington and Adams referred to the Muslim leaders as "nests of banditti" while Jefferson's and Madison's campaign literature called them "petty tyrants." The "despotic Turk" became the antithesis of early American republican identity.
What Americans and Europeans saw as piracy, Barbary leaders justified as legitimate jihad. Jefferson related a conversation he had in Paris with Ambassador Abdrahaman of Tripoli who told him that all Christians are sinners in the context of the Qur'an and that it was a Muslim's "right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to enslave as many as they could take as prisoners." Islam gave great incentive to fighting infidels, Abdrahaman explained, because the Qur'an promised that making war against infidels ensured a Muslim paradise after death. Richard O'Brien, the imprisoned captain of the Philadelphia merchantman Dauphin and later the U.S. consul to Algiers, related similar conversations with ‘Ali Hasan, the ruler of Algiers. Ottoman leaders used the same rationale to justify the enslavement and trading of captives from the Balkans, Caucasus, and Ukraine.
The role that jihadi ideology played in the Barbary wars is documented with explicit references to jihad and holy war in the treaties that U.S. officials entered into with Muslim rulers. Tunis and Algiers, as the western outposts of the Ottoman Empire, even described themselves to American envoys as the "frontier posts of jihad against European Christianity."
U.S. officials took a conciliatory attitude. Realizing that the North Africans were hypersensitive to the historic conflict between Islam and European Christianity, especially in the context of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, U.S. officials bent over backwards to deny the religious and ideological nature of the conflict, especially to the Muslims themselves. They realized that religious conflict might jeopardize the commerce that the United States still hoped to find in the Mediterranean. In 1821, President John Quincy Adams was barely able to resist assisting the Greeks in their war of independence when both the American and European publics urged war with the Ottoman Empire. The founders possessed a deep conviction for religious tolerance and proudly explained in the short-lived 1797 treaty with Tripoli that the U.S. was not a Christian state at all but rather one which had no official religion and maintained laws forbidding the prohibition of religion. Perhaps their denial of the religious and ideological nature of the conflict foreshadowed the attitude many Washington policymakers adopt today. Then as now, it has become the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of the root of the conflict.
The Barbary conflict was the beginning of continuous U.S. interaction with the Muslim Near and Middle East. While Jefferson and Madison believed that a continuous U.S. military presence in the Mediterranean was necessary to protect U.S. national interests, in 1831, President Andrew Jackson secured a treaty of amity and free trade with the Ottoman Empire leading the secretary of the navy to report seven years later that it was no longer necessary to keep a U.S. fleet in the Mediterranean. Three years after Washington withdrew the squadron, Ottoman privateers began raiding U.S. shipping, forcing the reconstitution of the fleet after the U.S. Civil War.
No longer, though, did the U.S. government feel content to view relations with Muslim governments only through a commercial lens. The Civil War interjected discussion of natural law and freedom into U.S. policy formulation. American missionaries increased their presence in the Muslim Middle East throughout the nineteenth century although Muslim prohibitions on conversion to Christianity led them to focus their efforts more on aid and education than on proselytization. Simultaneously, the Ottoman sultan and other Muslim rulers began to pursue more pronounced repression against both Christians and Jews. Intolerant, fundamentalist strains of Islam gained ground on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa.
By 1840, the final year of his administration, and again during his unsuccessful campaign for a second term in 1848, Martin Van Buren expressed concern for the plight of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, which he called "the most anti-Semitic of countries." In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, strife between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans and in Istanbul led President Ulysses Grant to dispatch six warships to the waterways around the city to ensure the safety of Americans. In 1882, President Chester Arthur dispatched the Mediterranean Squadron to Alexandria to help evacuate Americans and Europeans following anti-Christian violence in the city. President Grover Cleveland even proposed an Anglo-American intervention in the Ottoman Empire to assist Armenian Christians against Muslim violence. In 1903, an assassination attempt on the U.S. consul in Beirut amid anti-Christian rioting led President Theodore Roosevelt to dispatch marines to the city. A few months later, marines landed in Tangiers after the kidnapping of a Greek businessman from the U.S. consulate there. Behind each incident was Muslim violence toward minority Christian and Jewish communities.
