Politics & Policy

Why They Fight and What Democracy Demands

Ansar Dine fighters in Mali.
In a war motivated by Islamist ideology, appeasement is a policy certain to fail.

In his 6,000-word speech at the National Defense University last week, President Obama devoted only one paragraph to the ideology of those who proclaim themselves America’s enemies. But those 101 words are worth a closer look.

“Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology,” the president began. Quite right: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran’s rulers, Hezbollah, Hamas, and many others who utilize terrorism do indeed see the world through similar lenses. The president did not name their ideology, but most of us have come to employ such terms as “jihadism,” “Islamism,” “political Islam,” and “radical Islam.”

The president described this ideology as “a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West.” This, too, is accurate. If you read the writings of Osama bin Laden, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and such Muslim Brotherhood intellectuals as Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna, there can be no doubt that, by their lights, this conflict is inevitable.

The extremists also believe, Obama continued, “that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.” He refrained from defining that cause, though earlier in the speech he did mention that “deranged or alienated individuals” have been “inspired by larger notions of violent jihad.”

More specifically, they believe that Muslims have been divinely commanded to wage war against those who refuse to accept Allah as the supreme authority of the universe; Mohammed as Allah’s prophet; the Koran as the revealed and unchanging word of Allah; and sharia as the law that mankind must obey.

They believe, too, that the world is divided between the Dar al-Islam, the lands where Muslims rule, and the Dar al-Harb, the lands where infidels rule. They reject the possibility that the two realms can — or should — peacefully coexist. On the contrary, the Dar al-Islam must do whatever is necessary to defeat and destroy the Dar al-Harb.

Many Westerners find it difficult to comprehend that people actually hold such beliefs. These Westerners — there is no tactful way to say this — are ignorant of world history, the millennia of conflicts in which one group after another has attempted to impose its language, culture, religion, and DNA on others.

The use of religion or ideology to justify such aggression and domination is hardly new. Contrary to much wishful thinking, “conflict resolution,” tolerance, multiculturalism, and similar newfangled Western ideas have not been universally embraced. 

Next, the president said: “Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam.” That is something of a non sequitur: As noted above, a central tenet of the ideology he’s discussing holds that Islam is at war with the United States and other nations that persist in rejecting Islam’s message — and that the conflict must continue until the infidels submit.

Further: “And this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims.” Here, Obama returns to solid ground. Most Muslims have no wish to wage jihad against non-Muslims, no desire to strap their children into bomb vests or even to give money to the Islamic “charities” that support such missions. But if only 5 or 10 percent of the world’s more than a billion Muslims do see such efforts as virtuous, we’re still looking at an enormous movement — one lavishly funded by the plentiful oil under lands ruled by Muslims.

The president noted that Muslims “are the most frequent victims of terrorist attacks.” There can be no question about that — in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and many other corners of the world. What’s more, the extremists reserve their most vehement hatred for fellow Muslims who reject their ideology, who — as they see it — have abandoned the true faith in favor of a watered-down interpretation of Islam. They call such Muslims apostates, and the punishment for apostasy is death. This is among the reasons so few Muslims dare speak out against the fundamentalists.

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Obama concluded his single-paragraph disquisition with this: “Nevertheless, this ideology persists.” Yes, it does, and that raises the key strategic question: What is to be done? The president answers: “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Wars do end — but rarely because one side declares them over unless, of course, that side is prepared to accept defeat. Imagine President Roosevelt, circa 1943, deciding it was time to end the “wars” in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, even as German and Japanese troops continued to spread fascism. Imagine President Kennedy saying it was time to wind down the Cold War even as the Soviets were expanding the frontiers of Communism. The ideology that confronts us today is no less totalitarian, no less supremacist, and no less bellicose.

Surely, what history advises is that appeasement is a policy certain to fail. Surely, what democracy demands is that we stand up to those who threaten our freedom — even if that means paying the price and bearing the burden of a long war.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.

Clifford D. May — Clifford D. May is an American journalist and editor. He is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ...

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