Bridging the Religious Divide
Academicians, east and west, hotly debate the
fundaments of the war on terror. In our nation's capital, decisionmakers
and renowned scholars meet regularly to posit the pros and cons
of U.S. foreign policy. Internationally, countless daily editorials
are published highlighting current U.S. efforts and shortcomings
in the Middle East. Much has also been written about Osama bin Laden,
the Taliban, the insurgency, and the mechanics of the 9/11 attacks.
Conversely, the one debate that seems to elude even our best and
brightest intellectuals is an assessment of why-not how-9/11 occurred.
Efforts to defeat ongoing insurgent attempts to destabilize Iraq
and Afghanistan must start with a debate on what is driving the
nature of conflict in the region. Understanding why the insurgents
hate America so much is equally important as knowing how the attackers
of 9/11 were able to infiltrate our systems of protection.
Over the last two years, after countless lessons
learned during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Coalition
forces now have a limited but clearer understanding of the drivers
of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of redeployed top
military commanders recently pointed out that the true nature of
this war is centered on economics, political will, culture, and
religious ideology.1 Research indicates
that many Islamic scholars concur with the following assessment:
the insurgency is slowly developing into a war of ideas that will
serve as a catalyst for the globalization of religious extremism
if left unchecked. The analysis that follows focuses on the vital
but poorly understood role that religion is playing in shaping the
ongoing insurgency in the Middle East, an insurgency fueled by religious
The Role of Religion: Understanding the
Culture of Islam
The Iraqi insurgency clearly demonstrates the
existing chasm between western and eastern cultures. Understanding
Arab culture and the culture of Islam is the first step in bridging
the religious divide that America currently faces. America must
get to know the people of Islam and their cultural imperatives.
Our understanding needs to account for every tribe, sect, and social
class, to include radical extremists; we must become students of
Islam. Abdurrahman Wahid implores governments, people of faith,
and strategic planners alike using a straightforward message: "We
are in a crisis of misunderstanding-of Islam; even by Muslims themselves."2
For many, his message is hard to hear; the distractions of globalization,
urbanization, and transnational terrorism cloud the reception of
those with the greatest need to listen. Our failure to understand
the nature of Islam permits the radicalization of Muslims worldwide
while blinding the rest of humanity to a solution which hides in
plain sight-a solution that must include a closer examination of
the influence Islam has on its community of faith.3
Before America can build an effective strategy to neutralize the
extremist ideologies that underpin the Iraqi insurgency (and by
extension, the global Islamic extremist movement), we must first
commit to understanding Islam as it is practiced and observed by
The need to understand religious culture as
a key element of change in the Middle East is further evidenced
by the failure of U.S. and international efforts to effectively
engage religious leaders with any measurable consistency. U.S. strategies
for dealing with religious actors have tended to be ambivalent and
reactive, focusing exclusively on certain religions or leaders seen
as either close allies or immediate threats. When religion is addressed,
the discussion is too broad, and the work often takes the form of
dialogue rather than focusing on actions, processes, and results.
Scholars of Islam take a slightly different approach to the issue.
They characterize the ongoing war of ideas as a lack of western
understanding regarding religion and the role of indigenous religious
leaders in the Middle East. These misunderstandings center on America's
lack of knowledge of Islam, the Quran, and the religious faith of
Muslims, which is in direct contrast to the liberal interpretations
taken by astute Islamist extremists with Islam and the Quran. Muslims
are not convinced that the secular humanism the United States is
offering is the right solution for followers of Islam. By far the
biggest challenge to the U.S. push for democracy and modernization
in the Middle East is not the insurgency in Iraq; it is the basic
characteristics of Islam itself.
Francis Fukuyama takes a similar point of view
concerning the culture of Islamists: "Extremists exploit the
common misunderstanding of Muslims' holistic view of life; everything
is religion and everything is Islam; financial, social, intellectual,
theological, military, and political."4
For many Muslims the war of ideas, rightly or wrongly, boils down
to the perception that the Global War on Terrorism is essentially
a systematic attack on their faith. In direct contrast to Mr. Fukuyama,
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi offered a point of view that is usually dismissed
(in the west) as simply more extremist rhetoric. Zarqawi stated,
"We are fighting so that Allah's word becomes supreme and religion
is all for Allah. Anyone who opposes this goal or stands in the
way of this aim is our enemy and will be a target for our swords,
regardless of their name or lineage-a Muslim American is our dear
brother: an infidel Arab is our hated enemy, even if we both come
from the same womb."5 This divergence
of ideals magnifies the depth and breadth of division between policymakers
and insurgents. While the American government and the U.S. military
fight for democracy and freedom, radical Islamists and the insurgency
point to religion and religious obligation as their primary source
of motivation to defend Islam. When the United States invaded Iraq,
the American government intended to strike a blow for freedom; however,
the forces unleashed were considerably more complex. When the Pandora's
box of religion was opened, extremist ideologies brewing for the
last 30 years came pouring out, ideologies that are now fueled by
America's continued presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These and other complexities are better understood
when we take a closer look at the customs and traditions of Muslim
society as a whole. For example, researcher Ron Hassner points out
that civil and customary law in Muslim states often extends the
restrictions on non-Muslim access from the boundaries of a shrine
to the city in which a shrine is located or to the entire region
surrounding the shrine. Consequently, protests in Muslim states
have occurred in opposition to the presence of Coalition forces
in Iraqi cities known for their sacred sites. Indeed, several Muslim
movements hold the extreme position that any non-Muslim presence
on Muslim lands constitutes sacrilege. Osama bin Laden also expressed
his support for this opinion in his initial call for jihad against
the United States. Hassner concludes that a similar position has
been embraced by radical opponents of the U.S. occupation of Iraq
who consider the very presence of foreign troops in the Persian
Gulf as an affront to Islam and compare it with the Crusades or
the Mongol invasion of Iraq.6 While
western culturists grapple with the compatibility of democratic
values and Islam, the equally complex subject of religious influence
adds to an already heated debate.
