An Argument for Pragmatism

The only way democracy or civil society can take root in Iraq, devastated by military, sectarian and political strife, is for the United States to withdraw its military presence. But more than that, we need to rethink the effectiveness of our actions in this region, and against the militant Salafi movement in particular.

This does not mean the most responsible decision is to remove American forces immediately, but we must ultimately face the reality that our presence only puts a target on our backs—in Iraq and to jihadis across the globe. We undeniably alter the climate of local, national and regional politics in the favor of our enemies, who prey on the widespread anger held by many toward Western and Arab government.

And for the mujahidin fighting in Iraq, we only continue to provide a fertile environment for swelling their ranks.

But what is the tie between terrorism in Iraq today and our future security at home? The answer lies in the ideology of the Salafi movement, and its aims as a political and social force for the region. Because no other outlets for political expression exist in the stagnant autocracies of the Middle East, the popularity of Islamism, sometimes in its militant forms, has only increased in the region since September 11.

By choosing not to address the cause of that ailment, we have added further fuel to one of the jihadis” primary recruiting techniques: their resistance to the widely perceived tyranny and oppression of Western governments.

Without doubt, our security at home is connected to Iraq”s future. One can observe radicalized youth from across the region entering Iraq–along with a robust information effort by al-Qaeda and allied militant groups to attract recruits to that front. This serves as an urban training ground for this generation of militants, successors of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. These mujahidin will most likely also plan future operations, as their predecessors did from Afghanistan—but our prolonged presence in Iraq will not deter this.

Rather than attempt to understand theirs as a nihilistic faith that drives them to terror, it is more accurately a political and social movement bound together by Islamic identity. Perhaps Islamic nationalism best describes this phenomenon.

Militant Salafis” attitudes toward geography and nomenclature further illustrate this point. Rejecting the authority of nations established following colonial withdrawal (which implemented European systems of law in the Arab countries they demarcated), the mujahidin recall names echoing with Islamic tradition and the days of khalifal power: al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Holy Shrines, etc.

The doctrine of this movement, regardless of what we call it, has also transcended the nation-state. There is no doubt it has been the inspiration of recent terrorist plots in North America, not to mention in the United Kingdom, or Spain before that.

When we look at the foiled plot in Ontario last summer to kill Canadian civilians, storm Parliament and behead the prime minister, or the uncovered plot in New Jersey last May to storm Fort Dix and open fire on US military personnel, the suspects were all moved by this same movement and its ideology.

In both cases, the would-be jihadi groups were strewn together from various ethnic, national and linguistic backgrounds. Quite clearly their common identity was militant Salafi ideology. They were informal networks who shared the same beliefs and worldview, determined to affect change through violent, murderous means.

But these are still, in the end, tied to a broader political and social struggle in the Arab and Muslim world in which Islamists are attempting first and foremost to win the support of Muslim populations; to spark an Islamic awakening.

And in many countries where this internal conflict is unfolding, the most visible alternative to autocratic rule is the Islamist resistance.

Islamist political parties in countries like Lebanon and Egypt have demonstrated their appeal as alternatives to corrupt leadership, with the respective popularity of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, underground Islamist resistance movements in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Central Asian republics have similarly demonstrated this trend.

By withdrawing our support for autocracies like Mubarak”s Egypt, the House of Sa`ud, and the Jordanian monarchy, we will allow these governments to stand or fall on their own, and force the Salafi-jihadi movement comprised of al-Qaeda, its scholars, strategists and ideologues, to find popular support in an environment open to much more promising political and social alternatives.

We should encourage a culture of openness in all Arab and Muslim states. Moderate voices will be heard, and some will seek pragmatic solutions. With that, groups like al-Qaeda, who depend entirely on willing recruits to carry out attacks, will have much weaker ground to stand on.

In Iraq, and neighboring Arab countries, our military ventures are widely perceived as hostile and imperialistic. Insisting upon military action over any other means, we put our worst foot forward with Muslim and Arab populations since 9/11; a recruiting dream for the jihad. It is time we redirect our efforts.