The fastest growing segment of the religion thinks so…
Western leadership has denounced the beheading of James Foley, and both Obama and Blair have referred to ISIS as a “cancer”. Cancer is probably the most accurate analogy of what Islamic extremism really is to Islam as whole. The real question we need to ask is if we can treat it? In making that determination in a cancer patient, we would look at the location of the cancer, the growth rate and the degree of metastasis of the infection. For diseases, we would also like to know the vector (or mechanism by which it spreads). We have metrics to measure these all of these components of extremist Islam.
The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) released an unclassified version of their 2011 Report on Terrorism, which shows that 56% of total attacks can be attributed to Sunni Islamists. They are also responsible for more than 70% of total global terrorist attack deaths, which tells us that on average their attacks are considerably more violent than other terrorist groups. If we do not face the fact that there is strong correlation between terrorists, terrorist attacks and Islam, then we are choosing to ignore the statistical reality of the problem. If we continue to ignore the causal factors of the problem, we have very little chance of solving it.
Neither Islam nor the Quran independently create terrorists
Neither Islam nor the Quran is the cause of terrorism. One of the often-cited myths about Islam is that the Quran has Suras (Verses) which justify terrorism and that those equivalent versus are lacking in the bible. The first part of that sentence is true, the Quran is rife with instructions to do violence against non-Muslims. For example Sura 9.5, “God instructs his Muslim followers to kill unbelievers, to capture them, to ambush them…”. Sura 4.34, 5.33, 8.12 and 8.6 are pretty commonly used as examples directing what western society today would call torture.
The falsehood arises in the second part of the sentence when Christians conveniently ignore the equivalently violent passages in the Bible, (and the Jews in the Torah, specially the Tanakh). The passages are equally descriptive and direct the extermination of the Canaanites – effectively advocating genocide. Certainly there are many other references that could be selected and used to justify cruelty and violence. To say that the justification for violence is more present in the passages of the Quran than in the bible or the Torah is simply false. Extremism is no more rooted in the holy book of Islam, than any other religion. We need to look to the culture of Muslim nations and determine how their interpretation of these versus creates such a high percentage of global terrorists.
Sunni terrorism is the primary driver of global terrorism
The NCTC report does not break out the Shi’a based terrorist attacks by groups from the total sum of “other” attacks. Shi’a Islam makes up only about 12.5% of the global population of Muslims. Therefore their total contribution to global terrorism is relatively low compared to their Sunni counter parts. Further, Shi’a based terrorism is typically associated with much more targeted attacks like political assassinations, kidnapping or car bombs. This is probably due to the controls imposed by Iran, the state sponsor of Shi’a terrorist groups like Hezbollah and others. As such, this is a significantly different driver of extremism and it should be treated separately.
According to a recent Rand study, (June 2014) “since 2010 there has been a 58% increase in Salafist Jihadi Groups” (One branch of Sunni Islam that advocates violence), “a doubling in the number of fighters and a tripling in the total number of attacks”. The total Muslim growth global rate is approximately 2.5% per year, but the growth rate of Salafist Jihad’is based on those metrics is nearly 20% per year. What we can take away from those two reports is that Sunni Islam is the main vector by which extremism is spread, and that it is spreading almost 10 times faster than the potentially healthy elements of Islam.
The attitudes of Muslims can be and have been tracked
When we look at the 2013 Global Pew Poll titled The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, I want to point out the range of responses is wide. Different cultures certainly influence how Islam is practiced, and how extremism is viewed. It does however identify some significantly frightening points on the compatibility of Islam with other religions.
One key difference is highlighted in Appendix A which shows that American Muslims are considerably different from their global counter parts in their tolerance of other religions (They are off the scale and considerably more tolerant). In all other aspects of their religion, they are within the range of responses from their global counter parts. Religious tolerance is both a legal necessity to live in America and the only socially accepted position in American society.
That said, this uncharacteristic American Muslim tolerance of other religions, provides Americans with a distorted view of Muslim tolerance as a whole. American culture demands acceptance of other religions and this fact coupled with American Muslims being exceptionally tolerant undoubtedly helps create the American misconceptions that Islam is a tolerant religion and that acts of terrorism are not highly correlated with the Islamic faith. The fact is that Islam is generally intolerant, and Islam is highly correlated with terrorism, but that is socially unacceptable to say in America. These misconceptions created the illusion that there is no link, and the social norms stop Americans from identifying and discussing the root of the problem.
When we look at all other measures in the reported poll data, American Muslims are consistently similar to their global counter parts. One example of that similarity (which could be a measure of extremism as well) is their support for suicide bombing. Nineteen percent of American Muslims express support for its use. In the Muslim community at large 28% express support for suicide bombing. The American response falls well within the global range of responses.
As we saw in the video “A Message to America”, which showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley, we can clearly see that cultural influence in how it is practiced does not provide immunity from the infection, as the murderer is British. Another example is the Russian news agency requested poll from ICM research asking Europeans about their support for ISIS. Germany, the UK and France have about 2%, 7% and 15% respectively, of their total populations (Muslim and non-muslim alike) expressing support for ISIS. We can make the assumption that this support is coming primarily from the Muslim population, but clearly that is a surprisingly high number for western nations.
Next we can look back to the Global Pew poll, which looks at Muslim support for extremist groups. The global median of all Muslims who express an unfavorable view of specific terrorist groups in 2013 was as follows:
Al-Qaeda 57% / The Taliban 51% / Hamas, 45% / Hezbollah 42%
The question evoked responses of positive support, which globally ranged between of 13% – 32% of respondents. Very close to 25% of respondents refused to answer or stated they did not know. Less than half of the global population of Muslims sees the activities of those organization as incongruent with their religion. That tells me less than half of the Muslim population opposes the actions of the extremists.
