Regardless of various opinions about the United States’ military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, I would argue that President Bush’s words to a joint session of Congress on 20 September of that year ring just as true and valuable now: “We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom” against an onslaught by terrorists practicing “a fringe form of Islamic extremism.”
Recent unconscionable acts of violence by Islamic militants, including beheadings and burnings alive not heard of for hundreds of years, demand broad and possibly unique means of response and concerted action by the modern world. Certainly the “overseas contingency operation” with which the Obama administration replaced the “Global War on Terror” in May 2009 has failed to accomplish the task. Now ISIS leaders openly threaten to “conquer your Rome, break your crosses and enslave your women.”
Not since the Communist state of Stalin, or perhaps the Third Reich, have we faced such a potential, or at least self-proclaimed, existential threat to the modern world. It required a half century of containment to mutate the former and a brutal world war to eradicate the latter.
The religious inspiration behind ISIS, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and affiliated groups add a different face to the movements which call for responses broader than purely military activity. Recalling President Truman’s unsuccessful effort to draw the world’s religions into the fight against communism, we need to draw religious leaders from all traditions—especially the vast majority of Muslims who do not align themselves with the medieval barbarism of the terrorists—into open and concerted action in opposition to the threat posed here.
In the early 1950s, Truman found only one group, the Catholic Church, willing to broadly and openly attack communism. In 2006, it was Pope Benedict XVI who spoke out more clearly and aggressively against the evil of using religion to inspire hatred and violence—and of the fundamental incompatibility of the Prophet’s command to “spread the word by the sword” with the way of life in the modern 21st century. He urged the Islamic world to reconcile the Koran with modernity, to bring reason to its interpretations just as the Enlightenment did for theocratic monarchies in the 18th century. He made it clear that moderate Muslims must take responsibility for their own religion.
And while there have been some encouraging comments, inter-religious dialogues, and op-eds to this effect, we are still in the early stages of a protracted struggle for the minds of heretofore not radicalized Muslims. The “soft power” of religious opinion makers is an important factor. In fact, some have argued as Amb. Charles Freeman (USFS, ret.) has that “only a coalition with a strong Muslim identity can hope to contain” the terrorists. He argues that the doctrines of ISIS cannot be successfully refuted by non-Muslims because the U.S. “lacks the religious credentials to refute” Islamic terrorist groups as “a moral perversion of Islam.”
The lack of cultural integration in different nations’ societies also presents a major challenge. Whether it is European “multiculturalism,” or an affirmative prejudice, the lack of alignment of many Muslim groups with the national identities and cultures of their countries has created a breeding ground for radicalization. Here is where our unique American “exceptionalism” can show the light. Our “melting pot” tradition of assimilation of diverse peoples has created—despite some bumps in the road—a uniquely broad and culturally tolerant society. And the related concept of citizenship based on residence and personal actions rather than blood and lineage can serve as a powerful model.
As the world gropes for solutions, it has become clear that concerted action by the modern world, akin to the Allied Powers’ collaborative actions to confront the Axis, is absolutely necessary. Spain and France recently passed bi-partisan laws granting expansive powers to the authorities to monitor and interdict internet connectivity with radical Islamic sites, to isolate and track down “lone wolf” terrorists, and to restrict and contain travel to and from places of known terrorist activities. Modifying the Schengen visa program and putting in place tightened border security are issues to consider as means of improving tracking of known terrorist suspects.
Lastly, we should consider a “containment” and isolation program to ring fence the terrorist geographies, turn them onto themselves and limit their capacity to export murder beyond their borders. In so doing, perhaps we can help assure that their neighbors who are our allies in all this (especially Jordan) are reinforced and protected. Turkey has a powerful role to play both because of their long land border with Syria and Iraq, and due to the complexities presented by the PKK in Turkey and the evolution of Kurdistan and its Peshmerga, which are capable fighters and allies of the West. Only a comprehensive strategy can turn the tide and lead us to ultimate victory in the Long War.
Rooney served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008, and is author of the book, The Global Vatican.