The 'War on Terror' vs. 'Radical Islam': What’s in a Name?

A man inspects the damage at his home after a bombing in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (AP Photo)
A man inspects the damage at his home after a bombing in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (AP Photo)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

On February 28, 2017, President Donald J. Trump in his first address to a joint session of Congress uttered two words that no American president has ever spoken publicly: "radical Islam." Previous presidents had opted to use the expression "war on terror." The statement was a political victory for administration hardliners like Trump advisor Steve Bannon and his protégé on the National Security Council Sebastian Gorka. Is there really a difference between the two terms? Does it matter? The fact is, neither term is particularly instructive or useful.

Officially, President George W. Bush first used the expression "war on terror" on September 20, 2001, in an address to a Joint Session of Congress, following the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11. Unofficially, he made a similar remark on September 16. Ronald Reagan had made a reference to a "war on terrorism" in 1984, referring to the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corp barracks in Beirut in 1983. In 2013, the Obama Administration announced that the U.S. was no longer conducting a "war on terror," but the expression has continued to be widely used.

Terror, as many critics have pointed out, is not an ideology or a set of beliefs. It is not an organization, an institution, a government or a state against which one can wage war. Terror is a tactic. It is a form of asymmetric warfare whereby a weak player attempts to force a strong player to change their behavior by subjecting their combatants, government institutions and civilian population to random acts of violence.

The advantage of terrorism as a strategy is that it requires only a small force to carry out and is relatively inexpensive to do so. On the other hand, defending against that strategy requires a much larger force and is far more expensive. The disadvantage is that notwithstanding its manpower and cost advantages, it is hard to find a lot of examples where the strategy has ultimately proven to be effective in causing a strong power to change its behavior over the long-term.

The term "radical Islam" also has a relatively recent origin. It was first coined in January 1979, by U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA) in reference to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Initially, the term was used to specifically refer to the policies being pursued by the Khomeini government in Tehran. During the 1984 Vice-Presidential Debate between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, Bush identified "radical Islam" as a threat to the United States. The reference, however, continued to be applied only to Iran. By the late 80s however, the term was used in the media to describe the rise of politically active groups, often ones committed to violent action, that espoused fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran.

In recent years, foreign policy hardliners have criticized the U.S. government for its unwillingness to use the term "radical Islam" as indicative of a reluctance to acknowledge the true nature of the threat to U.S. strategic interests. The implication, sometimes specifically highlighted and sometimes left unspoken, is that jihadist violence is an inherent consequence of the radicalization of Muslims and that the two cannot be separated from one another. In other words, Islamic radicalism and jihadist violence are synonymous. Both the Bush and Obama administrations opted not to use the expression for fear that U.S. actions would be interpreted as a war against Islam and the world’s Muslim community, as opposed to being limited to those groups that were perpetrating acts of terror.

The fact is that neither definition is particularly useful or instructive. What the various jihadist organizations have in common, notwithstanding the fact that they criticize each other constantly for a lack of ideological purity and adherence to scripture, is three things. First, they believe in a literal interpretation of the Koran and the accompanying Sunnah and Hadith. The Sunnah refers to the religious practices established by Mohammed himself. The Hadith refers to comments made by Mohammed that were reported by his contemporaries and passed down orally. Secondly, they want to organize political, economic and social institutions in accordance with the practices that existed during the time of Mohammed and his immediate followers in the seventh and eighth centuries. Thirdly, they want to impose their particular view on how society should be organized, by force, on both Muslims and non-Muslims.

These jihadist groups are often described as Salafists. They are a small subset of a much larger Salafist community. Salafism is an Islamic religious movement advocating a return to the practices of the salaf or "devout ancestors." The Salafist doctrine takes a fundamentalist, strict, puritanical, literal approach to Islam, based on emulating the practices of Mohammed and his first three generations of followers. The latter are called the al-salaf al-salih, "the pious forefathers." 

Salafism first emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century, and spread from there to Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. In Arabia, it gave rise to Wahhabism, a fundamentalist, ultraconservative Islamic reform movement, to which it remains closely related. Mohammad bin Saud mobilized the Wahhabi sect to conquer most of Arabia and, in 1932, create the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The dynasty he founded, the House of Saud, has continued to govern Saudi Arabia to this day. Wahhabism is the official form of Sunni Islam practiced in the Kingdom. In Egypt, Salafism inspired several anti-Colonial movements including, most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Historically, Salafism has been characterized as apolitical and nonviolent. Its emphasis was on proselytizing and education. These Salafists identified jihad with the personal purification of religious beliefs and practices rather than with violent actions against nonbelievers and the enemies of Islam. Increasingly, the Salafist movement has focused on political reform and the non-violent introduction of Sharia law.

The modern form of Salafist jihadism emerged in the mid-1980s in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the organization of various Muslim groups from outside Afghanistan to resist it. Drawing inspiration from the mythology of Islamic military history, and the divinely aided victories at Yarmouk and Qadisiya, these jihadists believed that a return to religious orthodoxy would again insure God’s aid and a military victory against seemingly insurmountable odds. Arab jihadist claims that they were responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a widely-exaggerated claim that had little substance, gave additional credence to this view.

These groups fused the belief in a literal interpretation of Islamic scriptures and the rejection of any metaphorical or allegorical interpretations with the contention that insufficiently devout Muslims, including political leaders, could be proscribed and killed and the centrality of violent action in the defense and promotion of Islam. This definition of jihad focused on direct and violent action against not only the enemies of Islam but also those branches of the Muslim faith, including Shias and Sufis, considered heretical.

Such interpretations have existed before. The Kharijites in the eighth century, a derogatory term often used to described Salafist jihadists in Arab media, espoused many of the ideas of modern jihadists, including the practice of proscribing practicing Muslims, of revolting against leaders they deemed to have sinned and on the centrality of violent action. Such groups have been a recurring feature throughout Islamic history.

Today there are approximately 60 well organized Salafist jihadist groups, with a combined strength of between 200,000 and 300,000 militants, not all of which may be active at one time. It’s estimated they are actively supported by less than one percent of the Muslim community, although that still amounts to a potential support base of around 10 million Muslims. It’s possible that they have sympathizers well in excess of that number, even though those supporters would be unlikely to involve themselves in violent action.

Although the vast majority of Salafists reject violent jihad, there is no question that the spread of Salafism throughout the Muslim world has made it easier to radicalize some Salafists into joining Salafist jihadist groups. Since 1975, it’s estimated that the Saudi government has spent over $100 billion and built over 1,500 mosques and madrassas promoting Salafism. By comparison, in its heyday, the Soviet Union spent around one billion dollars a year on its international propaganda efforts.

It’s unclear how much the U.S. government spends on winning hearts and minds. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. federal agency responsible for Voice of America, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, al Hurra, (Arab language broadcasting) and various other broadcasters, is around $750 million. Not all of these programs are oriented toward the Muslim community, however. There are also other programs administered by other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, that are also involved in such efforts.

We are engaged not in a war on terror or in a struggle against radical Islam. We are engaged in a struggle against the Salafist jihadists who wants to impose their views on how society should be organized on the rest of the world. It would be better if we dropped expressions like war on terror and radical Islam in favor of identifying the enemy for who it is - the 60 or so Salafist jihadist groups around the world. That is a term and a cause that the rest of the world, including its 1.5 billion Muslims, can rally around and support.

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