Religious Influence: The Sistani Factor
International bombings and the continued conflict
in the Middle East have sent scholars, planners, and senior leaders
worldwide scrambling to harness the influence of Islam on the Muslims
and leaders in their communities. It also appears evident that not
many diplomatic strategists predicted and even fewer military planners
were prepared for the significant role several Islamic leaders have
established in the ongoing conflict. Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah
Sistani, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi each demonstrated their ability
to impede progress or influence change within the Muslim community.
Understanding this type of religious influence on all aspects of
change in an Islamic society is critical to the successful integration
of democracy and the stability of the region. For instance, in Kabul,
Afghanistan, prosecutors charged Abdul Rahman with apostasy during
his recent divorce hearing because he had converted from Islam to
Christianity 16 years prior. The charge is punishable by death under
some interpretations of Islamic law. The judge hearing the case
said Mr. Rahman would get the death penalty unless he repudiated
Christianity.7 This example underlines
the uneasy balance between Afghanistan's new Constitution and conservative
Islamic values within the legal system, and it emphasizes Shireen
Hunter's point that "in the near term there will be more obstacles
than remedies as modernization and democratization meet the Muslim
The demonstrated influence of the Grand Ayatollah
Ali Husseini al-Sistani became clear to the Coalition Provisional
Authority and senior military commanders on the ground when Sistani
issued a number of fatwas to direct participation in the voting
process.9 When the Askaria Shrine was
attacked, the Grand Ayatollah, once again, stepped in with a different
type of authority. He spoke of the need for Shi'ite Muslims to defend
themselves with armed, religious militias if the Americans and the
Iraqi government cannot.10 This magnitude
of influence by religious leaders implores additional questioning.
Were the civil and military strategic planners and the Coalition
Authority aware of the Ayatollah's influence prior to the fatwas
being issued? Were strategic planners aware of his span of control
prior to arriving in theater? Finally, what are they doing to bring
Sistani aboard now? The answers to these questions will serve as
yet another measure of the divide between the religious leaders
of Afghanistan and Iraq and the makers of policy in the United States.
Pakistani officials recently provided information
on the Arab (religious) influence of madrassas in the 20th century.
In 1979, Saudi-Wahhabi proselytizing was initiated in response to
the Shi'ite Islamic Revolution in Iran. Geoffrey Clarfield explains
how petro-dollar-funded preachers and teachers wielded powerful
influence on the face of Pakistani Islam because the Quran is printed
in Arabic and Pakistanis do not read Arabic. Interestingly, if the
preacher or teacher stresses a Wahhabi interpretation, then the
people-unable to read Arabic-have no scriptural grounds from which
to argue with him.11 During the 1980s,
Kashmiriat was dealt a blow from which it may never recover. Moderate
Kashmiri Muslims woke up to find that their mosques had new preachers,
many of whom had been trained outside the country. They preached
against old versions of Islam and insisted that their intolerant
Wahhabi strain must be adopted by all Kashmiris. Women were to adopt
the veil, and music was forbidden. They also preached that indigenous
Hindus should be forced to leave, so that Kashmir could become a
land reserved for Muslims. No doubt they were inspired by the world's
silence following the near total expulsion of the 50,000-strong
Hindu community of Kabul after its conquest by the Taliban.12
An improved understanding of the Islamic rule
of law and how Muslims interpret the Quran is imperative to the
successful incorporation of western ideals. Western values, including
individual and religious freedoms, are not natural fits for the
culture of Islam. Iraqi politician Iyad Jamal Al-Din notes that
young boys, as a way of life, grow up with religion in the Middle
East. They end up in the mosque, learning from the Imam; depending
on the interpretation, they learn moderation or extremism, and in
between the two, there lies an abyss.13
As a result, more and more Muslims are answering the jihadi call
to arms-which has led some observers to accuse the Islamic clergy
of booby-trapping minds and exploiting the state of frustration
suffered by the Muslim youth to perpetuate violence.14
This influence by the Imams, Mullahs, and clerics
over the young, disenfranchised, and impressionable is more than
significant in determining what Islam is and what values are promoted.
Islam's sphere of influence seems unlimited in Middle Eastern culture.
