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Identifying the Strategic Center of Gravity
It is not news in the current conflict with our global Islamist opponents that the support of the Islamic Umma is both a strategic and operational Center of Gravity (CoG)31 for the application of American power in the Middle East. Islamic faith is a strongly held belief by an enormous, determined, globally dispersed population.32 Therefore, ultimate goal of the Al Qaida (AQ) network of likeminded Islamist organizations is not simply the establishment of a restored global Caliphate -- it is decisive control of the Umma, followed by ultimate control of the entire world. This is AQ’s raison d'etre and therefore both its strength (ideological passion and direction) and weakness (loss of which transforms AQ et. al. into garden variety insurgencies). Islamist narrative, therefore, is framed as both strategic and operational communication aimed at garnering and maintaining the support of their global constituency.
What to do about this clearly identified Center of Gravity (the Islamic Umma) presents an elaborate and wickedly complex issue for confronting and defeating our Islamist opponents. Clausewitz taught us that the statesman must first determine the kind of war to be prosecuted.33 Treating the global Islamist threat as a localized insurgency or mere criminal enterprise is a mistake we have been years in rectifying. Regardless of American efforts, it is unlikely that Islamist ideology will ever be decisively defeated. Ideas are not subject to POL-MIL extermination. Radical solutions continue to be the refuge of the desperate, the dispossesed and the ideologue.
It is a feasible strategy that Islamist ideology might be undermined by the more humane and irenic ideas found in moderate expressions of the Muslim faith. Few Muslims, as evidenced by the 2011 “Islamic Spring,” desire to live under a totalitarian regime. Most Muslims deeply desire a radical improvement in their daily lives and find a central hope (where little else exists) that Islamist organizations may do just that. “Thus decisive defeat will require neutralizing that center…accomplishing that defeat will mean employing the diplomatic and informational elements of national power as deliberately as the military one.”34 However, national power thus exercised is not necessarily our own but that of moderate and centrist Muslim governments and cultural-religious institutions.
A few months after moving his organization to Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden published his first fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” in al-Quds al-Arabi, the Arabic language newspaper based in London.35 A fatwa is an Islamic religious opinion normally issued by an acknowledged scholar, and its importance depends upon the communally recognized status of that jurist. Bin Laden’s work, known as the Ladenese Epistle, “is an endless list of charges…The most prominent accusation has become bin Laden’s hallmark: the “Zionist-Crusader Alliance, that amalgam of world infidelity, is waging a war against the people of Islam.”36 His declaration of war caught the attention of the entire Muslim world on two counts. First, bin Laden was not a recognized Quranic authority even if he might popularly speak for the masses. Some in the West have noted that bin Laden and other non-clerical Islamists have "Protestantized" the Islamic religion by making every man a religious authority capable of interpreting sacred texts.
Secondly, as all Muslims know, “the declaration of jihad creates a legal state of hostilities.”37 His subsequent attacks on the USA “stem from a pervasive fear — in the minds of bin Laden and many other Muslims — that American culture is crushing theirs.”38 Bin Laden exploited the fact that there “is no “clear, decisive, and unequivocal religious authority [in Islam] able to declare that the killing of innocents by terrorist attacks is contrary to Islam.”39 Islamist narrative focused upon finally defeating “Crusaders” is a decisive bonding force for many aggrieved ethnic groups within Islam.
A strategic question Americans ought to ask is, “Why did we give any credence to bin Laden (and given his demise, other such radical Islamist leaders)?” Why didn’t we publicly denigrate his declaration of jihad and declare him an international criminal instead of honoring him as the leader of a global insurgent movement? Language is important. Too often legitimacy has been inadvertently granted to Islamists (and denied to non-radicals) by the language we use. Employing the terms jihad, jihadist and mujahidin communicates that America really does recognize the rightness of the Islamist cause. Using ethical language such as “unholy war,” “terrorist” and “evildoers” more accurately steers Arabic translations toward derogatory terms of “hirabah,” “Irhabist” and “musfsidoon.”40 This distinction upholds a universal morality that places the protection of humanity over and above the ideological urges of Islamists.
