National Security & Defense

Muslims and Islamists

Militants in an ISIS propoganda video
How do extremists relate to the population in which they live?

The terrorism in Paris is yet another bad chapter in an ongoing Western debate over a seeming paradox. Almost all recent global terrorism is attributable to Islamic-inspired violence — much of it directed against Muslims. And yet the vast majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims do not directly aid and abet the spate of Islamic extremism.

How then to focus on the Islamic terrorists without polluting the surrounding sea in which these sharks swim?

Do history’s radical movements assume initial or even ongoing popular majorities to ensure their viability? Obviously, the vast majority of Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Russians did not support the extremists who came to power with Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, and Lenin.

Indeed, besides carrying out the Holocaust against the Jews, Hitler killed thousands of his own Germans, an array of homosexuals, Communists, domestic critics, and the physically handicapped. Stalin caused more deaths among his own fellow Soviet citizens in the Twenties and Thirties than the Wehrmacht later did.

The point is that extremist movements, even when they become strong enough to reach power, are not always particularly kind to their own or well liked among them. That Muslim radicals kill Muslims in their midst does not necessarily mean that they do not prefer to kill non-Muslims.

The continued influence of radical Muslims who engage in terrorism hinges on whether they bring power, prestige, and resources to the people that they otherwise usually oppress. Islamic theocrats control governments only in the Gulf, Iran, and Gaza, and are trying to cobble together a caliphate largely in Syria and Iraq. Turkey likewise is moving toward theocracy. But Islamists are active, both above and below the radar, in almost every Muslim-majority nation — and they can manage this even where they enjoy very little popular support.

A great deal of attention has been given to radically changing views toward Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, after the disintegration of Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, along with the bloody rampage of Boko Haram in central Africa.

But what is even more striking is the large minorities who still either are willing to state their support for terrorists or say they are unconcerned about their activity. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Muslim support for suicide bombing has dropped in recent years. Yet even so, in 2014 in major Islamic countries — Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan — somewhere between 18 and 46 percent of the population expressed approval for the proposition that suicide bombing against civilian targets can “often/sometimes be justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies.”

The vast majority of Muslims no longer express support for the late Osama bin Laden, but sizable minorities in some countries still do: 15 percent in Egypt, 23 percent in Bangladesh, and 25 percent in Palestine. The polls suggest two disturbing possibilities. In a world of 1.5 billion Muslims, perhaps 150 million Muslims worldwide — 10 percent — still admire bin Laden, are not concerned about Islamic violence, and support suicide bombing against the perceived enemies of Islam. While Muslim majorities are beginning to react negatively to the escalating violence in their own midst, millions still do not.

In a historical sense, under political and religious systems that tolerate no dissent — it is still a capital crime in most Muslim countries to slander the Prophet Mohammed or to become an apostate from Islam — it is hard to assess what percentage of the population at any given time supports radical leadership. Hitler was extremely popular with the German people after the fall of France in June 1940, but he was generally disliked by mid 1944, the time of the heavy bombing of German cities, the invasion of Normandy, and the collapsing German front in the East.

Yet throughout those years, the Allies nonetheless used the inexact rubric “Germans” without concern for the fact that over the duration of the war sometimes many, sometimes very few Germans supported what was done by the Third Reich in the name of Germany. Just as foreigners more recently talked inclusively of “Americans” without regard for Republicans or Democrats, who had far different views by 2006 on the Iraq war, and as people speak of “Christians” to mean everyone from Southern Baptists to Brazilian Catholics, so it is just as legitimate or illegitimate to generalize about “Muslims.”

In 2003, substantial numbers of people in many Muslim countries expressed “confidence” in Osama bin Laden — 46 percent in Pakistan, 56 percent in Jordan, 59 percent  in Indonesia, 72 percent in Palestine (all these countries recipients of U.S. aid). Those favorability ratings declined significantly after the terrorist hijackings of the so-called Arab Spring, the internecine wars in Lebanon, the collapse of Syria, the crimes of Boko Haram, and the rise of the Islamic State. Was it politically correct to say that “Muslims” supported terrorism in 2003 because a clear majority in places like moderate Jordan so polled?