Many religious leaders in the Middle East regularly stimulate efforts
to provide humanitarian relief, pursue justice, and advance peace
while simultaneously arranging attacks. Moqtada al-Sadr, the outspoken
Shi'ite cleric and growing political force in Iraq, who has led
two deadly uprisings against American troops, is emerging as a dominant
figure in Iraqi politics. During several volatile periods in Iraq,
Moqtada al-Sadr also assisted in providing food, medical care, and
security in poor neighborhoods, preventing widespread Shi'ite attacks
on civilians, while simultaneously encouraging violence against
U.S. military forces.15 In recent strife,
religious leaders like Sadr routinely demonstrate their ability
to justify social division, sanction terrorism, and encourage violence.
Religion and influential religious leaders
continue to play a critical role in shaping global strife and reconciliation.
Whether destructive or constructive, religious leaders, organizations,
and institutions often influence the direction of conflict-prevention
and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Religious groups are typically
deep-rooted, mature organizations with independent resources to
shape conflict-prevention and reconstruction efforts from the grassroots
to the international level. The broad range of activities carried
out by religious actors in conflict-prone settings demonstrates
both the significant threats they may pose and the great opportunities
they represent. These organizations are invaluable if effectively
utilized. They are uniquely positioned to help or hinder evolving
situations at the local level far better than any military organization
or secular relief effort. Intelligence-like assessments of the religious
environment are (in hindsight) critical to mission success. The
actions of religious actors like Sistani and Sadr accentuate the
need for increased "religious situational awareness."
Policymakers, military leaders, and nongovernmental strategic planners
all benefit from understanding the influence of religion within
a given region of conflict. Meaningful work to embrace Islam's clergy
in ways that are mutually beneficial must occur if nascent peace
is to become the foundation of a U.S. exit strategy from Afghanistan
Islamic Extremism: A War of Ideology
The world watched the ringleader of the 7 July
2005 terrorist attack in London, his voice inflected with a West
Yorkshire accent, preaching jihad in English. Al Jazeera aired the
communique of 30-year-old Mohammad Sidique Khan, in which Khan explained
why he helped murder over 50 of his fellow Britons on a bus and
in the Underground. "Until you stop bombing, gassing, imprisonment,
and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight," Khan
declared. "We are at war, I am a soldier and now you too will
taste the reality of this situation."16
The London bombings emphatically demonstrated the inroads made by
Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies throughout the Muslim world, especially
the alienated Muslim diasporas in Europe. Attacks like these are
further evidence that Islamic fundamentalism has evolved into a
well-financed, complex, global movement.
The religion of Islam is undergoing a significant
revolution due to the pervasive pressures of Wahhabi-Salafi and
jihadi-insurgent ideologies. The insurgency consists of people who
draw upon a long tradition of extreme intolerance within Islam that
does not distinguish politics from religion and distorts both.17
Extremists believe Islam is the only true religion and there is
no room for interpretation. A jihadi believes that his immoral acts
of violence are moral and that he is on the right path to God. Extremists
also believe in fulfillment of the Prophecy of Islam and world rule
for Muslims as described in the Quran. Dr. Louis Beres provides
a staunch warning on the violent realities that threaten mankind:
"Today each and every one of us is threatened by ecstatic sacrificial
killing masquerading as a resistance . . . which is best described
as homicidal religious collectivism."18
In a message commemorating the end of the annual
pilgrimage to Mecca, the ousted leader of the Taliban regime, Mullah
Mohammad Omar, called on Muslims to continue their jihad against
the United States, naming America "the greatest enemy of Islam"
and further stating, "armed jihad has become the duty of every
Muslim."19 Messages like this
point to religious extremists as not only the drivers of conflict,
they also appear to serve as the originating source of disagreement.
Sherifa Zuhur makes a profound observation in her research on the
Islamist threat. When attempting to understand Islamic terrorism,
western scholars tend to gravitate in the direction of a view skewed
to pathology: When we think of terrorists, we believe "their
minds 'work differently' than ours-when the issue is really one
of different values and disassociative techniques."20
Moreover, America has a history of classifying then demonizing its
enemies. The defeat of the communist Soviet Union (the evil empire)
and the end of the Cold War can be attributed to this technique.
The trouble with this practice is that we are likely to miss opportunities
to fully understand our enemies and develop effective countermeasures
in our zeal to label them.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are currently witnessing
a spiritual tug-of-war between Islamic Hirabah (terrorist) and Coalition
forces to win the hearts and minds of the people who are in essence
the living spirit of Islam. This conflict is not limited to improvised
explosive devices, traffic checkpoints, or door-to-door searches.
This war is about regional stability, failing nation-states, and
religious ideology-a war unbounded by conventional conflict with
a reach that extends to incidents like the recent caricaturing of
the Prophet, whereupon terrorists and global jihadists rallied thousands
in defense of yet another perceived attack on Islam. This perceived
threat perpetuates the radical extremists' cause and serves to lengthen
an already protracted conflict between east and west.
Most scholars agree that there is nothing intrinsically
violent about Islam as a way of life. Yet many suicide bombers'
only dream is to fulfill what they believe to be their destiny,
namely to be a Shaheed (martyr).21
Obviously, all Muslims are not Hirabah; however, all terrorist attacks
(in the Middle East) have been perpetrated by radical Muslim extremists.
