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The New Totalitarians: Social Identities and Radical islamist Political Grand Strategy

Authored by Dr. Douglas J. Macdonald. | January 2007

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SUMMARY

Academic and journalistic critics of the American "Long War" on Terrorism (LWT) who are calling for negotiations with radical Islamist groups, to attempt to appease such groups by meeting their allegedly limited demands, or to accept that they do not represent a major threat to the United States and its interests, are fundamentally wrong. There are many reasons for this, but the major flaw in such reasoning is a lack of understanding of the ideologically-driven grand political strategy of the Islamist extremists, which represents a totalitarian, transnational, and, in many versions, universalist social revolutionary movement. Moderate rationalists steeped in bargaining over flexibly defined interests have difficulty understanding the rigidity of historical "necessity" or moral imperatives in the totalitarian mindset. Policy advice that flows from such misunderstanding is therefore fatuous, if not dangerous. A proper understanding of the grand political strategy chosen by the terrorists is a prerequisite for constructing effective counterpolicies.

A useful framework for understanding the ideology and grand political strategy of extremist Islamist terrorist groups such as those affiliated with al-Qa'ida is through the use of social identity theories. The radical Islamists are attempting to alter the social identity of the entire Muslim world (the ummah) in a direction of civilizational unity in order to struggle subsequently against other civilizational groups, often defined religiously, but including secular humanists also. Samuel Huntington's theory of an emerging "clash of civilizations" may or may not have a universal applicability, but it is highly relevant to studying the grand political strategy of certain Islamist extremist groups. Radical Islamist group leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Indonesia's Emir Abu Bakar Bashir openly advocate such a clash in civilizational social identity terms. Indeed, bin Laden has declared that it already has been begun by the West.

The ideas behind the political grand strategy to bring about a clash of civilizations have long historical roots. Yet they evolved rapidly into more terrorist means following the 1967 Arab war with Israel. Ideally, the strategy was to follow two stages. The first stage was to be the overthrow of secularist or moderate Muslim governments, the "near enemy," to unify the ummah under strict sharia (Islamist, God-given, Koranic) law and totalitarian Islamist political leadership. The second was to be a now-unified ummah confronting the rest of the world, the "far enemy," with the ultimate triumph of radical Islam on a global scale. This timetable was upset, and the political grand strategy altered, when the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invaded Afghanistan in 1979. This led to attacks on the Soviet "far" enemy, and the radicalizing and unifying experience of defeating the Soviets in that country. Muslims from all over the ummah participated in the Afghani jihad. Returning veterans of the anti-Soviet war often created radical Islamist movements upon their return to their country of origin, for example, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Once the Soviets were defeated, the radical Islamists turned to attacking the "far" and "near" enemies simultaneously in the 1990s, with the "far" enemy receiving snowballing attention.

The invasion of Iraq in 1991, and the stationing of allied troops in Saudi Arabia to deter and maintain a sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein, captured the attention of the radical Islamists and, with the collapse of the USSR, placed the United States first on the list among the "far enemies." What bin Laden and others perceived as the tepid American response to various provocations, and earlier American withdrawals from Vietnam in 1975, Beirut in 1983, and Somalia in 1993, among other examples, as well as the heady success of defeating the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan, emboldened the radical Islamists to the point of occasional delusions of grandeur. Attacks on Americans and U.S. interests continued periodically throughout the 1990s, culminating in the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001 (9/11). The subsequent American-led allied invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq cemented the position of the United States as the great enemy of Islam to the extremists, and even many moderates.

The radical Islamists have used these developments in their recruiting efforts, arguing that the United States has declared war on Islam. They also state this in civilizational social identity terms. Anger in the Muslim world at American actions has offered some recruitment opportunities for the radical Islamists. But thus far they have failed to shape the consciousness of the vast majority of Muslims in a civilizational direction of their choosing. A top priority of American foreign policy must be that this pan-Islamic political grand strategy continues to fail.

The study makes the following policy recommendations:

  1. A greater coordination of efforts, both material and ideational, with allies to prevent the LWT from turning into a "clash of civilizations" over social identities as planned by radical Islamist terrorists;
  2. More sophisticated and less ethnocentric outreach programs to the non-Western world to explain the American role in and the potential benefits of Globalization to moderate groups, and a greater emphasis on areas of value congruence;
  3. The implementation of a combined "attrition/ attraction" strategy in dealing with insurgent groups; and,
  4. The promotion of a moderate nationalism and "dual identities" to fend off the potential appeals of a widespread change toward a civilizational identity in the Muslim world, even if at the short-term expense of American economic interests.