This is a confusing summer for watchers of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Syria (ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh): Its territorial state is shrinking, while ISIL is inspiring unprecedented lethality and frequency of terrorism in other states. These trends have been offered as false promises for the decline of ISIL, but to be realistic, we should analyze ISIL on five dimensions:
1. The territorial state;
2. Its conventional military capacity;
3. The insurgency;
4. The terrorism; and
5. The ideology.
We are making progress in only the territorial state and its conventional military capacity, not the other three dimensions: insurgency, terrorism, and ideology. We are underachieving most in the fifth dimension – the ideology, due to Western reluctance to assert its traditions of secular, collectivist, normative societies.
Violent jihadism is bigger than ISIL, so defeating ISIL will not be the end of Jihadi terrorism. As long as violent Jihadism remains culturally strong, and the alternatives remain culturally weak, defeating the leader of the pack allows space for another group to take the lead.
This does not mean that we should tolerate the devil we know. We need to defeat each leading terrorist group, and quickly defeat the next one before it can occupy the same space.
To truly defeat ISIL, we would need to defeat ISIL in all five dimensions, and simultaneously:
1. Recapture the territory held by the Islamic State;
2. Counter the insurgencies thereabouts – aiming for security sufficient to restore public services and governance, not just nominal democratization and security in the capital city;
3. Stabilize a liberal secular government over that territory, even if not immediately democratic;
4. Counter the terrorism in homelands remote to the territorial Islamic State; and
5. Counter the appeal of violent Jihadism in remote territories by rediscovering the advantages of secular, collectivist, normative societies.
We remain least successful in the fifth dimension, which helps to explain the explosion of insurgencies, terrorism, and failing states in the Middle East and Africa, and declining cohesion and increasing polarization in Western societies. Ideologies are essentially root causes in the other four dimensions, so our most effective and efficient strategy would be to terminate the root causes, yet current policies balk at identifying ideologies as root causes.
The failures of Western responses to extremism are indicated by the many changes of fashionable policies, and the inaccuracies of their terms: “war on terrorism,” “democratization,” “stabilization,” “challenging the ideology,” “countering the message,” and now “countering violent extremism.”
Literally, a war on terrorism wages military violence against those who practice the behavior of terrorism, but ignores and legitimates the extremism from which terrorists come. Democratization just legitimates the politicized versions of religion that are the roots of most terrorism and insurgency. Stabilization in practice has meant the propping up of a corrupt and minority government in a capital, while the rest of the country goes to chaos.
Countering violent extremism is an inaccurate synonym for counter-terrorism, since not all violent extremists are terrorists, and not all terrorists are violent (think of the hackers and financiers). Current US policy vaguely hopes that improving governance and resilience will also counter the ideology. In practice, countering the ideology is focused on countering pro-terrorist messages through social media, but we cannot practically control social media – we can close an account here, erase a message there, but focusing on the channels would be an inefficient and ineffective strategy. The scale and frequency of flows are beyond policing.
Largely in aversion to the excessively military trend in counter-terrorism is the fashionable encouragement of more “engagement.” At best, this amounts to worthy interventions to catch at-risk individuals before they fall under the spell of extremists; at worst, it is an attempt by hand-wringers to create official demand for the hand-wringers themselves to “engage” with the disaffected, while focusing on the disaffections without the responsibilities, like the psychotherapist who encourages the patient to be symptomatic.
Critical engagement with disaffections, and more emphasis on responsibilities, would expose the emptiness of extremist alternatives. By contrast, hand-wringing about disaffection usually goes nowhere except to blame society for insufficient engagement. This is circular, and is encouraging self-segregated minorities to blame the majority without argument or evidence – effectively reversing the prejudices. Raising alarm about “disaffection” is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Largely in response to the failure to persuade extremists through so-called “engagement,” Western societies have retrenched behind fashionable terms such as tolerance, free speech, multiculturalism, inclusivity and diversity, with the seductive expectations of both cultural homogenization and cultural proliferation at the same time. Yet these expectations are contradictory and hypocritical. In order to tolerate one competing culture, the competitor must be aggrieved; given absolute freedom of speech, somebody must be offended; squeezing in more cultures squashes others; including all interests makes accommodation of any interest impossible; absolute diversity makes preference impossible.
In practice, these contradictions and hypocrisies are often at the expense of the majority, and to the advantage of the extremists, such as intolerance of a majority culture in case it appears intolerant of minority cultures, and tolerance of extremists in case they accuse the rest of us of intolerance; or legislating against religious hatred, which just protects religious extremism from exposure.
The alternative to such contradictions and hypocrisies is is to make choices that honestly admit a hierarchy of preferences. Violent Jihadism is not our preference, but what are our preferences? Our politicians keep asserting our “values,” without specifying or justifying them, a mistake that US Secretary State John Kerry repeated on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Their unfalsifiability makes them as useful politically as they are useless practically.
Our preferences over violent Jihadism are suggested by the literal antonyms: secularism is the antonym to religious extremism; collectivism is the antonym to segregation; and norms are the antonyms to extremisms.
Western civilization is founded on honest navigation of the balances between secularism and religion, between collectivism and individualism, and between norms and exceptionalism.
Secularism is not anti-religious – it means keeping religion a private affair, and keeping religion subordinate to politics and law.
Collectivism is not anti-individualism – it means that individuals do not need to be adjudicated until they infringe on others.
Norms are not anti-minority – norms, such as driving in the same direction on one side of the road, help everybody to navigate society safely.
We cannot defeat extremist ideologies unless we celebrate a hierarchy of superior alternatives. Let’s start with honesty: only then we could rediscover our secularism, collectivism, and norms.