Publicly, extremist terror is perpetrated in the name of Allah;
yet, the terror imposed upon the world provides neither salvation
nor sacredness. Clearly, there is a plethora of useful lessons to
learn concerning the values, beliefs, and cultures of Islam, to
include those of radical fundamentalists. An enhanced understanding
through increased debate and open dialogue about the nature of religious
extremists will better assist civil and military planners in the
execution and support of the foreseeable long war against (unholy)
terror. The next portion of this article will explore the strategy
of the United States and the insurgents in the fight for Iraq and
Strategic Planning and Religion
Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley write,
"Strategy is an inherently human enterprise. It is not solely
a consideration of objective factors; strategy involves human passions,
values, and beliefs, few of which are quantifiable."22
A review of strategic literature on the subject of religion reveals
nothing fundamentally new about radical Islamists or jihadi-insurgents.
Historians indicate that radical Muslims have been pushing for change
since the beginning of Islam's decline in the 12th century. The
assassination of Anwar Sadat and the bombing of Khobar Towers are
clear examples that the insurgency did not start with current U.S.
operations in Iraq. These past events serve to highlight years of
planning by a then-budding insurgency, an insurgency that has systematically
developed into a network of operations cells, financial backers,
and communications outlets with the sole purpose of propelling the
extremist agenda forward. Although tacticians and theorists have
studied the techniques and procedures of the insurgents for years,
the mainstream media and literature give minimal consideration to
the very source of the extremist strategy-the religion of Islam.
Radical Islamism: Doctrine of the Unruly?
The fundamentalists use a strategy that is
simple and straightforward. It is rooted in Islamism; a totalitarian
ideology that seeks to use Islam as a vehicle of power.23
Michael Scheuer's recent analysis of insurgency doctrine identifies
religious obligation as the central point on which al Qaeda's insurgency
doctrine was and is grounded. Osama bin Laden and a number of Islamist
leaders and clerics have declared a "defensive holy war"
against the United States. They are using an insurgency doctrine
developed by al Qaeda that has been evolving for more than a quarter-century.24
The extremists' basic strategy is to drape themselves in the mantle
of Islam and declare their opponents kafir (infidels), thus smoothing
the way for slaughtering nonfundamentalist Muslims.25
The common use of literal and highly selective interpretations of
the Quran and other Quranic teachings allows extremists to establish
direct influence over the global Muslim community.
The extremists have a grand strategy of their
own. They publicly state their objectives for all to hear: to destroy
and then rebuild a new Umma (community of Muslims), and spread their
altered version of Islam, by any means necessary. This position
is likewise supported by the Salafi-jihadists in Iraq, who see the
Iraq conflict as part of their jihad, first and foremost, and second
as a springboard for a wider regional conflict that has as its central
aim uprooting the current political order in the region.26
This aim is often achieved through Arab-on-Arab attacks by the al
Qaeda in Iraq network. But these attacks are mainly viewed as damaging
to the insurgents' cause. In this light, al Qaeda is largely considered
more of a threat to the worldwide Muslim community. In a keen display
of information awareness, al Qaeda in Iraq publicly justifies targeting
Shi'ite Arabs based on their close cooperation with the occupation
force and not on their supposedly "heretical" beliefs.27
Al Qaeda, therefore, attempts to justify the targeting of Shi'ite
security elements on political rather than religious grounds. Meanwhile,
local insurgents spread their extremist doctrine from tribe to tribe
and mosque to mosque. They incite violence using the one bond the
majority of Arabs have in common-Islam.
Internationally, al Qaeda and jihadi-insurgents
have been extremely successful in finding new recruits through their
well-informed use of the internet. Their ability to spread the call
to (un)holy war on a global scale using professional-grade media
production companies like As-Sahaab is unparalleled. Religious rhetoric
floods the internet on countless websites, carrying messages of
hate, all in the name of Allah. This new, cyber dimension of warfare
is well-suited for a force that maintains a relatively small footprint
yet a larger-than-life message. On the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan,
however, al Qaeda and the Taliban, as did the Viet Cong, give residents
only two choices in supporting their efforts to draw fellow Muslims
back to the "true Islam": join via peaceful persuasion
or suffer sheer violence.
U.S. Strategy for the Long War
The National Security Strategy (NSS) is the
centerpiece of American national security policy. This March 2006
document clearly acknowledges the significant role religion plays
in the Middle East today. President Bush states his position as
follows: "A new totalitarian ideology now threatens, an ideology
grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a proud
religion. Its content may be different from the ideologies of the
last century, but its means are similar: intolerance, murder, terror,
enslavement, and repression."28
The "Way Ahead" section of the NSS succinctly describes
the war on terror as a war of ideas and not a battle of religions;
it also points out how extremists are misinterpreting Islam to spread
a new brand of religious hatred. While the NSS goes on to speak
out against religious intolerance and misinformation, in the end
it offers only a broad solution to defeating terrorism in the Middle
East-democracy and political reform:
"The strategy to counter the lies behind
the terrorist ideology is to empower the very people the terrorists
most want to exploit: the faithful followers of Islam. We will
continue to support political reforms that empower peaceful Muslims
to practice and interpret their faith."29
The 2006 NSS clearly reflects the wisdom of
the religious lessons learned from the ongoing Operations Iraqi
Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Political reform and governance-not
unity of effort to prevent the fall of Islam-is the call to action.