In the 1980s, I served as a referee for a boy’s (9-12 year old) soccer league. Teams would form and play together for almost four years. Inevitably, the older teams dominated. One spring Saturday it was unusually hot and humid. The undefeated champions were matched against the youngest team, which had not won a game all fall and, so far, all spring. At the half, the older team led by four goals to nothing. While their coach was distracted, well-meaning moms served the parched champs ice-cold sodas — some kids gulped down two or three. Predictably, the team cramped up, and when the second half began they could barely field seven somewhat-functional players.41 As a referee, I was “impartially” delighted to be there for the youngest team’s first victory. It mattered to not one of their overjoyed supporters that they won by an unfair advantage. By the same circumstance, the champs routinely had an unfair developmental advantage over other teams.42
On September 11, 2001, there was a similar reaction around the Muslim world. The "home team" (perennial losers in the family of nations) had finally won one. Yes, many in the Islamic world were aghast at the inevitable consequences arising from such an attack; but most viscerally felt that in some way the score had been momentarily evened.
The Islamic world identified with this “victory.” Why? Regardless of ethnic background or national borders, Islamic peoples (Umma) find consanguinity with each other.43 National constructs are not nearly as important to Muslims as their common faith. For this reason, America’s strategic leaders will continue to be frustrated in the attempt to erect Western-model democracies in the Islamic world. Our unstated and unspoken goal is to bring the Enlightenment to Islamic lands. Erecting western democracy framed by the Enlightenment will always be resisted by Muslim society. This is not simply a wickedly complex problem, but rather a fundamental misreading of what is possible.
As a class of humanity, Muslims feel dispossessed and oppressed by the current world order. Consider this story:
One day…an elderly Bedouin man discovered that by eating turkey he could restore his virility. So he bought himself a turkey and he kept it around the tent, and every day he watched it grow. He stuffed it with food, thinking, Wow, I am really going to be a bull. One day, though, the turkey was stolen. So the Bedouin called his sons together and said, “Boys, we are in great danger now – terrible danger. My turkey’s been stolen.” The boys laughed and said, “Father, what do you need a turkey for?” He said, “Never mind, never mind. It is not important why I need the turkey, all that is important is that it has been stolen, and we must get it back.” But his sons ignored him and forgot about the turkey. A few weeks, later the old man’s camel was stolen. His sons came to him and said, “Father, your camel’s been stolen, what should we do?” And the old man said, “Find my turkey.” A few weeks later, the old man’s horse was stolen, and the sons came and said, “Father, your horse was stolen, what should we do?” He said, “Find my turkey.” Finally, a few weeks later, someone raped his daughter. The father went to his sons and said, “It is all because of the turkey. When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.”44
The turkey theft illustrates the Muslim’s sense of loss and vulnerability in a hostile world. Modern Muslims are faced with a nagging conundrum which we might put this way: “How is it that Islamic people, who are the possessors of the only true religion and who ought to be (and once were!) the most powerful people on earth, are now so poor, backward and powerless?”45 Muslims deeply resent successive defeats; loss of international prestige; loss of authority within their own nations; and loss of control within their own families as their women and children46 model their behavior upon the “Christian” West. Muslims are also caught in a cycle of hopelessness, lack of opportunity and poverty.
Over all, Islam has been in retreat since Ottoman forces were defeated in their second siege of Vienna in 1683, more than three hundred years ago. During that time Christian and post-Christian civilization has profoundly affected the economics, government, mores, society, and culture of the entire Muslim world.47 Existing national leaders in Muslim nations are dictatorial, insular and grossly out of touch with their populations. These realities have brought forth profound discontent and resentment throughout the Umma. Islamist ideology has given voice to angry passions in the Muslim civilization.48 Islamists also offer the eschatological hope of a unified Umma, restored to its rightful, preeminent place, in a region that “remains divided by tribal, religious, and political divisions, in which continued instability is inevitable.”49 Islamists are those who so clearly articulate the hopelessness of the Muslim masses by identifying a powerful enemy in the Great Satan (dajjal), which is the USA, and locating all of life’s answers in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Religious extremism always flourishes in an environment in which adherents perceive their beliefs and way of life are under attack. The modernist cultural and economic assault on Islam (sometimes called “westoxification”) is popularly seen not only as confirmation of Islamist ideology but substantiation of the need for Muslims to return to a purer practice of their religion.
Current affairs in Muslim lands serve to amplify and verify all these resentments in the popular mind. The fact of a Western military presence (labeled “Christian Crusaders”) in Muslim lands is an ongoing affront to the impoverished Muslim estate. American strategic leaders must directly address Muslim feelings of dispossession and oppression and do this from a thoroughly religious perspective. Until some real communication with Islamic sensibilities is made, no lasting change in the current Islamic world order will be influenced by the United States.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 26 April 2012 16:30|