Each act of terrorism prompts confusion and fear on both sides of the Atlantic. Television reports following each new attack are ritualized: policymakers condemn terrorists’ “cowardice” and “barbarism” but offer no policy antidote other than stepped-up policing at home and military operations in Syria and Iraq, while private citizens incredulously explain their neighbors “showed no signs” they could be mass murderers. Such confusion is prompting the West to abandon some of its own democratic values: Following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Europeans now contemplate ending the freedom of movement they so cherish, while US Presidential candidate Donald Trump calls for a ban on all Muslims from entering the United States. Despite such widespread confusion, however, there is a clear factor driving our neighbors to become homegrown terrorists: a political ideology, which, unless exposed and delegitimized, will generate continuous waves of terror by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and its successor groups.
Islamism is the ideology of ISIS. Islamism differs crucially from Islam: it constitutes distortion of a religion—whose very name derives from the Arabic word for “peace”—into a political credo that aims to establish a new world order, even by force if necessary. In this sense, Islamism shares similarities with medieval interpretations of Christianity, which justified the violent extremism of the Crusaders and the rigid political, economic, and social order of feudalism.
The core concept of Islamism is that a narrow interpretation of God’s divine law, sharia, must be established everywhere to govern all aspects of life, including public and private law, ethics, politics, economics, business, and warfare. From the Islamist perspective, secular law, even if formulated democratically, is less legitimate than God’s own law. Thus, secular law must eventually yield to sharia until a single religious state, or Caliphate, replaces all the countries of today.
While Islamists all share these utopian goals, they differ significantly in terms of patience and tolerance. By far, most of the world’s Islamists are at peace with the present world and hold moderate views. They blend personal piety and conservative norms into their everyday lives, confident that divine law will ultimately triumph, but perhaps centuries from now. More eager Islamists, such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, want change to begin now and seek political power—including via democratic elections—to clear the way for the eventual Caliphate based on a narrower and less tolerant version of sharia.
The least patient turn Islamism into fundamentalist extremism. They want the Caliphate immediately and are willing to use violence to pursue it. ISIS members, in fact, believe they have already established their Caliphate in portions of Iraq and Syria, where laws are now based on an interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence that predominated centuries ago in the Arabian Peninsula. Such Islamist extremists dub Muslims who reject these extreme views “apostates” and target them above all others for murder. Thus, Muslims themselves face the greatest risks in the battle within Islam between extremism and moderation and will ultimately determine its outcome.
Western governments face a dilemma in responding to this, the most important ideological struggle in the world today. On the one hand, Western societies have a profound interest in the outcome of this “battle of ideas” among Muslims; on the other hand, Americans and Europeans lack credibility among Muslims and thus cannot use direct action to shape this crucial debate.
The West’s key to resolving this dilemma is indirect intervention. By working with like-minded governments and citizens in Muslim-majority countries, Western governments can help empower scholars, imams, and non-governmental organizations in much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia who embrace their indigenous traditions of tolerant faith and scientific learning. These Muslims believe in the compatibility of Islam and democracy and reject the hatred and intolerance of Islamist extremists.
Unfortunately, in my professional experience at the State Department and White House, US policymakers have difficulty confronting Islamist ideology even in these indirect ways. They fear that if they oppose a movement whose name contains the word “Islam,” they could face accusations of Islamophobia or of violating the separation of church and state as enshrined in the Bill of Rights. US officials minimize Islamist ideology as the main driver pulling devout Muslims toward jihadi radicalization; instead, they blame prejudice and deprivation in Western societies for pushing some Muslims toward violent extremism. Their counterterrorist policy prescriptions are thus incomplete, focusing primarily on education and employment opportunities and on security operations to prevent extremists from resorting to violence, while ceding the ideological field to extremists who use their political credo couched in religious phraseology as a potent recruiting tool.
Indeed, some of the most prominent Islamist terrorists benefited from good educations and decent jobs in the United States and Europe, but nevertheless found Islamist ideology irresistible. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, studied engineering in North Carolina, while all four 9/11 pilots also attended Western universities. In Paris, one of three gunmen who attacked the Bataclan theater, Sami Amimour, had a permanent contract as a bus driver and was the French-born child of Algerian immigrants (including a feminist mother) whom media reports describe as secular and worldly. Syed Farook, the Chicago-born murderer of his co-workers in San Bernardino, California, worked for his country government as a health inspector.
What all these terrorists had in common was not a lack of economic opportunity or even an innate penchant for violence, but rather, a shared journey from soul-searching to a hateful political philosophy and ultimately to a violent battle of ideas. The United States and Europe cannot afford to remain on the sidelines of this critical ideological battle, even if their policy tools are limited. If the West remains ideologically passive, our societies will face continuous waves of subversion and violence from within, even after both ISIS and the Assad regime are defeated in Syria.
Matthew Bryza is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.