But with regard to Islam, the 2006 NSS is a vast improvement over
the September 2002 version, in which the words religion and ideology
were used just once. This suggests several questions, the foremost
of which is this: If our leaders had better understood the religious
underpinnings of the 9/11 attacks, as described in the 2006 NSS,
before the invasion of Iraq, would we have proceeded differently?
One point is certain: In the March 2006 release of the updated NSS,
decisionmakers in the White House clearly demonstrated their ability
to apply recent lessons learned in the Middle East to current national
policy. They also correctly identify several key elements currently
driving the insurgency in Iraq and the conflict in general throughout
the region. Regrettably, the NSS still falls short in addressing
religion as a source and catalyst for change, however. The need
for a comprehensive religious assessment remains an issue that needs
to be addressed in the current U.S. strategy for the global war
Prior to the release of the 2006 NSS, the President
took the 2004 NSS one step further in November 2005 when he published
the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (NSV). The NSV defines
U.S. strategy in the "long war" against Iraq. It depicts
a clear strategy that will help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq
with a constitutional government that respects civil rights and
has security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and to
keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.30
In spite of strong language from the President of the United States,
the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General, the NSV tenders
little discussion on the key religious issues that are paralyzing
the country of Iraq today. But it does provide a detailed strategy
for the integration of political, economic, and security objectives
in the short, medium, and long terms. These all-encompassing objectives
are supported by strategic pillars that are also regrettably void
of any line of action to confront Iraq's pressing religious issues.
In short, the NSV provides strong operational guidance for diplomats
and military leaders executing the war on terror in Iraq, but it
is an execution-oriented document that neglects to openly speak
to a strategy regarding the broader crisis in Islam. The primary
focus of the NSV is best recapped by its defined short-term goals:
"an Iraq that is making steady progress in fighting terrorists
and neutralizing the insurgency; meeting political milestones; building
democratic institutions; standing up robust security forces to gather
intelligence, destroy terrorist networks, and maintain security;
and tackling key economic reforms to lay the foundation for a sound
The March 2005 National Defense Strategy (NDS)
adds to the strategy toward Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
sums it up as follows: "The NDS outlines our approach to dealing
with challenges we likely will confront, not just those we are currently
best prepared to meet."32 The
NDS provides outlines for targeting major terrorist vulnerabilities,
the first of which is countering ideological support for terrorism.
Additionally, the NDS identifies support models to build stronger
ties to the Muslim community, to help change Muslim misperceptions
of the United States and the west, and to reinforce the message
that the Global War on Terrorism is not a war against Islam.33
Although the NDS comments on DOD's strategy to defeat religious
extremists, it lacks any in-depth discussion outlining plans to
address the ideological motivations of global terrorism. The National
Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy serve as the foundations
and overarching guidance that drive the creation of the National
Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
General Richard Myers, summarized the 2004 National Military Strategy
(NMS) as follows: "The NMS serves to focus the armed forces
on maintaining U.S. leadership in a global community that is challenged
on many fronts-from countering the threat of global terrorism to
fostering emerging democracies.34 The
NMS provides modest guidance concerning extremist ideologies and
focuses even less on the issue of religion.
Finally, U.S. forces deployed and preparing
to deploy routinely demonstrate an ever-increasing level of sophistication
in addressing the adaptive nature of religious extremism. U.S. policy
needs to equally reflect a flexible posture, and an earnest will,
to understand the strategic, operational, and tactical natures of
the insurgency, in order to establish relevant and reality-based
lines of action in the Middle East. This assessment of U.S. strategic
policy suggests that our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq highlight
the need for a more comprehensive strategy to achieve longer-term
national goals and objectives.35
At the strategic level of war, the integration
of religion remains such a nonstandard task that most military planners
have difficulty knowing where to begin. But lessons learned from
the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq provide a solid start
point. Our battle-hardened forces possess a wealth of knowledge
and on-the-ground experience that currently shapes the training
of units preparing to deploy. The Army recently instituted an enhanced
cultural awareness program based on four years of combat operations
in the Middle East. This program is designed to address issues concerning
traditions, customs, and religion. Cultural awareness training now
includes lectures by outside experts, Arabic language lessons, and
recommended readings. More officers and enlisted soldiers have instituted
study programs in basic Islam and local mores to prepare for nation-building
duties. Redeploying commanders openly share techniques and procedures
that incorporate cultural awareness into current tactics. Operational
resources and funding levels have also been adjusted to provide
for more linguists and active recruitment of Muslim clergy to active
A Strategy for Change
Bridging the religious divide between America
and Islam requires an enhanced understanding of the fundamentals
of Islamic culture and extends to the development of effective counterstrategies
that address the seminal issue of religious extremism. Such a strategy
should include a religious assessment of Islam and the Middle Eastern
A religious assessment provides civil and military
planners with a tool for evaluating religious actors and their environments
in a conflict or post-conflict setting within a given theater of
operations. The goal of the religious assessment is to enhance the
speed of the learning process of civil and military practitioners
in conflict-prone settings. The following assessment framework is
organized around five distinct areas:
•Religious Ideology. Ideology plays a
major role in shaping behavior in the Middle East.