The nineteenth century foreshadowed increasing conflict between the United States and Muslim Middle Eastern countries. The failure of effective Ottoman political reform coupled with the evolution of Islamic reform toward greater Islamism and less tolerance set up a conflict between the American notion that governments rule at the consent of the governed and the dominant attitude among Muslim potentates who subscribed to an intolerant, coercive, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian ideology.
Into the early twentieth century, successive U.S. administrations sought to remain aloof from Arab and Ottoman politics. President Woodrow Wilson did not include the Ottoman Empire in the U.S. declaration of war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an omission he said was to mitigate the risk of Ottoman retaliation against its Christian or Jewish populations, thereby implying his sense that the Porte saw the United States through a religious rather than just diplomatic lens.
The U.S. government sought to remain detached in all but the commercial sphere. The U.S. trade relationship with the Middle East expanded exponentially in the mid-twentieth century. In the decade following the end of World War II, U.S. commerce increased 167 percent. The next decade saw a 226 percent rise, and the following decade a 321 percent increase in absolute terms. Such involvement, though, had diplomatic and strategic overtones.
During the Cold War, "armed neutrality" could no longer protect U.S. strategic interests. Successive administrations and the State Department pursued a "pro-Arab" policy in the region to stymie the expansion of Soviet influence into those countries. In a January 1945 correspondence, Dean Acheson, secretary of state and chief architect of the U.S. Cold War Soviet containment policy, argued for a pro-Arab tilt to U.S. policy in order to deny the Soviet Union any possible inroads into the region. Successive administrations embraced the policy. Dwight D. Eisenhower sided with Gamal Abdul Nasser against Israel, France, and Great Britain during the 1956 Suez crisis. While the U.S. government often stayed on the sidelines, in eleven of the twelve major Cold War and immediate post-Cold War conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, Muslims and secular forces, or Arabs and non-Arabs, the U.S. government supported the former group. Washington, for example, backed the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s and supported Bosnian Muslims against Serbs and Croats. U.S. administrations have even leaned hard on Israel, preventing the Jewish state's destruction of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies in 1967; ignoring the Israeli government's pleas not to sell state-of-the-art weaponry to Saudi Arabia; and pressuring for concessions to the Palestinian Authority despite its embrace of terrorism. The only exception to Washington's pro-Arab tilt has been U.S. diplomatic intervention in support of Israel at the United Nations and White House commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge.
During the six decades since Washington abandoned its "armed neutrality" policy in favor of deeper relations with Arab states, friction has increased between U.S. officials and Islamist ideologues. The pro-Arab tilt Washington pursued during the Cold War to stymie Soviet intrigues and maintain energy security, meant partnership with non-democratic regimes and often corrupt rulers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and the Persian Gulf emirates. Islamists and other opposition groups argued that Washington should support the people and not autocrats. But such rhetoric is laid bare by the antagonism that U.S. support for Israel engendered among many of these self-professed democrats. Israel is the only democracy in the region. Its citizens, 17 percent of whom are Muslim, enjoy basic civil liberties regardless of their faith and, even in the West Bank, enjoy a standard of living far superior to that of Egyptians and Jordanians.
Both the United States and Jews have become the focus of Islamists' irrational enmity as Islamist thinkers and Arab demagogues deflect any internal responsibility for Muslim countries' woes. This was a common theme both of Sayyid Qutb, the leading Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and, later, Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. In Knowing the Enemy, Mary Habeck, a professor of military history at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, documents how Qutb and bin Laden spread a message that the decline of majority Muslim polities is not the result of flaws within Islam itself but is instead the deliberate effort of the United States and the Jews. Today Pakistani madrasas (Islamic schools) alone spin out more than one million graduates per year steeped in jihadi ideology.
