Gerson: Don't feed the Islamic State narrative
WASHINGTON – As careful as we should be in drawing lessons from tragedy — and there is something particularly disgraceful in mounting a political soapbox at a funeral — the horrors experienced in Paris demand a renewed dedication to the prevention of future horrors.
Islamic State terrorists have goals beyond a blood-drunk love of carnage: to discredit the Syrian refugees (whom they hate) and to encourage the perception of a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West. They are currently succeeding in both.
Among other things, the terrorists hope to reverse the narrative of Muslim defeat in Europe that began in 732 or 1571 or 1683. Americans and Europeans should be offering a different narrative — a contest of shared values (including the values of most Muslims in the world) against a political death cult.
What are the elements of the Islamic State's strategy? Sunni terrorists have fought in local civil wars across the Middle East — exploiting the tribal politics of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and Sunni resentments against a petty Shiite despot in Iraq, and a civil war against a brutal, Iranian-sponsored despot in Syria — to gain a territorial foothold and raise the black flag of global jihad. They are stoking religious conflict between Muslims and Christians in order to attract recruits, including from Western countries. And one way to encourage the appearance of civilizational conflict is through spectacular acts of murder that somehow (horribly) appeal to a Sunni Arab sense of historical disempowerment.
This raises a serious, medium-term prospect for the terrorists: to gain in morale, territory and recruits until they have the nonconventional capabilities to sabotage the great Western advantage and vulnerability — the global economy. Consider the effect that a radiological or biological weapon might have on London or New York — and on our world order of trade, investment, banking and travel. All of it is built on a fragile foundation of confidence.
With the rise of the Islamic State in the ruins of Syria and western Iraq — wealthier and more capable than any terrorist group in history — the U.S. has a fateful decision to make in the Middle East. Destroying the Islamic State is necessary. But does America fight in effective cooperation with Shiite radicalism (Iran) and Russia? Or does America build and lead a more effective coalition of Sunni powers and European countries that are up for the fight, while countering Iranian influence?
A rapprochement with Shiite radicalism to defeat Sunni radicalism (which was America's approach last year during the Iraq emergency) would be a terrible mistake. It would effectively ratify American irrelevance in the Middle East — giving legitimacy to the Iranian bid for regional dominance.
Adopting a "let them fight it out" approach is to encourage a regional Sunni/Shiite civil war in the Middle East, with Iran funding militias and supporting proxies (while we tacitly approve) and Sunni powers (secretly or not so secretly) funding Sunni militias and proxies of their own. This battleground is good for Shiite radicalism and for Sunni radicalism. It strengthens both through perpetual, sectarian jihad. And it could eventually produce people and movements that strike America and Europe in ever more ambitious ways.
This is the hard fact. Americans don't want this role, but it needs to lead an alliance of Sunni powers (the Gulf States, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt) and NATO countries to crush the Islamic State. The current strategy of train, equip and bomb is not containing the threat. And we can't rely on Iran and Russia to do the job without inviting new problems.
And all our efforts are undermined by declaring Islam itself to be the enemy, and by treating Muslims in America, or Muslims in Europe, or Muslims fleeing Islamic State oppression, as a class of suspicious potential jihadists. Instead of blaming refugees, we need to make sure our counterterrorism and intelligence policies give us a chance to screen and stop any threat (which means keeping the post-9/11 structures of surveillance in place). But if American politicians define Islam as the problem and cast aspersions on Muslim populations in the West, they are feeding the Islamic State narrative. They are materially undermining the war against terrorism and complicating America's (already complicated) task in the Middle East. Rejecting a blanket condemnation of Islam is not a matter of political correctness. It is the requirement of an effective war against terrorism, which currently means an effective war against the terrorist kingdom in Syria and western Iraq.
As of now, that war is not being won.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.