•Culture. Islamic history, culture, traditions,
and pride are rooted in the Middle East.
•Religious Influence. Understanding who
controls the power assists decisionmakers in determining where to
focus resources and efforts.
•Social Structure. Understanding the
social structure of a society allows for leaders and planners to
develop support for the force within the population.
•Strategic Communications. The internet
and television play prominent roles in shaping perceptions, influencing
mindsets, and inciting reactions.
The assessment framework also integrates the
three levels of war; strategic, operational, and tactical, which
serve as the structure for the following recommendations.
Strategic Religious Assessment Considerations
The continued development of a counter-ideology
in the form of traditional Sufi and modern Islamic teachings is
essential. America needs to demonstrate the ability to translate
such works into key languages and spread them using popular Muslim
traditions and values. This is a global task that requires coordinated
support and backing from international governments, nongovernmental
organizations, and peace-seeking Muslims worldwide. Muslims maintain
many cultural bonds to the religious traditions of Islam. This reality
gives the Islamic faith the ability to cross national and cultural
borders in the name of religion. We must therefore identify regional
holders of power and their religious affiliations. Leaders should
follow this initiative with the identification of the social caste
and class structures, ethnic and tribal groups, sects, and other
kinships within the regions. This information will serve as the
basis for defining the social and religious networks in play.
America also must seek alternative approaches
to the strategic communications challenge of religious inaccuracy.
We need to make better use of media tools like CNN and regional
television. Rafiq al Sabban points out that in most Egyptian households,
the Muslim holy month of Ramadan revolves around television in the
Arab world. Families watch shows like Al Hoor al Ain (The Beautiful
Virgins), which is loosely based on the November 2003 bombing in
Saudi Arabia that killed 18 people, all of them Arab. The show is
one of several which challenge the view that Islam justifies terrorism.37
Scholars believe this type of Arab solution to the Islamic problem
of extremism will resonate with young and old Muslims alike. Garnering
Muslim support for anti-extremist Arab-based strategic communications
should be a priority in the global war on terror.
The television station Al Hurra (the Free One)
is a noteworthy attempt by America to counter the extremist media
assault. Reminiscent of Voice of America, it is a 24-hour-a-day
Arab television station created for a Middle Eastern audience. Al
Hurra's primary message is freedom and democracy, and it focuses
on positive news stories of American Arabs. The United States should
continue to develop this effort and find ways to counter Arab criticisms
that label Al Hurra as impartial and untrustworthy due to its American
Finally, we should stop mislabeling terror.
Islamic law scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl explains that radical extremists
entirely ignore the Quranic teaching that the act of destroying
or spreading ruin on this earth is one of the gravest sins possible:
"This is considered an ultimate act of blasphemy against God.
Those who corrupt the earth by destroying lives, property, and nature
are designated as mufsiduun (corruptors and evildoers) who, in effect,
wage war against God by dismantling the very fabric of existence.
. . . [T]he crime is called Hirabah (waging war against society)."38
Americans need to avoid language that supports the insurgents' position
of jihad and mujahadin, terms they often use to legitimize their
use of indiscriminate violence in the name of Allah.
Operational Religious Assessment Considerations
Another recommended counterstrategy for combating
extreme ideologies is the development of a national campaign that
simply tells the truth about Islamic doctrine. This effort should
start with Muslims themselves collectively speaking out against
the misinterpretations of the Quran to discredit extremist ideology.
Western (non-Muslim) attempts to expose extremist misgivings will
never be accepted as credible to Islamists, or, for that matter,
to other Muslims. For many in the American military, a politician
who has never served a day in uniform and who criticizes the performance
of the armed forces lacks credibility; similarly, non-Muslims have
no broad, accepted credibility to speak authoritatively about the
inaccuracies of Quranic teachings by Islamists.
We should also push to create environments
within nation-states where Muslim youth can create their own religious
identity. We need to fight against isolating and ostracizing Muslims
who live outside the Middle East. Negative attitudes within non-Muslim
communities only serve to push new recruits to Osama bin Laden and
his religious extremist movement. In order to achieve this objective,
the international community has to foster a better understanding
of Arab culture, to include the traditions and practices of Islam.
In America this begins by generating non-threatening surroundings
for Muslim Americans to openly live their faith.
Local leaders play a crucial role in shaping
national environments. America should take the lead in fostering
relationships with Islamic leaders across the globe. The first step
is to identify the regional and national political figures and their
religious affiliations. Next, determine the type of power and authority
in use by religious leaders-social, political, or coercive. Then
examine the social structures within the operational environment,
which may include mosques, hospitals, schools, and elite social
Finally, the internet is a powerful tool in
modern-day unconventional warfare. America needs to redouble its
efforts to neutralize the operations of extremists in the cyberspace
domain. The internet currently serves as the operational backbone
of the insurgency's command, control, and signal infrastructure.