Underlying much jihadi thought is antipathy toward democracy. Both Qutb and bin Laden argued that democracy is not a solution to inequity and corruption in Islamic societies. In a video that marked the sixth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, bin Laden said, "It has now become clear to you and the entire world the impotence of the democratic system and how it plays with the interest of the peoples and their bloody sacrificing of soldiers and populations to achieve the interests of major corporations." While some Islamists—such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Muhammad Khatami in Iran—speak of their embrace of democracy, seldom do they include Enlightenment concepts such as tolerance, rule-of-law, and property rights. They do not accept, as did the U.S. founding fathers, that people are endowed with both the natural right to freedom from coercion and the liberty to improve their lives. In practice, then, regardless of their rhetoric, they eschew democracy.
The failure of Islamic states to incorporate the Enlightenment's advances in thought has caused their stagnation, if not decline, over the last several centuries. In contrast, the incorporation of Enlightenment and democratic principles into Western governance has resulted in history's most rapid improvement in the human condition. Only those Muslim countries that have embraced, in some fashion, Western principles of democracy, free markets, property rights, tolerance, and the rule of law have prospered. Most Arab states refuse. Bernard Lewis, perhaps the doyen of Middle East studies in the Western world, explained, "By all indicators from the United Nations, the World Bank, and other authorities, Muslim countries—in matters such as job creation, education, technology, and productivity—lag ever further behind the West. Even worse, the Arab nations also lag behind the more recent recruits to Western style modernity, such as Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore." All majority Muslim countries except Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Turkey, which have recently adopted significant free market and democratic reforms, rank in the bottom half of world productivity; of the rest, only Morocco, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh reach the third quartile. According to the World Bank, the average per capita income of all majority Muslim countries collectively is less than half of the average for the globe. Only Kuwait approaches the global average life expectancy; all other Muslim majority states lag in the bottom half of the world in this important measure of health.
Jihadis thrive in such stagnated conditions. This leads to negative annuity: Jihadism both grows amid stagnation and fuels stagnation. It accelerated coincident with the European Enlightenment and the relative decline of the Muslim Middle East. At its core, jihadism is a violent rejection of many of the fundamental principles of the European Enlightenment. Democracy, free markets, tolerance and freedom of religion, secular government, and separation between the religious, the political, and the individual spark religious fury. It is no coincidence, then, that jihadis, under the banner of cleansing their religion of evil Western influence, have focused their attentions on the United States, the clearest manifestation of the European Enlightenment today. They will continue to threaten Western civilization until they are checked.
One of the greatest challenges facing strategic leaders today is objectively examining the centuries-old roots of Islamic jihadism and developing a strategy that will lead to a lasting solution to the Western conflict with it. Many Western policymakers fail to assess realistically why Arab and Islamic governments have been unable to improve the condition of their populations, especially in contrast to the West. This inability to grasp the root of Islamic jihadism is the result of a moral relativism prominent in modern Western liberal thought. For example, over the last few decades, it has become common to value diversity and multiculturalism above societal well-being and improvements in the human condition.
It is not, as Thomas Friedman argues in The World Is Flat, that the fruits of the American experiment—free markets, property rights, tolerance, democracy, and the rule of law—have left Islam behind. On the contrary, it is Islam that has opted out of progress by allowing, promoting, and embracing centuries of reactionary and retrospective reforms that rejected the idea that humans can indeed improve their condition through reason and rationality. Muslim clerics and leaders within the impoverished nations of the Islamic world need to understand that they are responsible for the condition and grief of their people. It is Islamism's rejection of religious tolerance, democracy, and the rule of law, in conjunction with its embrace of anti-Semitism, theocracy, and sectarian strongmen exempt from law and privileged by the authority they have usurped, that is the real enemy in the Islamic world's centuries-long interaction with the United States. While Islamists skillfully manipulate the Western mass media to enunciate an à la carte menu of grievances, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century interactions show these are not the root cause of jihadi terror. Indeed, a U.S. intelligence assessment, published two years before Israel's independence and any subsequent jihadi grievance, already highlighted Islamist terrorism as a long-term threat. So long as Western officials adopt a nearsighted, grievance-based view of the roots of Islamist terror, they will embolden jihadis through appeasement.
