We can kill terrorists—we can kill nearly all of them—but we cannot kill an idea with drones and lead. Jihadism will not disappear without an alternative ideology, indeed an alternative theology, replacing it in the Middle East. And on that front, the liberal-democratic world seems to have little to offer.
These are neither complicated nor groundbreaking observations. But I’m reminded, after attending the Jamestown Foundation’s Tenth Annual Terrorism Conference, that they must be the foundation of the West’s posture toward the region.
Michael W.S. Ryan, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, raised this point well. His talk was a fascinating glance to the (thankfully likely) future of a Levant where the Islamic State has no governance. The organization will persist, but without cities or citizens. “ISIS will become a virtual government in exile, looking to regain territory,” he said.
But al-Qaeda never sought rule or territory as ISIS has, so in a sense, our future with a “defeated” ISIS will be a reset: back to the fight against an amorphous coalition of cells, franchises, and organizations united by a shared ideology. Citing a jihadist essayist, Ryan said that local terrorist groups and international terrorist operations are dialectically supportive of each other, “like braided hair.” That is, the material organization and structure of the relationship between “lone wolves” and jihadist groups is less important than the ideological exchange linking them.
How to respond to that radicalizing ideology is “the great challenge to the United States and its allies in the near future,” Ryan said. For jihadists, he explained, the radicalization process begins as a series of attempts to escape and reject the personal status quo, where dignity and respect are absent. That rejection of the previous personal order becomes a rejection of the world order. Radicalizing ideology changes a life, imbues it with meaning, and then demands and promises a changed world too.
To counter terrorism, Ryan said, the United States needs to develop a part-military, part-ideological response system. Material organization and communication must be disrupted as much as possible, but also necessary is a global strategy to address the ideological challenge.
There’s the rub. Attempts to de-radicalize must be tailored to individuals, and will depend on each individual’s path to radicalization and the roots of the discontent and emptiness that prompted it. The better we understand radicalization, the more effectively we can undo its effects.
Ideological inoculation, the widespread prevention of radicalization, is more complicated. That requires a new order that meets the needs of potential radicals—both their material needs and their desire for dignity and respect. Where will such an alternative come from? Complicating all of this is the theological nature and potency of the radicalizing ideology in the Middle East.
When I asked Ryan after his remarks how the West, as a consumer society dealing with its own discontents, would find the resources to offer dignity to those abroad who are willing to seek meaning through violence, he conceded that generally we are not presenting a compelling alternative. “Clearly we do need something more than mammon,” he said. He did, however, hold out hope that some kind of social entrepreneurship—perhaps using technology to connect youth in the United States to youth in the Middle East for conversation—could bridge the gap between the Western world and the Islamic one.
Of course, this is not an alternative ideology, much less a theology. Rather, it is the hope that liberalism will work even at diluting disagreement between whole orders, that conversation and deliberation can overcome conflicting cultural commitments. Perhaps in individual cases it can. But this leaves open the question of ideological inoculation—specifically, of an alternative source of significance to Wahhabi-Salafist jihadism for the Sunni world.
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who gave the day’s keynote address, compared—with the right caveats and historical caution—the current state of the whole Islamic world to 16th- and early-17th-century Christendom. He argued that just as the liberal order emerged in the West as a means of reconciling violent religious disagreement, so too must whatever order eventually creates stability in the Middle East develop out of the region and from within the Islamic world. Hayden admitted he could not predict what that would look like, though he did speculate that the situation in the Sunni world specifically might be one where a caliphate is good and necessary—just not this would-be caliphate, meaning ISIS.
If the West can only facilitate conversation, and if the development of a real theological regime must come out of the Sunni world, then American foreign policy in the region should be dictated by humility. Restraining violence, meeting material needs, and protecting minorities are important goals for the role they play in minimizing the desperation that leads to radicalism. But in the end, a Middle East plagued by terrorists is not a place we can simply shoot our way out of.
Micah Meadowcroft is a writer living in Washington, DC.