We made three fundamental mistakes in our dealings with Islam. First, we assumed that the only politically acceptable answer was also the right answer. This is the most common mistake that politicians make.
Second, we established a construct of a moderate and extreme Islam that reflected how we saw it from the outside. This construct had no theological relationship to any actual belief or movement within Islam. Had we made the division into modern and fundamentalist, we would at least have been using words that meant something. Instead we used moderate and extreme in a military sense to mean hostile and friendly or neutral. But as a Vietnam era president and military command should have known, in a guerrilla war not everyone who isn’t shooting at you is friendly or even neutral.
Our construct was black and white with few shades of gray. But the Muslim world is all shades of gray. The absolute choice we wanted them to make, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”, was foreign to their culture and their way of life. Multiple layers of contradictory relationships and alliances are the norm in the region. You expect to betray and be betrayed, much as you expect to cheat and be cheated while bartering for a carpet at the souk. In a region where coalitions of Fascists, Communists and Islamists are doable, contradictions don’t exist, all alliances are expedient and built on an expected betrayal. The rise of Islam itself was built on broken peace treaties. So it is no wonder then that in response to Bush’s call, they chose both us and the terrorists. Appeasing America and the Islamists at the same time was their version of the politically safe middle ground, the path of least resistance and the only acceptable option.
And the more we prattled about the peacefulness of Islam, the more we looked like we could be easily appeased with a few gestures. And so it was the Islamists who were more threatening, who got the benefit of of their appeasement. We had asked Muslim countries for an alliance with no mixed allegiances, in a region where only kin could ask or count on such an arrangement. And we are not their kin, neither by blood and certainly not by religion. While we insisted that all people were the same, this was a statement of our belief, not theirs. And they did not believe that we believed it either.
Rather than learning what the Muslim world was, we had already decided what we wanted it to be. But our perspective was a foreign one. They might pander to it, but they would never dictate their own beliefs by it. We might talk of a moderate or extreme Islam, but that is our idea, not theirs. There is more than one form of Islam, they are not defined by their extremism or moderation. Nor by their approach toward violence. No more than we are.
Muslim theology is violent, because violence has always been a tool of its expansion. When we ask Muslims to disassociate themselves from violence, we are really asking them to disassociate themselves from Islam. And this they will not do. They will contextually condemn some acts of terror, depending on the identity of the perpetrators and the targets, and the impact of the acts on the nation and ideology of the Muslim or Muslims in question. But they will dub other acts of terrorist as valid resistance. The differences are not moral, but contextual.
The Muslim world is a gray zone full of alliances written on sand where every principle can be bent at need, but is dominated by a religion that pretends to be morally absolute. This is an inherent contradiction. And like most moral conflicts it is resolved through self-deception. Our absolute standards have no meaning when applied to the Muslim world. They have moral force, but little practical relevance.
Islamic moderation is not theology, but pragmatism. Its fanatics are the most trustworthy, and its pragmatists the least trustworthy. We have put our faith in the moderation of the pragmatists, but confusing pragmatism with moderate beliefs, morals or friendship is no better than lapping at the sand of a mirage and calling it water.
Our third and final mistake was to believe that we held all or most of the cards, and were free to give away as many of them as we wanted to. But the more we thought we were calling the shots, the more we were shot at. Because we were not in control. The political, religious and armed conflicts we were engaged in were being fought on their terms, not ours. They began the war. They decided when to initiate the violence or call a halt to it. Their violence set the tone, we tried to defuse it. Our attempts to promote moderation in the Muslim world were reactive. It is the bomber who has the initiative once he chooses to act. And so we tried to teach the bombers not to bomb, while the bombers taught us to appease them.
When a psychiatrist rewards rats for finishing a maze, is it the psychiatrist who is training the rats to finish mazes, or the rats who are training him to give them cheese. The answer to that question hinges on who controls the experiment. While we thought that we were experimenting on the Muslim world to make them more moderate, they were actually experimenting on us to teach us to appease them.
While we were trying to force the Muslim world into our maze with two openings, one labeled ‘extreme’ and one labeled ‘moderate’, they were really moving us into their meta-maze with two openings, ‘death’ or ‘appeasement’. Our plan was to keep forcing them to choose the moderate openings in order to moderate them and break them of any attachment to terrorism. But our chief method for moving them there was appeasement. Once we got bogged down in Iraq, appeasement became our only method. While we thought that we were leading them to the moderate opening in our maze by appeasing them, they were leading us to the appeasement opening in their maze.
