Today's date:
Fall 2006

De-Globalize the Jihad

Olivier Roy, one of the West’s top experts on radical Islam, is author of Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah and The Failure of Political Islam.

Paris —The world is safer since 9/11—but not because of the war on terror.

The global war on terror, or WOT, was based on a wrong assessment: that the roots of terrorism are to be found in the Middle East and that Iraq was the most worrisome and troublesome country for the West.

Under this assessment, the Bush administration, therefore, called for a “reshaping” of the Middle East—meaning the replacing of existing regimes with democracies.

The priority was to topple Saddam Hussein—to establish a stable, democratic and pro-Western regime in Iraq whose very existence would unleash a wave of democratization that would change or destabilize authoritarian regimes, without the need to bring more United States troops to the area. This plan did not work but has had many negative side effects.

The first consequence is that troops and money have been diverted from Afghanistan, which was (and probably still is) the real issue. The second mistake was using war not as a metaphor but as a real strategy: sending troops to occupy territories. It failed. Osama bin Laden is still well and alive, most likely in Pakistan. No big guns of terrorism have been taken or killed by military operations (all were caught either through intelligence or classical police action). The reason is simple: Al-Qaida is not a territorial organization and does not rely on state support.

The WOT has stuck most of the Western armies in protracted local conflicts where local issues are more important than global terror (nationalism, territory, civil wars, etc.). Western armies are overstretched and unable without drafts to address new long-term threats or challenges.

The WOT has, on the contrary, increased the tensions in the Middle East, enhanced both religious radicalism and Arab nationalism, and promoted Iran as the leading country in the area by crushing its archenemies (Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) and bringing its Shiite allies into power in Iraq.

Democratization has been a total failure for a very simple reason: It is not an abstract process to construct from scratch a Jeffersonian political system. Rather, democratization should be rooted in the two elements that would give political legitimacy to the whole process: nationalism and Islam. No wonder that the process of democratization has put Islamist parties closer to power without boosting secular forces (that are, in any case, more nationalistic than democratic).

The consequence of such unassumed errors is the contradictory discourse of the Bush administration: It does not concede an inch on the WOT and hence refuses to engage the regional political forces dubbed “terrorist” (Hamas, Hezbollah and even the Iranian regime), while it is nevertheless unwilling to consider any real increase in military pressure against them.

The Israeli army has been unable to disarm the Hezbollah. The United Nations troops will be unable and unwilling to do it. Civil war is increasing in Iraq, and Iran seems to have a rather free hand in the area. But there is no real endeavor from Washington to draw practical conclusions and to engage local actors with a clear political agenda.

The mix of arrogance and impotence leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Conflicts that had their specific roots ( Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq) and that could have and should have been dealt with separately are now lumped together into a “global jihad.” This plays directly into the hands of the Iranian leaders and of Bin Laden, who precisely wants to tie all the existing conflicts together in order to mobilize a global ummah with a global cause.

But the world is safer despite the WOT. The real war on terrorism is working: the one with no military, no fighter planes and no big speeches, but a protracted mobilization of police, intelligence agencies and the courts looking at concrete networks and cells, most of them based in the West, who try to promote the al-Qaida brand. Many plots have thus been thwarted in the West, through police work and international cooperation.

The ultimate issue is how to prevent angry young Muslims from connecting with their mainstream co-religionists. The answer is to separately address the different issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, democratization of the Middle East and Islam in the West.