Since the beginning of the 20th Century, there have been two hot world wars, world Wars I and II, and the Cold War. The latter was only cold in that the major enemies, the United States and the Soviet Union, but also hot in that there were a number of Soviet surrogate or supported wars in Vietnam, Korea, China, and elsewhere not involving direct military action between the Soviet Union and the United States.
World War I was history's last bloody splash of European monarchism and the beginning ascendancy of democracy. World War II was the defeat of the power and ideology of fascism by democracy and communism. And the Cold War ended in the early 1990s with the clear world victory for the idea and power of democratic freedom. Except for one remaining and powerful ism. Although it lacks the capability of a Big Power, it dominates tens of millions of minds. It is both a secular and religious ism; it believes that a state should be under the exclusive and totalitarian control of one pan-state religion and that the government must be subservient to this church. This is a militant and deadly version of Islam.
Today, Muslims, the followers of Islam, number about one and a half billion people. As pointed out by Freedom House, 47 states have a Muslim majority, 11 of which are electoral democracies, and of them only Mali is a liberal democracy (for the distinction between electoral and classical democracies, see Chapter 3 of my Saving Lives). Of the 16 Muslim Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East, not one is democratic. Compare all this with the fact that of 145 states in the world without Muslim majorities, 110 are democratic, 85 of which are liberal democracies.
Clearly, Islam is inherently inhospitable to democratic freedom, as was pan-country Catholicism when it was the exclusive religion of a country (states, as such, did not exist) and it controlled virtually all of Europe before the Protestant Reformation. This is not to say that Islamic states cannot become electoral democracies. As noted above, 10 are. It is to say that democratic freedom is near impossible for those Islamic countries whose society, culture, and governments, in their current development, are under the control of Islamic clerics. Consider that in these countries:
All this is anathema to democratic ideas and peoples. In how Islamic states currently treat their citizens; their version of Islam is a natural enemy of democratic freedom. However, where war is understood as a directed struggle for supremacy between enemies, it does not follow that there should be war between Islam and democracy (nor does it follow that democratization is impossible-in one state or another the balance of power between secularizing elites and the church can change for democratization, as happened in Turkey, for example). As long as Islam is content with peaceful evolution, development, and proselytization, there should be peaceful, although competitive, coexistence between democratic freedom and Islam.
The supreme problem now is that with the defeat of militant fascism and communism by the democracies, a militant Islam has arisen among Muslims and is rapidly gaining adherents. As was true of fascists and communists, Islamicists believe that only they know the absolute truth and moral laws, and nonbelievers wherever must be converted or eliminated. And they intend to impose Islam on the rest of the world through force and violence. What we should label these Muslims is still unsettled. Whether called Militant Muslims, Muslim extremists, fundamentalists, Muslim terrorists, Islamicists, or Islamofascists, the idea is the same: war on democracy and nonbelievers everywhere. I will use the term Islamicists for these violent people, and I will label their militant beliefs Islamicism.
Islamicists see violence, including terrorism, and whatever other political and economic means available, as the way to global victory. In the Islamic bible, the Quran, violence is right and proper against non-Muslims, and Islamicists take this seriously. They have completely thrown out the Geneva Conventions, and agreements that have attempted to limit violence, especially against noncombatants, including outright genocide. Their use of violence is raw, naked, without scruples.
This is now a hot war; it is World War IV. And this is the context within which one should understand the American coalition's attack on Afghanistan to defeat the Islamicist Taliban regime, and the Islamicist Al-Qaeda they supported; the attack and defeat of Saddam Hussein's bloody regime, which while secular worked closely with Islamicists, including Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad, even involving giving $10,000, $12,000, or $25,000 (depending on the source) to genocide-suicide bombers; and the military involvement elsewhere, such as in the Philippines. This is a global war. The American Administration and its coalition partners realize this.
It may be asked why such a powerful state as the United States makes it its business to fight Islamicists, who after all, as far as military power is concerned, do not control any but third and fourth rate states. The question assumes that Islamicists are no direct threat to the United States. And if they tried to take over the important Middle Eastern source of oil, well, then, we should take action. This is an attractive isolationism. But, it neglects the incredible vulnerability to attack of the democracies.
The Power of the United States is supreme regarding other states. No state or combination of states could militarily defeat the United States, even if granted a surprise attack. But, this is military power on military power. And for this, the outcome is certain. But, the United States and other liberal democracies are loose, open societies vulnerable to attack of many kinds by Islamicist groups (not overtly states, although Islamicists governments may secretly support and aid them), like Al-Qaeda that could take thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of lives. The 9/11 successful attacks on the Trade Center Twin Towers that killed almost 3,000 people are only a potentially small example of what is possible. Gas and bacteriological attacks are great danger and could cause catastrophic economic disruption of a democracy (just consider the disruption of the very minor anthrax attack which only killed 5 people--consider the disruption if thousands had been infected and killed). The worst possibility is a suitcase sized nuclear weapon smuggled into and exploded in major cities (this is the plot of my novel, Nuclear Holocaust Not Again). If the Islamicists get such weapons, they have no compunction about using them.
For these reasons, the American coalition is fighting World War IV through preemption, invasion, economic and military aid, intelligence, domestic anti-terrorism policies and laws, and public relations. Best to go after the Islamicist enemy, rather than wait for their attack. This is not to say I always agree with the tactics used, but it is to say that this war must be fought. It is a war for freedom and, as shown by the studies on this web site, peace. It is a Just War.
Is the "war on terror" really World War IV?
That's what the American strategist Eliot Cohen argues and the term is apt. It captures two points: that the cold war was in fact World War III and that the war on terror is as global, as varied, and as important as prior world wars.
Militant Islam distinguishes itself from any other contemporary political movement in the magnitude of its ambitions, seeking not just to influence the adherents of one religion or control one region. Rather, it aspires to unlimited and universal power. Only Islamists have the temerity to challenge the liberal world order in a cosmic battle over the future course of the human experience. This translates into a worldwide battlefield.
Of course, a war in which so much is at stake cannot be about mere terrorism, and Cohen notes that "The enemy in this war is not terrorism, but militant Islam." As in world wars II and III, the ultimate enemy is a cohort of powerful ideas that can cause some of the most competent members of society to dedicate themselves to a vision and go so far as willingly sacrifice their lives to speed its attainment. The U.S. government, though usually reluctant to make this point, does allude to it on occasion, as when President George W. Bush states that the enemy is "a fringe form of Islamic extremism" and a "new totalitarian threat."
Terrorism, in other words, is just one dimension of a war that has many fronts and takes many forms. Violence is an important symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Other methods might include acts of violence by loners, smuggling, rioting, lawful street demonstrations, raising money, teaching, proselytizing, intimidating, and even running for elected office. These methods complement each other, constituting the sophistication and reach of militant Islam. The battleground includes Muslim-majority countries as well as countries like Argentina where Islam is a minor presence.
Militant Islam's varied and persistent offensive is often missed in the focus on Al-Qaeda and other well-developed networks. A look at the daily rhythm of the war makes this clear. Here are some top-of-the-news stories from a random two-week period in late 2002; note that Al-Qaeda-style terrorism makes up just a portion of the general assault:
This range of activities implies that an effective defense cannot be limited to disrupting networks of violence. The forces must include anti-Islamist Muslims as well as non-Muslims, intellectuals as well as special forces, teachers as well as police officers, filmmakers as well as forensic accountants. World War IV, in short, involves many fronts and requires a strategy that looks far beyond counterterrorism. The sooner we understand this, the faster we can win.
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