This fight is extremely difficult. Much of the international community has been in near constant combat with militant Islam for almost 15 years, and what has been achieved? If there was an easy way to win this fight, we probably would have found it by now.
The amount of resources poured into the Long War boggles the mind. The US alone has spent approximately $US1.6 trillion since 2001. The funds were spent on boosting its intelligence operations, sustaining two combat theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan, coordinating allies, smaller combat engagements in over 100 countries and protecting the US homeland.
And yet eight people could still walk through the City of Lights this week killing more than 120 people with seeming impunity. Witnesses say the killers yelled Islamic justifications for their actions, and afterwards the group calling itself the Islamic State claimed responsibility. If people want to know where this horror comes from, the clue is in that name. It shouldn’t be this hard to say that for 15 years this fight has something to with Islam. But just saying this doesn’t lead to answers.
That’s where this problem becomes difficult. Islam is a civilisation, a mind-set, a belief structure clashing headlong into its polar opposite. It is an idea that shares with the West none of what US President Barack Obama calls “universal human rights”. A belief system which, although it emerges from the same beginnings as Christianity and Judaism, travelled in an entirely different direction over thousands of years.
Now that modernity – the atavistic legacy of Christianity – and pious Islam meet once again in the 21st century, our leaders discover to their dismay that they can’t even talk to their enemy. This is not about the differences between Arabic and English. The breakdown of communication goes far deeper.
In order to understand why the Long War is probably intractable and why the West will conduct targeted killings for the foreseeable future, one must consider Europe’s 30 Years War. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. The idea was that while Christian Europeans would continue to kill each other for many reasons, they did not need to keep religion on that list.
So began the West’s lengthy process of separating the sacred from the secular. Today the result can broadly be called “modernity”. However it isolates the question at the heart of the Long War: is this arc unique to Christianity? Or, might Islam follow a similar process and achieve its own Enlightenment?
To be fair, there’s absolutely nothing compelling Islam along the arc, and perhaps the process will only happen once in human history. And of course Islam doesn’t need to trace those steps for the world to be safe. Yet if Islam is such a transcendental religion, is the West only shouting in the wind?
Remember that Christianity was translated through Aristotelian thought as it moved into Europe. There is no equivalent marriage of reason with faith in the Islamic world. In fact, Muslims say it is sacrilegious to place an intermediary between the creature and the creator: so what’s all this talk about voting?
This is our world today. The West has prosecuted the Long War in the only way it knows: by dividing the battles into the close fight and the deep fight. The close fight deals with people already wishing to do its citizens harm. The deep fight deals with the production rate of such violent people.
This dynamic featured during the Cold War too. The close fight could be seen with the British Army on the Rhine and the American Marine Corp outside the Fulda Gap, each attempting to contain the Soviet Union. The deep fight was largely ideological. After all, Communism was an Enlightenment idea too, which meant the West had some legitimacy in discrediting or arguing against it.
The Long War against militant Islam is nowhere near as straightforward. The West has done extremely well on the close fight. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq ripped up al Qaeda and the CIA’s secret work in removing terrorists from the battlefield raids continues to be an unarguable success in preventing attacks after 9/11.
But the west’s ability to influence the deep fight in this war has been disastrously limited. In 2001 Western leaders were convinced that something should be done about the deep fight, but it was hard to figure out what exactly that was. They discovered that the production rate of Islamic terror was an immensely tough nut to crack.
This current fight is equally ideological to the Cold War, but Islam is an ideology about which Westerners have little legitimacy to argue. To suggest an alternative interpretation of the Koran, or explain the significance of a passage out of the Hadith, is to turn a Westerner’s argument to dust the moment it leaves the mouth.
Instead, ending the Long War requires a conversation between and amongst Islam alone. What the West struggles to understand is that this is largely Islam’s civil war and we are only collateral. Islam may well be on a similar arc towards separating the sacred from the secular, but there is no guarantee. Until Muslims decide how to deal with modernity, Paris will happen again and again.