We need to develop the technology to control the flow of extremist
rhetoric on the internet, while taking advantage of this abundant
source of real-time intelligence. Our leaders should be prepared
to disseminate progressive views, monitor opposing views, and collaborate
with like-minded individuals and organizations offering support
throughout the world.
Tactical Religious Assessment Considerations
Before commencing tactical operations, commanders
should have access to any existing strategic (national) and operational
(theater) religious assessments. These assessments should be modified
to support tactical (local) operations. A religious analysis also
should provide the historical context of the ongoing operations.
The tactical environment provides leaders with the best opportunity
to collect information about the Islamic extremists' internal agenda
by tracking and analyzing the quantitative data of his activities.
Tactical leaders should focus on these tasks:
•Determine the local ethnic and tribal
fissures in the region.
•Track any attacks on religious actors,
sites, or ethno-religious groups.
•Identify the power elite for each religious
party, including ethnic and religious affiliations.
•Identify the language requirements for
interaction with each religious group.
•Learn the local religious terms of reference
•Incorporate the symbols and rituals
used by each tribe, sect, and racial group.
•Account for the cultures and traditions
that specifically address local greetings, gestures, courtesies,
Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl got it right
in his acclaimed 2005 book: in order to win the war against terror,
America must first "learn to eat soup with a knife."39
Nagl's point borrows from the T. E. Lawrence aphorism that war is
messy, and in Iraq we must learn as we go. America, and all nations,
need to do more to embrace and understand Islam and the call for
truth. We must endeavor to understand the effects of integrating
democracy and freedom into the Islamic religion-based culture of
Muslims. The last four years clearly demonstrate that the compatibility
of democracy and Islam has not been a natural transition for Afghanistan
or Iraq. The expected long war against terrorism must account for
more than defeating improvised explosive devices and pacifying unruly
clerics. The need for a better understanding of Islam is only part
of the solution.
If we are to succeed in Iraq and in the broader
war on terror, we must not fail to account for the forces driving
social change and the manifold pressures surrounding political governance.
Any counterinsurgent strategy to defeat the Islamist extremists
should begin with a religious assessment, as outlined above. Furthermore,
U.S. national security policy should be expanded to reflect language
that unmistakably articulates our plan to fight the war on terror-not
a war on Islam. America's grand strategy should reflect a comprehensive
understanding of why radical extremists fight and how we can best
influence extremist ideologies. One key objective should be to establish
a common understanding of what Islam, the Quran, and Sharia law
truly mean to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Without that explanation,
people will tend to accept the unrefuted extremists' views-further
radicalizing Muslims and turning the rest of the world against Islam
America and its allies need to continue to
vigilantly identify the advocates of extremism, understand their
goals and strategies, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and
effectively counter their every move.40
Until America takes additional steps to bridge the religious divide
in the Middle East, religion and radical extremism will continue
to make for a messy, complex campaign.
1. Lieutenant General David
Petraeus, former commander of the Multinational Security Transition
Command-Iraq, "Iraq Evolving Forces," briefing, Center
for Strategic and International Studies, 7 November 2005; Lieutenant
General Karl Eikenberry, Commanding General, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan,
briefing, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 February
2. Abdurrahman Wahid,
"Right Islam versus Wrong Islam," The Wall Street Journal,
30 December 2005, sec. A, p. 16. Mr. Wahid, former President of
Indonesia, is patron and senior advisor to the LibForAll Foundation
3. Ibid. The Sunni (as
opposed to Shi'ite) fundamentalists' goals generally include: claiming
to restore the perfection of the early Islam practiced by Muhammad
and his companions, who are the Righteous Ancestors; establishing
a utopian society based on these Salafi principles by imposing their
interpretation of Islamic law on all members of society; annihilating
local variants of Islam in the name of authenticity and purity;
transforming Islam from a personal faith into an authoritarian political
system; establishing a pan-Islamic caliphate governed according
to the strict tenets of Salafi Islam, and often conceived as stretching
from Morocco to Indonesia and the Philippines; and, ultimately,
bringing the entire world under the sway of their extremist ideology.
4. Quoted in Sherifa
Zuhur, A Hundred Osamas: Islamist Threats and the Future of Counterinsurgency
(Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies
Institute, December 2005), p. 26.
5. Murad Al-shishani,
"Al-Zarqawi's Rise to Power: Analyzing Tactics and Targets,"
Terrorism Monitor, 17 November 2005, http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/
news/article.php?articleid=2369831. The Jamestown Foundation conducts
global terrorism analysis. Analysts considered Zarqawi, before his
recent death, to be Iraq's most notorious insurgent and former leader
of the Tawhid, the jihad's insurgent group. Tawid merged with Osama
Bin Laden's al Qaeda network in 2004.
6. Ron E. Hassner, "Causes
of Terrorism and Insurgency; Fighting Insurgency on Sacred Ground,"
The Washington Quarterly, 29 (Spring 2006). Osama justified his
view in terms of the U.S. presence in "the land of the two
sanctuaries," a reference to Saudi Arabia, where the great
mosques of Mecca and Medina are located.
7. J Alexander Their,
"The Crescent and the Gavel," The New York Times, 26 March
2006, sec. 4, p. 13. Mr. Rahman's wife's family told the court that
he was unfit to care for his children because he converted to Christianity.