It is essential that the grand strategy of the United States addresses this basic conflict of interest. The present conflict is not new. And it is religious. Believing that only a few "rogues" have misappropriated religion is both naïve and counterfactual. U.S. and Western leaders must confront the reality that jihadism is a religious phenomenon that has grown popular and powerful enough to threaten the continued progress of the American experiment and the European Enlightenment. In the new grand strategy to defeat Islamic jihadism, America must campaign, through its scholars and theologians if appropriate, to encourage and facilitate imams and other Islamic religious authority figures to reform Islam in a forward direction, one that breaks from the past and encourages tolerance, the rule of law, free inquiry, and free markets. Imams who support, either passively or actively, jihadism should be undermined and exposed.
How should the United States revitalize its strategy? At home, the U.S. government must better educate and explain the conflict to the general audience. Education at all levels should inculcate U.S. citizens in the history, philosophy, mechanics, virtues, responsibilities, and achievements of the Western approach to freedom, liberty, and the free market. Tolerance and diversity need not mean acceptance of oppression and tyranny. Such an effort would entail reinstalling this subject matter into the curricula of public schools. The strategic leadership of the nation should drive the public education effort, much as the founders did in the eighteenth century. The Federalist Papers, generally attributed to James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, are prototypical examples of effective strategic communications that aimed, among other things, to create a government strong enough to defend itself against the Barbary pirates.
Internationally, U.S. foreign policy should reflect U.S. national values and long-term objectives rather than near-term expediencies devoid of the principles enumerated by the founding fathers. U.S. foreign aid programs need reform. Washington should set a visible standard by supporting non-corrupt democracies, rather than funding kleptocracies. Rather than fund short-term stability in regimes where power is centrally concentrated, Washington should promote trade and development in Islamic nations supporting the rule of law, tolerance, and democracy. Trade and development in these nations empowers people and entrepreneurs, catalyzes economic progress, and decentralizes power in a culture that has deep tendencies toward autocracy.
The half-century-long policy of supporting Arab state stability regardless of its governance is a relic of the Cold War. In order to defeat jihadism, U.S. foreign policy should marginalize Muslim nations that are not supportive of the development of the rule of law, tolerance, and democracy. Washington should not apologize for supporting regional countries that seek peace, prosperity, and the improved well-being of their citizens. To do otherwise fuels jihadi rhetoric that the U.S. government seeks to oppress Muslims throughout the world.
Another requirement is for the West to embark on a radical program to redefine how its economies obtain and distribute energy. Former director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey argues that denying jihadis the use of oil as a weapon against the United States and the West should be Washington's highest priority.
Finally, the history of U.S. interaction with Muslim polities shows that "diplomacy backed by force" is the only effective approach to relations with them. Diplomacy is essential to ensure intentions are understood. Consistent diplomacy is essential to build the trust that majority Muslim countries need to support U.S. aims to advance Enlightenment ideals. Military weakness and the inability to project U.S. power have consistently led jihadis and Muslim kleptocrats to launch attacks against U.S. interests.
Melvin E. Lee is a sea captain and a nuclear engineer in the United States Navy. He serves as special operations officer for the commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and commander, U.S. 6th Fleet. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of the Navy or U.S. government.
 Ussama Makdisi, "‘Anti-Americanism' in
the Arab World: An Interpretation of a Brief History," Journal of
American History, Sept. 2002, p. 546.
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