The catastrophic implications of the incompetent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are difficult to exaggerate. The effects of this debacle are apt to reverberate well beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this, for there can be no doubt that this perceived Taliban victory has infused new life into the Islamist campaign against the West. The roots of Islamism run deep and cannot be reduced to the kinds of conspicuous and easily understandable complaints that are often identified as “root causes” of violent political outbursts. Violent Islamism was invented as an effort to make sense of and reverse the Islamic world’s perceived decline, and this is what drives the Islamists to prosecute a holy war against the West.
Islam’s history began with a series of sweeping triumphs, as disparate tribes united under a single religious confession and conquered vast swathes of territory, eventually growing into a great civilization. These early successes were seen as proof that the Muslim community enjoyed God’s favor. The Islamic world rivaled the West in wealth, power, and influence; it was a dynamic and effective competitor on the world stage. It no longer is, and has not been for centuries. The Muslim world stands diminished, divided, and overshadowed. To the Islamists, the only explanation for this tragic turn of events is that God has withdrawn his favor from the Muslim community, and this could only mean that the Muslim community had ceased to heed the teachings of God’s messenger, Muhammad. To the Islamists, a religious revival is key to regaining what they see as their rightful place in the world, and this revival requires the embrace and prosecution of violent jihad.
Like any other monomaniacal totalitarian activist, the Islamist sees the world as totally wrong and in need of drastic, violent correction. The Sunni fanatics who have once again taken possession of Afghanistan see the world through the eyes of the chief inventor of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). Qutb articulated his vision in a large body of writings, which include a voluminous commentary on the Quran. Qutb taught that the contemporary world has relapsed into a state of jahiliyyah — that period of heedlessness and godlessness that preceded the revelation of the Quran. In his view, jahiliyyah afflicted not only the non-Muslim world, but had also come to characterize the corrupt, decadent Muslim world as well — what passes for Islam is not true Islam, and most nominal Muslims are not true Muslims. The Islamist project may be summarized as an effort to roll back jahiliyyah, thereby reviving the fortunes of the Muslim community to assume its rightful place on the world stage.
It must be stressed that violent Islamists place the vast majority of practicing Muslims among their enemies. In 1978 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with the state of Israel; Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a radical Islamist group whose members included Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician who would eventually succeed Osama bin Laden as head of al Qaeda. At the time of Sadat’s assassination, Zawahiri was arrested and imprisoned for his suspected role in the conspiracy. In footage shot at the time, Zawahiri and his co-defendants are seen in a prison cell and Zawahiri can be heard screaming at his jailers “We are Muslims!” Now, one might at first be inclined to naively assume that he is appealing to a sense of solidarity (as if to say, “We’re like you — we too are Muslims”), but what he was proclaiming to his jailers was in effect: “Unlike you – we are Muslims!” The Islamists believe they are the only true Muslims — the only genuine followers of God on earth.
The present state of the world — with non-Muslim states ascendant and dominant — is intolerable to the Islamists. Power and prosperity belong rightfully only to those who acknowledge God’s supremacy. Following Qutb, the Islamists hold that any society that fails to organize itself as an Islamic theocracy (as the Taliban does) is guilty of denying God’s sovereignty and is worthy of destruction. No human community has a right to govern itself — all human communities belong under the rule of Islam. The West’s rejection of the theocratic ideal makes it an enemy of true Islam. The Islamists believe themselves mandated to restore the rule of God on earth (indistinguishable, of course, from their own rule).
What lessons are to be drawn from this? In the first place, we should recognize we didn’t ask for this conflict — we didn’t provoke it. One needn’t provoke an enemy like this in order to incur its hostility; the mere act of existing in defiance of their religious expectations is sufficient to earn a death sentence. Since we did not choose this conflict, we cannot unilaterally choose to end it; withdrawal from the most active battle space will not end the war. Any assumption that it would is simply delusional. In the second place, the enemy’s religious expectations are key to crafting their ultimate defeat. The enemy believes God favors them. The key to defeating them is to disabuse them of this notion — to persuade them that, despite their pretensions, God does not favor them and is not about to reward them with mastery of the world. This requires defeating them consistently over time. Every defeat, every setback, every battlefield failure threatens to fatally undermine their confidence, demoralizing them and calling into question the soundness of their vocation. A clear pattern of defeat would ultimately dry up their recruiting, shrink their movement, and effectively end the war.
How do matters presently stand? To begin with, one should recognize that an understanding of the power and appeal of the kind of religious fanaticism the Taliban promotes is simply beyond the capacity of our latte-sipping, pronoun-parsing, ladder-climbing “elites.” The Biden administration’s obscene mishandling of Afghanistan has handed the Taliban a monumental victory, and the victors will now cede all glory to God. Their religious expectations have been fulfilled, and God’s favor now shines brightly upon them. It is difficult to imagine how the enemy could be any more highly encouraged. The impression of triumph we have handed the Taliban will prolong the war they started on 9/11 by bolstering their belief in their own divinely appointed mission. The Biden administration has effectively endorsed the myth of Islamic supremacy that fuels Islamist belligerence, and the consequences may be felt for generations.
And for what? Why cut and run so precipitously from what would seem to have been a militarily manageable situation? Was it really so a calloused, senile, leering, corrupt, barely-conscious, suited-up mannequin could deliver an applause line on 9/11 about ending a war he clearly never understood and could not be bothered to take seriously? Was it so the general in charge of this mess could go back to agonizing over “white rage”? It is difficult to imagine the nation being worse led than it currently is. These repulsive clowns have handed an entire nation — along with troves of highly sophisticated American arms — to a barbaric gang whose main peacetime preoccupation would seem to be the wholesale brutalization of women and girls.
Those of us who champion the cause of the West see the West faced with myriad and diverse challenges. Some of these (like Islamism) come from outside our shared culture, while others (like postmodern fascism and critical theory racism) have emerged from within. Our culture, in all its richness and intellectual diversity, can equip us to rise to these challenges, and we should endeavor to do this, despite the fact that we are at present in no position to outshout the charlatans and imposters who have worked so hard to hollow it out from within and some of whom have just presided over a devastating and unnecessary military defeat.
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