This case illustrates the uneasy balance between the democratic
norms of Afghanistan's constitution and the conservative Islamic
values its judiciary upholds. Afghanistan's post-Taliban judiciary
has shown a propensity to use Islam as a political weapon, which
only demonstrates that the misuse of religion is not limited to
terrorists or terrorism.
8. Shireen T. Hunter,
Modernization and Democratization in the Muslim World: Obstacles
and Remedies (Washington: CSIS Press, 2004), p. vii.
9. "Iraqi Government
Resigned to Partial Boycott of Elections," The Daily Star (Beirut,
Lebanon) 15 December 2004, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?
10. Robert Reid, "Iraqi
Blast May Prove Turning Point," Express (a publication of The
Washington Post), 23 February 2006, p. 6.
11. Geoffrey Clarfield,
"Forcing Hindus into Exile," National Post, 25 October
2005, available at http://canadiancoalition.com/forum/messages/10680.shtml.
13. Iyad Jamal Al-Din,
"The Arabs Use Israel as a Pretext for their Backwardness,
But Don't Really Want Democracy," 30 November 2005, Middle
East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) TV Monitor Project, Clip No.
14. Muhammad bin 'Abd
Al-Latif Aal Al-Sheikh, "Jihadist Salafist Ideology is Like
Nazism," MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, No. 1007, 17 October
15. Janine Di Giovanni,
"Reaching for Power," National Geographic, June 2004,
p. 19. Al-Sadr's actions saved Sunni and American civilians.
16. Spencer Ackerman,
"Why American Muslims Haven't Turned to Terrorism," The
New Republic Online, 12 December 2005, http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20051212&s=ackerman121205.
17. Norvell B. DeAtkine,
"Islam, Islamism and Terrorism," Army, January 2006, p.
18. Louis René
Beres, "Dangers of the Herd Mentality: Violent Ideals Threaten
Mankind," The Washington Times, 28 February 2006, sec. A, p.
19. "Former Taliban
Leader Calls for Jihad, Promises Stronger Attacks in Afghanistan,"
Radio Free Afghanistan, 10 January 2006, http://www.azadiradio.org/en/dailyreport/2006/01/10.ASP.
20. Zuhur, p. 11.
21. Lisa Sylvester
interview with French documentary filmmaker Pierre Rehov (including
The Psychology behind Suicide Bombings; Suicide Killers), CNN.COM,
23 July 2005, http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0507/23/cst.03.html.
22. Williamson Murray
and Mark Grimsley, "Introduction: On Strategy," in The
Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, ed. Williamson Murray,
Alvin Bernstein, MacGregor Knox (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ.
Press 1994), pp. 86, 89.
23. DeAtkine, p. 57
24. Michael Scheuer,
"Al-Qaeda's Insurgency Doctrine: Aiming for a 'Long War,'"
Terrorism Focus, 28 February 2006, esp. the section titled, "Al-Qaeda
Doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan: The Military," http://jamestown.org/terrorism/
news/article.php?articleid=2369915. There Scheuer writes that this
is "a form of jihad that mandates the participation of every
Muslim through taking up arms, financial donations, prayer, providing
safe haven, or some other form of support." Scheuer also writes
that al Qaeda doctrine "has been developed from the group's
experiences during the Afghan war against the Red Army, and has
matured through each of the insurgencies . . . from Eritrea to Xinjiang
to Mindanao. In presenting their doctrine, al-Qaeda's strategists
[have acknowledged] the significant lessons they have learned from
Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Mao, General Giap, and even Ahmed Shah Masood,
as well from the training manuals of the U.S. and UK Marines and
Special Forces. Ironically, al-Qaeda strategists have discussed
all of these matters for years in their Internet journals, but this
discussion has garnered little interest in Western essays."
25. Wahid, p. 16.
27. Ibid. Colonel
Thomas Hammes of the National Defense University describes these
tactics as fourth-generation warfare. The insurgents are seeking
to convince U.S. political leaders that America's strategic objectives
are too costly. Their aim is to outlast coalition forces and break
the American political will and sever the support from home through
death and destruction, all based on the premise that Americans have
no staying power when combat losses continue to mount.
28. George W. Bush,
National Security Strategy (Washington: The White House, March 2006),
30. George W. Bush,
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (Washington: The White House,
32. Donald Rumsfeld,
The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington:
Department of Defense, March 2006), p. iii.
34. Richard Myers,
The National Military Strategy of the United States: A Strategy
for Today; A Vision for Tomorrow (Washington: Department of Defense
2004), p. v.
35. Ibid., p. 6.
36. Additional details
regarding religious assessments are contained in the author's Civilian
Research Project, "Bridging the Religious Divide." U.S.
Army War College, 2006, "Tab A: Religious Assessment (A Religious
Assessment Model-Middle East)."
37. Charles Levinson,
"What's on During Ramadan? Antiterror TV," The Christian
Science Monitor, 3 November 2005, http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/1103/p01s03-wome.htm.
38. Khaled M. Abou
El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (New
York: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 21.
39. John Nagl, Learning
to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya
and Vietnam (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), p. xii.
40. Wahid, p. 16.
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