#page#Clearly polls are not the only evidence of the level of support for Islamic-inspired radicalism. More important can be the degree of passivity of the population. General Sisi of Egypt recently argued that the Muslim clerical establishment bore a great deal of responsibility for global Islamic terrorism, not because these clerics necessarily voiced support for it, but because they were unwilling or unable to mobilize Muslims against it. I can recall meeting with a group of Libyan exiles living in the United States in 2006, all of whom were highly educated, Americanized professionals. They voiced optimism that their former tormentor Qaddafi was liberalizing their country and offering hope of recreating a civil society even for secularized dissidents like themselves. But when I mentioned the then-current case of the Islamic attacks against those associated with the caricatures of Mohammed in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten, all four Libyans voiced unanimous approval of the violence against such blasphemers. And when I asked them about the then-recent suicide bombings in Israel, they again voiced support for such activities.

So far, international polling organizations have not conducted surveys in Muslim countries to ascertain popular attitudes about the attack on Charlie Hebdo. However, we should not be surprised if sizable minorities should voice their support. I would assume that a certain number of Muslims worldwide — perhaps the 150 million posited above — would admire the so-called martyrs whose terrorist acts were thought to be in service to the reputation of the prophet.

While there is great talk in the West that it is only a small minority of Muslims who support Islamic terrorism, and that the remedy for such terrorism must be found within the world of Islam, there is not much logical or historical evidence that such truisms matter much. Ten percent is a tiny minority of any population. But if 10 percent of Muslims worldwide support ongoing terrorist movements, that is still 150 million Muslims, who comprise a large enough pool to aid and abet terrorism, either by giving moral and financial support or by acting as pressure groups within mostly autocratic political systems.

We should not be surprised at that fact. If just 10 percent of the French population is Muslim, and perhaps just 10 percent of that subset supports Islamic violence, there remains a pool nevertheless of perhaps 600,000 radicalized French residents of Middle Eastern descent that offers the sort of environment in the French suburban ghettos that spawns the current terrorist violence.

Moreover, theoretical support or rejection of terrorism as evidenced by polls does not necessarily translate into real-life consequences, especially in non-democratic societies — as we know from supposed German disenchantment with Hitler during the last year of the war. Were we wrong in January 1945 to keep bombing “the Germans,” given that most by then both did not like the Nazi government and yet did not dare to actively oppose it?

The truth is that to the degree that radical Muslim terrorists kill other Muslims inside Islamic countries and make collective progress impossible, or, by their actions, do tangible damage to the reputation of these Islamic countries overseas, they will be become unpopular and eventually find too little support to continue their violence.

However, if Islamic-inspired violence abroad does not directly and negatively affect the Middle East, or if it creates a sense of fear of radical Islam among Westerners that does not translate into hardship for the Muslim world — or that perhaps even succeeds in winning a sort of warped prestige — then there is no reason to expect the Islamic community will take the necessary measures to curb it.

The sense of perceived persecution in the Middle East is real — analogous to Germany’s lamentations after the Versailles Treaty. The retreat into Islamic-inspired terror reflects a larger, complex stew of anger at the reach of Western globalization into traditional and conservative Islamic societies and of envy of the wealth and influence of the Western world, combined with an inability to offer self-critical analyses about the role of tribalism, statism, gender apartheid, religious fundamentalism, intolerance, autocracy, and anti-Semitism in institutionalizing poverty and instability.

For a sizable minority of Muslim immigrants to the West, a sense of inferiority is sometimes enhanced rather than diminished by contact with Western liberal society. The longer and further immigrants are away from the mess of the Middle East that caused them to flee or at least stay away, the more they are able under the aegis of Western freedom, prosperity, and security to romanticize what provides them with the sense of self that they have not earned in their adopted countries.

In the Middle East, when modern societies reach such a point, they prefer to blame “Jews” or “the decadent West” rather than their own pathologies for a perceived descent from the glories of a past — and religiously pure — age. Liberal internal reform would be the only lasting cure of their maladies, but, tragically, such an impetus is usually thrust upon them by forces from the outside, even if only a small but influential and activist minority is responsible for acting out such self-destructive agendas.

When the nihilism of radical Islam manifests itself not just in the bombings in Paris or Boston, but right at home with the rise of the murderous Islamic State, or when the Arab Spring is hijacked by Islamists who typically leave Somalias in their wake, or when Middle Eastern Muslims find it hard to emigrate to and reside in Western countries or to freely import Western goods, or when the leaders of Middle Eastern appeasing states are ostracized from international gatherings, or when states that behead and stone are shunned by the West, then support for the terrorists and what produced them will begin slowly to fade.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

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