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Robert Wright: The Myth of Modern Jihad

An excellent article, and a must read. (hat tip: Justin)

The Myth of Modern Jihad

by Robert Wright

It would be an understatement to say that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, pleaded guilty last week. “I’m going to plead guilty a hundred times over,” Shahzad told the judge. Why so emphatic? Because Shahzad is proud of himself. “I consider myself a Mujahid, a Muslim soldier,” he said.

This got some fist pumps in right-wing circles, because it seemed to confirm that America faces all-out jihad, and must marshal an accordingly fierce response. On National Review Online, Daniel Pipes wrote that Shahzad’s “bald declaration” should make Americans “accept the painful fact that Islamist anger and aspirations” are the problem; we must name “Islamism as the enemy.” And, as Pipes has explained in the past, once you realize that your enemy is a bunch of Muslim holy warriors, the path forward is clear: “Violent jihad will probably continue until it is crushed by a superior military force.”

At the risk of raining on Pipes’s parade: If you look at what Shahzad actually said, the upshot is way less grim. In fact, at a time when just about everyone admits that our strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working, Shahzad brings refreshing news: maybe America can win the war on terrorism without winning the war in Afghanistan.

As a bonus, it turns out there’s a hopeful message not just in Shahzad’s testimony, but in Pipes’s incomprehension of it. Pipes exhibits a cognitive distortion that may be afflicting Americans broadly — not just on the right, but on the center and left as well. And seeing the distortion is the first step toward escaping it.

Once you decide that some group is your implacable enemy, your mind gets a little warped.

Here is how Shahzad explained his role in the holy war: “It’s a war,” he said. “I am part of that. I am part of the answer of the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people, and on behalf of that, I’m revenging the attacks.”

Now, for a Muslim holy warrior to see his attacks as revenge runs counter to Pipes’s longstanding claim that Islamic holy war is about attack, not counterattack. Roughly since 9/11, Pipes has been telling us that jihad is “unabashedly offensive in nature, with the eventual goal of achieving Muslim dominion over the entire globe.” This notion of “jihad in the sense of territorial expansion has always been a central aspect of Muslim life” and is now “the world’s foremost source of terrorism.” That’s why you have to respond with “superior military force.”

Now we have Shahzad suggesting roughly the opposite — that the holy war could end if America would stop using military force. He said in court, “Until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan and stops the occupation of Muslim lands and stops killing the Muslims and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking U.S., and I plead guilty to that.”

Should we really take this testimony seriously? It does, after all, have an air of self-dramatizing grandstanding. Then again, terrorism is a self-dramatizing, grandstanding business, and there’s no reason to think this particular piece of theater isn’t true to Shahzad’s interior monologue.

Indeed, it tracks the pitch of jihadist recruiters, notably Anwar Awlaki, the American sheik in Yemen who inspired not just Shahzad but the Fort Hood shooter and the thwarted underwear bomber. The core of the pitch is that America is at war with Islam, and the evidence cited includes Shahzad’s litany: Iraq, Afghanistan, drone strikes, etc.

Of course, this litany amounts to pretty severe terms for peace. Shahzad says terrorism will continue until we end two wars and all drone strikes? And quit “reporting” suspicious Muslims to our government? Anything else we can do for him?

But as a practical matter, taking any of these issues off the table weakens the jihadist recruiting pitch. (Different potential recruits, after all, are sensitive to different issues.) And if we could take the Afghanistan war off the table, that would be a big one.

At least, that’s my view. This isn’t the place to fully defend it (e.g., address the question of whether I’m “blaming” America for terrorism or whether ending the war would amount to dangerous “appeasement”). My point is just that, if you take Shahzad at his word, there’s more cause for hope than if Pipes were right, and Shahzad’s testimony were evidence that jihadists are bent on world conquest.

Now on to the second cause for hope: Pipes’s confusion itself. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Shahzad was telling the truth, because Pipes certainly thinks he was. Pipes applauds Shahzad’s “forthright statement of purpose,” adding, “However abhorrent, this tirade does have the virtue of truthfulness.”

So then why doesn’t it bother Pipes that Shahzad’s depiction of Islamic holy war as defensive counter-attack is the opposite of the depiction Pipes has peddled for years? How can he possibly hail Shahzad’s comments as confirming his world view?

It’s only human nature. Once you decide that some group is your implacable enemy, your mind gets a little warped. Virtually all incoming evidence is thereafter seen as consistent with that model. (In fact, there’s a more specific finding from social psychology that also helps explain Pipes’s world view, as laid out by blogger Dan Drezner in this little video clip.)