Using our cancer analogy, if the cells of a human body were 25% cancerous and increasing at 20% rate per year, the chances of survival would be low. Applying those same growth metrics to the Ebola virus, if infections were growing at the same rate as extremist Islam, with its current slightly over 1,000 cases worldwide today and its two-week incubation, period we would have nearly 100,000 cases a year from now. Islam is neither a cancer nor a disease, but the extremist elements certainly have a cancerous effect on the populations they infect.
Can we stop the spread of extremist Islam?
Only recently, as ISIS started to threaten the political power in both Iraq and Syria, do we see Muslim governments starting to condemn their actions. It is neither surprising nor impressive that they are speaking out to preserve their power structures in the face of what is now a credible threat. The real power in the Middle East has always been tribal alliances followed by religious authority and only then do national governments and political power structures come into play. From a cultural perspective, Islamic governments have little or no ability to stem the tide of extremism.
Religious leadership would be the appropriate place from which to drive change. We can make the assumption that the Muslim population takes its cues and opinions from the religious leadership and the survey data largely reflects those views. Less than 50% state they are actively opposed to the actions of the extremists, so at best a consolidated push by Muslim Religious leadership would result in a draw… They are simply not on the same page.
ISIS on the other hand has clearly stated their goal. ISIS is in the media and on TV. ISIS is fighting a war with Islamic nations and the west to establish an Islamic State. ISIS confidently proclaims its leadership of the Muslim world. For many young Muslims, ISIS fighters are the war hero’s of their generation.
Conversely, Muslim religious leadership is talking, debating and arguing amongst itself. While a number of Muslim scholars have openly condemned ISIS actions, very few, if any, have condemned their goal of an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Further, their messages are disjointed and they are simply not speaking to the Muslim community or the world with a cohesive message. It is unwise to bank on religious leadership driving a successful shift in Muslim culture to one where radicalization and extremism is not tolerated. I see absolutely no indicators that a change of that magnitude is within their capability.
Barak Obama naively stated a few weeks back that ISIS is a Muslim problem and that Muslims must take the lead in solving it. In actuality this is a problem America created in 2003 by deposing Saddam Hussein. Until 2011 we were managing the problem we created and there was a chance to mentor the fledgling democracy that we had spent 9 years and 4,488 lives creating. In December of 2011, Obama’s “end” of the Iraq war left an incompetent military, and a disjointed, ineffective, non-representative government to figure it out on its own. ISIS was born in the Syrian conflict that Obama failed to engage in. It has swept aside the Iraqi Army he abandoned in 2011 and filled the power vacuum he created. ISIS is the surrogate son of Barack Obama and failed American foreign policy.
Setting aside blame, lets assume for a minute that Muslim governments do have the desire to solve the problem that America dumped in their laps. The only tool they have at their disposal is military force. We have seen how effective the Iraqi Army is, and quite frankly despite their clear incompetence in the face of ISIS; they are some of the better-trained and equipped soldiers in the entire middle east. Name one Muslim nation that credibly projects power beyond its own borders? Save Iran, there is none. Iran has absolutely zero incentive to do anything save ensure its own borders are secure at this point.
Military power alone will not change the future of Islam
We can use air power and Special Operations Forces and intelligence assets to delay ISIS from taking more ground. We cannot win a war via a delaying action. ISIS fighters are estimated at 17,000. Based on the past growth rate of extremism we calculated earlier, extremists are created at the rate of about 60,000 per year, which is certainly an adequate recruitment pool. ISIS is clearly benefiting from its new position as the dominant player in the extremist world and as such we can expect it to grow quickly.
We can probably keep a lid on it for a while, but air power is indiscriminate and every civilian casualty and non-combatant we kill increases the growth rate. SOF, air power and intelligence assets are not going to eliminate ISIS. If ISIS is a cancer, Muslims are militarily incapable of carving out the cancer themselves. From a practical perspective, western military power is the only force capable of performing the excision.
The excision of ISIS is not the issue. Like every Muslim army on the planet they are simply no match for competent soldiers. The problem is military power does not deal with the cultural elements in Islam that creates the extremists. If we are unwilling to go to war with the Salafist culture and the society’s it infects, then we should not go to war. We should in fact waste no more U. S. resources on fighting the symptoms, as ISIS is only a symptom of the greater disease. The disease is not rooted in the Quran, or in a specific country. The disease is rooted in the culture surrounding a segment of the Islamic religion.
If America fails to clearly identify the root of the problem and create and lead the coalition to effect change, then ISIS is the future of Islam
As a country we currently lack the will to fight a protracted war in the Middle East against a significant potion of the Islamic religion. That is what it would take to eradicate extremist Islam. I am not sure how many beheaded Americans, bombed and attacked embassies, and terrorist acts on U. S. soil it will take to generate the will. What we do know is the Muslim world cannot independently solve the problem we created for them.
Under the Obama administration, ISIS has been handed the future of Islam, and until America generates the leadership and the will to fight extremism at is root causes, we will change nothing. Effecting change requires both the commitment of forces necessary and the strategic mission of eradicating the portion of Islam that is incompatible with the rest of humanity. Extremist Islam has been at war with America for quite some time. We have yet to declare war on it…
~ Patrick Henry