The rats turned out to be training the psychiatrist and they have done an excellent job of it. The Muslim world is more Anti-American than it was 10 years ago, while we are more pro-Muslim. Each time they finish the moderate maze and assure us how peaceful Islam is, we gift them with the cheese of appeasement. Rather than teaching them to be moderate using the reward of our appeasement, they have taught us to appease them using the reward of their faked moderation. Like tourists at the souk, we have been cheated badly by laying out good money for a fake rug. But worse than that we have been turned into rats in their maze, rushing to appease them in the hopes that they will reward us by being moderate.
Pavlov demonstrated that once you teach dogs to associate a ringing bell with a meal, they will salivate when you ring the bell even when there is no food. So too rats will keep running the maze even when there is no cheese. So too governments continue appeasing Islam, even when the promised cheese of moderation fails to yield any significant changes on the ground. A plot broken up here or there. Or even a mosque that opens its doors to the FBI or Scotland Yard is enough for them. But is it the FBI that is teaching Muslims to be more cooperative, or Muslims who are teaching the FBI to be more accommodating. Who is the psychiatrist and who is the rat?
By initiating violence, the Muslim world turned us into their rats. We reacted to their stimuli as we desperately looked for a way out of their maze of violence. Except when we took the initiative by attacking them– the locus of control was always in their hands. And even when we did take their initiative, it was still in response to their violence. We were still making war on their terms. Trying to work with them, reform them, reach them and appease them. We were running the maze and still are. Starving to death still searching for the cheese which isn’t there.
All this drives the flywheel of appeasement round and round. The more we turn it, the worse the violence becomes. The capacity for terrorism made Muslims prominent. They have become ticking time bombs we are driven to defuse. We shower the Muslim world with respect, money, political power and every possible thing that might keep them from killing us. It is absolutely vital in the minds of our leaders that we make them like us so that they won’t kill us. Which means that it actually is in their interest to kill us. Rather than rewarding them for their moderation, we are actually rewarding them for their extremism.
The more we appease them, the more violent they become. And the more we habituate ourselves to appeasement, the harder it is for us to stop. Our worst mistake in dealing with the Muslim world was to habituate ourselves to the appeasement solution. To make it a reflex action. American politicians chose it as their path of least resistance between complete surrender and all out war as their safe way through the maze. They rationalized it as a wedge strategy to split the minority of extremists who wanted a superislamic state from the majority who wanted peace and prosperity. By embracing Islam, we would reform it. The majority of Muslims would choose peace and prosperity, and ally with us to isolate the extremists. Then we would use the wedge strategy to split the extremists into the moderate extremists and the extreme extremists. Using the carrot of foreign aid and close ties to the United States and the stick of military intervention, we would force the terrorist groups and their state backers to choose either the carrot or the stick.
But it was the Muslim world which was forcing us to choose between their carrot and their stick. The carrot was a positive relationship with the Muslim world, the stick was a negative relationship. And since 2001 we have been chasing the carrot, while getting whacked over the head with the stick. Some of the politicians have realized that there is no carrot, only the stick. For these ‘New Realists’ avoiding the stick or at least minimizing the force of its blows has become the new carrot.
If we’re good little infidels, we’ll only have 5 terrorist attacks a year instead of 10. We’ll have 100 rapes instead of 200 if all wear our burqas. And even that is another illusion. The Muslim world cannot control its own violence, only channel it. There is no off switch. Only pipes that they can use to funnel it our direction. They cannot offer us peace. It is not within their power. Only by directing their own violence inward could they do this. And that is obviously not in their interest. Only by forcefully demonstrating that the violence is absolutely not in their interest, will we ever put a stop to it. And to do that we would have to pose more of a threat to them, than their own people do. Appeasement is the worst possible way to go about doing that.
With our first mistake, we limited our options to one single course of action. With our second mistake, we guided that course of action based on a construct that had no relationship to the reality of the Muslim world. With our third and final mistake, that course of action was hijacked and used to manipulate our behavior, causing us to repeat the same disastrous course of action over and over again. The more we did it, the more it seemed like the only possible course of action. And our only way to check whether we were succeeding or failing was a misguided construct that could not measure what we needed it to.
In real world terms, this is equivalent to driving the wrong way, using a map from the wrong country and repeating the same course over and over again, because rather than realizing that something must be wrong, we just look at the map and assume that if we repeat the course enough times, we will reach our destination. Even when we no longer seem to know what the destination is because we have become so used to going in circles that the circle has come to seem like our destination.
Like most mistakes that are based on a process that was wrong from the beginning, we can only begin to fix it by going back to the first broken train of logic, the first error in understanding. Only then will we be able to break the loop and begin anew.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.