This cognitive distortion reared its head in America’s previous cosmic struggle. Just about all cold war historians agree that Americans bought into the “myth of monolithic communism.” Once we decided that the communist menace was a single, vast, implacable force, we failed to appreciate, for example, tensions between Russia and China that in retrospect seem obviously important. We had our model, and we were sticking to it. Pipes has his model, and he’s sticking to it. He needn’t dismiss evidence inconsistent with it, because he can’t really see the evidence to begin with.

This same tendency may now be impeding America’s ability to conduct the war on terrorism wisely.

If you ask people — right, left or center — why we can’t withdraw from Afghanistan, they start talking about the catastrophe that would ensue: The Taliban would take over, provide bases for al Qaeda, and suddenly it’s 9/11 again. Now, the consequences of withdrawal would certainly be messy and in some ways bad — and this subject is way too complicated to deal with in my remaining few paragraphs. But enough holes have been poked in standard catastrophe scenarios (by, for example, Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center) without much reducing the grip these scenarios have on people’s minds that you have to wonder whether our fears are grounded in something other than pure reason. You have to wonder whether we’re doing what Pipes is doing: taking a genuinely pretty scary bunch of enemies and making them much scarier — attributing so much unity and relentlessness and cunning to them that it’s hard to imagine beating them without military victory.

To be sure, there is always an ostensibly logical argument that catastrophists summon. (Pipes isn’t wrong to say that there is a doctrine of offensive jihad — he’s just wrong about how it has played out historically and how it plays it out today.) But the reason people accept these arguments so uncritically is that they have a fear of Islamic radicalism that dwarfs the actual threat.

The analogy with communism is worth dwelling on. People warned that if Vietnam fell, the dominoes would keep falling until America itself was under communist control. After all, Russia and China — the sponsors of our Vietnamese enemy — would join with the Vietnamese government to use Vietnam as a forward base if we were chased out. You know — kind of the way al Qaeda would join with a Taliban that controlled any chunk of Afghanistan to torment America.

Well, four years after Saigon fell, Communist Vietnam and Communist China were at war — not with us, but with each other. And a decade after that we had won the cold war.

I’ve been kind of hard on Pipes — in parts of this column and in an earlier column. So I’m glad to have the opportunity to emphasize that he’s just an example of the human mind at work, albeit a particularly revved up example. It’s only natural to attribute to your enemy more cohesion and menace than is in order. We used to do this with communism, and now we do it with radical Islam — and radical Muslims, for their part, do it with us. It’s a temptation we all have to fight. Maybe if we fought it as hard as we fight other enemies, we’d have fewer of them.

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  • Joachim Martillo
  • Mikee

    America is a continent, not a country. The name was giving to the America of the south, then applied to the North as well. The fact that Unitedstaters, with their cultural imperialism, are calling their country “America”, is witness to maybe the first ever nation in the history of humanity who was so high on their own s**t that actually stolen the name of the continent they reside in. USA, which is the correct name of the Unitedstaters’ country, is short for “United States of (the continent) America”. When i read or hear Unitedstaters talking about “America” i always got confused, because their country is called USA, while America is a continent.

  • Justin


  • Emperor

    Thanks Justin,

    We updated to include your hat tip!

  • Justin

    What’s up with that? No hat tip?

  • Daniel

    One of the best-written articles about the “modern jihad” fallacy that I’ve read. Keep posting more of the same!

  • vigil

    robert what a stupid article is he still blind to what plays out in the name of religion by fanatics, u take the words of a convict at face value do u think it is really what he wants to express…u state” How can he possibly hail Shahzad’s comments as confirming his world view?” then how could you too make it to suit your own.

    When u compare the dangers of communalism to the same level of a fanatical religion any for that matter it shows your ignorance of the power and the longevity of religions and the hold they command.

    you state,”It’s only natural to attribute to your enemy more cohesion and menace than is in order.”….u r correct but what about when u have the facts that implicate ur enemies time and again stare you in the face and u look away because u r afraid and know that acting on the facts would brand you as a bigot.

  • Ian Gould

    Unfortunately, Robert Pillar’s (admittedly brief) essay doesn’t address what I think is one of the core problems with a withdrawal from Afghanistan in the short term.

    The Afghan heroin trade is worth several billion dollars a year to Al Qaida, take that away from them and you cripple them.

  • Sir David ( Illuminati membership number 5:32)

    I agree mossizzle but it suits many from the neocon/zionists to OBL for it to be seen that way . Thats how they get there support .

  • Mossizzle

    Its about time someone used there sense and put 2 and 2 together. This is the kind of writing that Obama needs to read fast — before terrorists get more moral ammunition.

    Its mostly political and not completely religious as the right wingers claim.

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  • mindy1

    There is a way to deal with this-let’s hope a deal can be reached

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