I realize in my previous post on the poppy trade I said “the Taliban and other terrorist groups,” thus calling the Taliban “terrorists” by association.

Unless we take a broad definition of terrorist, which I do not, I believe this is a mistake.

It is not out of love for the Taliban, or any violent Islamist politico-military organization, that I prefer not to paint them with the broad brush of “terrorist.”  Rather, it is because I believe in a precision in terms.  It is useful, not only for clear discourse, but in forming proper policy prescriptions.

First, not all Islamist political groups are the same.  The current ruling party in Turkey has an Islamic bent, but they will not establish shari’a in place of secular Turkish law.  They were elected legitimately, and rule peacefully.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would establish some kind of Islamic law, but it is unlikely that it would be the kind of totalitarian social control seen in countries like Saudi Arabia.  They operate peacefully, and are the majority opposition party in Egypt, even with all of Mubarak’s shady dealing and election corruption.  These two groups have little in common with militant organizations like Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

Second, not all militant Islamist groups are the same.  Hezbollah and the Taliban are trying to establish control over their respective countries – in the case of Hezbollah, they might even settle merely for increased representation in the existing government. (I’d be wary of any such arrangement, though – fair representation in Lebanon would mean Hezbollah and their associates would have a strong majority in parliament.  Left untempered by good institutions, some of Hezbollah’s more radical members could lead the country in an unsavory direction.)   Hezbollah has strong popular support because they operate as a shadow government, providing important social services where the official government has failed.  The Taliban had popular support because they had a reputation as being incorruptible, as well as bringing stability to a war ravaged country.  After their authoritarian rule, the popularity of the Taliban waned, though it is on the rise again.  Al Qaeda, in contrast to either of these organizations, more closely resembles anarchist groups.  They attack civilian populations with the main goal of causing fear and anarchy, their overarching goal is ambiguous and general rather than specific and political, and they operate in small, covert cells.

These differences are not superficial, but strike to the heart of how they must be understood and dealt with, individually.  If we see all Islamists, or worse, all Muslims, as the same, we risk grossly misunderstanding their goals, strategies, and constituents – and in so doing, undermine our own efforts to rebuff, defeat, or compromise with them.  The latest issue of Foreign Policy has declared Samuel Huntington the number four “winner” of the war in Iraq.  His views, whether explicitly or merely de facto, have certainly been gaining ground with many in the West since 9/11.  Yet, this idea of a clash of civilizations denies the multiplicity of interests and identities in the Islamic and Arab worlds.  It leads to the view, illustrated by Mark Steyn, that there is some kind of grand competition with Muslims everywhere, that they jeopardize Western “civilization” (whatever that is) and that we must fear being outbred (!) by them.  Bigoted nature aside, this kind of thinking leads to a dangerous “Manichean Paranoia,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski terms it, where we assert ourselves as an Ultimate Good facing a monolithic, unified Ultimate Evil.  The only possible result, then, is the triumph of Good over Evil, completely and utterly, by any means necessary.  And if that kind of ideology on the part of the world’s most powerful leaders is not a frightening prospect, I don’t know what is.