The Conundrum of Islam

Expert View

As if we needed another reminder, the Brussels attacks bring into even sharper focus the specter of growing radical Muslim extremism and the threat it poses to the west.   Yesterday’s attacks in the heart of Europe were tragic, but sadly predictable.  Not predictable by exact time and place, but if anyone had asked me or any of my former colleagues at CIA who have been deeply involved in the Global War on Terrorism if we thought there was a strong likelihood of more significant terrorist attacks in Europe and if the security situation was getting worse, everyone would have said, “yes.” 

Mike Morrell, former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA, noted in the immediate wake of the attacks that it would seem ISIS is winning and as usual, he’s right on the mark.  ISIS is winning. 

What then, do we do about the spread of radical Muslim extremism?  While we have had many tactical successes over the past 15 years, we are struggling strategically.  Tactically, in Al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), we have decimated al-Qaeda Senior Leadership and their ability to launch attacks against the west (the FATA is the moveable headquarters of al Qaeda Senior Leadership after having been chased out of Afghanistan in late 2001).  But, our excitement over tactical wins must unfortunately be tempered by the realization that the al Qaeda ideology seems to be spreading and 15 years post 9/11, we now face a difficult situation and there are more regions around the world under the threat of terrorism, not less, and we are faced with the reality of the spread of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and radical Muslim extremism ideology.

Many places in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa are going the wrong way for the West, which is to say we have more failed and failing states than ever, and governments and large regions in those areas are turning less secular, more fundamentalist, and more lawless every day.  Unfortunately, in the wake of these transformations and failed states, there are more radical Muslim extremists committing more terrorist acts in the name of religion.  We have a problem. 

It goes without saying that the vast majority of Muslims are good citizens, love their children, respect the law, and are all around good people.  But, here’s the conundrum we face:  Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists seem to be Muslims

Sure, that’s a way overly broad characterization that will cause some people to bristle and others to shift uncomfortably in their chairs, but when it comes to big terrorist acts killing a dozen people or more, the sort of thing which we seem to be seeing on television almost weekly in Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places, there is some real truth to the statement.  There are certainly exceptions and a thoughtful and politically correct friend of mine winced at my over generalization the other day, pointing out that Timothy McVeigh was not a Muslim.  I acknowledged this was true, but commented that the Oklahoma City bombing was over 20 years ago. 

Yes, there are scores of “terrorist” attacks worldwide by people who are not Muslims.  There are separatist groups, right wing extremists, Cuban counterrevolutionary extremists, Jewish extremists, communist extremists, animal rights activists, radical environmentalists, and a wealth of anti-government militias committing violent acts that could be characterized as terrorism. 

In this country, many have cited an FBI study from a few years ago noting that from 1980-2005, 94 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. were carried out by non-Muslim actors and though this study is now dated, those high percentages of non-Muslim terrorist acts continue to hold in more recent reports.  But, these FBI numbers seem doubtful and the old line about, “…lies, damn lies, and statistics” comes to mind.  The trouble with the FBI study is their somewhat broad definition of terrorism to include all sorts of non-lethal, non-violent sabotage practiced by animal rights activists and extremist environmentalists pouring sugar into the gas tanks of loggers, putting nails on roads to provoke flat tires, and spiking trees which can damage chain saws.  Sure, I guess these people are bad, but in the minds of most Americans, they are not exactly a grave threat to public safety, and they’re not what we think of when we talk about terrorism.  But, it is also worth noting here that there have been many mass casualty attacks in the U.S. caused by active shooters from a variety of backgrounds, and the casualties from these attacks have dwarfed any deaths from terrorism.

Looking more internationally, if you read the news, you see an endless stream of terrorist attacks conducted by radical Muslim extremists over the last couple of years.  That’s a big problem for the West, because we don’t want to fall into the trap of stoking the flames and characterizing this as any sort of a fight against Islam—it isn’t.  But, likewise, everyone seems to have a very hard time admitting that we have a big problem in that bad actors in many countries have specifically hijacked the Muslim faith to recruit new followers to a terrorist ideology, even when terrorism runs contrary to what almost all Muslims believe.

Walking down Washington, D.C.’s K Street the other day, on my way to buy a sandwich, I saw a lone woman protester standing on the sidewalk holding up a sign where she had written, “Muslims are not terrorists!”  Too curious to resist, I walked up to her and asked what her sign meant.  She said she was a Muslim and things she was reading in the newspaper offended her, and she wanted people to know that Muslims are not terrorists and further, “cannot be terrorists.”  I suggested that there sure were a lot of recent terrorist attacks that had been carried out by self-proclaimed Muslims.  “No,” she said, “A true Muslim could never be a terrorist.”  I countered that a lot of Muslims would disagree with her, that there had been countless killings in the name of Islam, and who was she to decide who was Muslim and who wasn’t?  Her repeated fall back position was to say that because no one who was really a Muslim would ever commit any sort of terrorist attack, then by definition, no Muslims could be terrorists, and no terrorists could be Muslims. 

I continued on my way, but her complete rejection of the idea that Islam could have anything to do with terrorism reminded me of the reluctance in many parts of the Muslim world to confront the issue of growing radical fundamentalism head on.  The U.S. can’t “fix” this growing problem for them; they have to fix it themselves.  Some of it is better education, and another important part is economic development, but these are only parts of the puzzle.  Most of all, we need to encourage other countries to move toward better governance and to provide the resources to help them with the myriad and interrelated challenges they face.  Terrorist organizations find it difficult to exist, and harder still to grow, when they are in a country that has a functioning government, a working court system, rule of law, fairness, little tolerance for corruption, a disciplined and well-trained military, and effective policing.  We should do what we can to help other countries to create better governments so that they can better confront home grown terrorism.  Otherwise, the tragic fall out from these failed states will be ours with which to deal—in Belgium and other places.  

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