Gen. Michael Hayden: ISIS, the US and the war of religions

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The week before Christmas, a Tunisian terrorist/refugee/asylum seeker who had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State drove a Polish semi-trailer truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin. Twelve people were killed, nearly five dozen injured.

{mosads}The Trump transition team quickly issued a statement that played to the combative themes of the presidential campaign: “Innocent civilians were murdered in the streets as they prepared to celebrate the Christmas holiday. ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.”


In short, it was them against us redux. They hate us, all of them — or at least a lot of them — hate us.

Actually, as far as the statement goes, I share the president-elect’s outrage at this heinous crime, and his broader statement with regard to attacks on Christians is correct.

Two summers ago, shortly after the fall of Mosul, my wife and I attended Mass in Aspen on the margins of a rather despondent Aspen Security Conference. There the priest reminded the local faithful that, for the first Sunday since the time of the Apostles, holy Mass would not be said that weekend in Mosul (ancient Nineveh), a characterization that struck me more deeply than any I had heard over the preceding three days at the Aspen Institute.

The human terrain of the Middle East is being irrevocably altered as Christian communities that have existed for more than a millennium, often under tolerant Islamic rulers, are being eradicated or depopulated, forced to flee from ancestral homes that predate the birth of Islam. Jihadists painting the letter “N” (for Nazrene, followers of the Nazarean) on local homes have accelerated a broader decline in the Christian population of the region from 14 percent a century ago to only 4 percent today. Iraq’s Christian population is estimated to be a third of what it was shortly after the American invasion, and Christianity has all but disappeared from Iran and Turkey. 

Still, grief and righteous anger are thin reeds on which to base policy, and the transition team’s formulation for the Berlin attack was, at best, incomplete. In short, the center of gravity of this conflict is not a war between civilizations (Christians vs. Muslims), although Berlin and other attacks invite that conclusion.

The victims of jihadist terrorism have overwhelmingly been Muslim, and the center of gravity of this conflict is a war within a civilization: within Islam itself. We will continue to see all of these despicable acts until that is finally resolved. And to confine our understanding of this conflict to the former construct (a war between civilizations) will make the resolution of the latter (a war within a civilization) more difficult.

Islam is experiencing a conflict that parallels Christendom’s struggle in the 17th century, trying to arbitrate a new balance between faith and reason, between the sacred and the secular. Christendom’s Thirty Years’ War, the last great war of religion in the West, was especially bloody — the death rate in Germanic lands approached 20 percent — and led to the separation of the secular from the sacred in the West, broadly divorcing the coercive power of the state from matters of faith.

The three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all revere and profess to be children of Abraham and all came out of the same desert. Islam traditionally refers to adherents of the other two faiths as “people of the book,” a nod to the Torah and the Bible that Mohammed allegedly perfected.

But despite these parallels, it may be more difficult for Islam to approach Christendom’s compromise of separating Church and state, since at least in its fundamentalist forms Islam is a more transcendent religion, allowing human reason less space to interfere with the purported will of God. Men are capable of terrible things when they believe they are doing His will.

Before we too quickly condemn our fellow monotheists, we should remember that the Western democracy that most allows the “will of God” into the public square is our own.

In a few weeks, believers of many faiths will march for life in Washington to overturn what the Supreme Court says is a constitutional right, and they will do so on largely religious grounds. American Catholicism in effect set up its own justice system in the recent priest sex abuse scandal; opting for ecclesiastical judgement while avoiding criminal courts is not quite the same as imposing sharia, but there are parallels. And American evangelicals make up the biggest pro-Israel bloc in the U.S., supporting the Jewish state not for reasons of policy but because of Biblical teaching. One evangelical leader labeled support for Israel “God’s foreign policy.”

None of this should equate American belief with jihadist fanaticism, cause us to accept intolerance and violence, or prevent us from doing what we need to do to defend ourselves. It’s just that we need to keep the big ideas straight, or the limited powers we have to influence outcomes will be misplaced at best —  and destructive of our purposes at worst. 

It would be good if our policies and our language reflected the core truths and the complexities of the situation we face and avoid the facile emotional appeals. The incoming team made a modest step in that direction when, the day after the attack, Donald Trump himself walked back the clash of civilizations meme. Feigning ignorance of the earlier statement (“Who said that?”) the president-elect correctly characterized the Berlin event as “an attack on humanity,” a phrase that he then repeated for emphasis.

For that moment, at least, we were off the ISIS-preferred narrative and on to one consistent with our values, and our interests.


Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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