Asymmetrical warfare was supposed to benefit the insurgents. For the price of a few flying lessons a gang of jihadis brought down the World Trade Center, a terrorist with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and powdered Tang can blow up an airplane, and a few pounds of plutonium can cripple a major city.
Meet the Reverend Terry Jones, asymmetrical warrior. It appears that pinpricks can produce chain reactions in the Islamic world. The threat may be termed asymmetrical because Islam is more vulnerable to theological war than Christianity (or for that matter Judaism).
As the youngest of the major religions (apart from Sikhism), Islam must defend its historical narrative more fiercely than the older religions. Islam never withstood the withering criticism of Enlightenment scholars from Spinoza to the Jesus Project determined to discredit sacred texts. And because the Koran is not a human report of God’s word, like the Christian and Jewish bibles, but rather the “uncreated word” of Allah himself, any challenge to its authority cuts at Islam’s credibility. The fact that Islam has established neither a Magisterium in the Catholic sense, nor an authoritative tradition like that of Orthodox Judaism, leaves it decentralized, divided and fractious.
United States President Barack Obama, top US commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus, the Vatican, and every talking head across the political spectrum screamed in unison until this Florida fringe preacher with a congregation that could meet in a double-wide listened, rather like Dr Seuss’ Horton hearing the Who.
Enlightened opinion prevailed, but at high cost: L’Affaire Jones demonstrated that a madman carrying a match and a copy of the Koran can do more damage to the Muslim world than a busload of suicide bombers. Leftists liked to brag during the Vietnam war that a US$10 hand grenade could destroy a $10 million plane. What’s the dollar value of the damage from a used paperback edition of the Koran, available online for a couple of dollars?
As George Packer wrote on the New Yorker website on September 10, “Reason tries in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up … One man in Gainesville who represents next to nobody triggers thousands of men around the globe who know next to nothing about it to turn violent, which triggers more violence … it’s so easy to get people to go crazy. If I wanted to, I could probably start another India-Pakistan war all by myself.” Several of the world’s intelligence services doubtless are thinking along the same lines.
Instead of trying to stabilize the Islamic world, suppose – just for the sake of argument – that one or two world powers set out to throw it into chaos. I am not advocating such a strategy, only evaluating its effectiveness.
It is a misperception that America is the main object of Muslim rage. Most Muslim rage is directed against other Muslims. Religious violence perpetrated by Muslims against other Muslims is a routine feature of life in Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Of the 1,868 acts of religious violence listed by the Global Terrorism Database, all but a handful were conducted by Muslims on Muslims. America has done its best to suppress such violence. What if America (or Russia, or India, or China) were to incite it?
The Islamic world’s claim on Western attention rests on its propensity to fail. America has spent a trillion dollars and 5,700 lives to prop up notionally pro-American regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention $2 billion a year to Egypt, and several hundred million each to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, as well as smaller sums to other Muslim countries.
America will continue its efforts to stabilize fractious Islamic lands for the foreseeable future. Obama holds a personal as well as an ideological commitment to foster friendship with the Muslim world, and the Republicans will not admit that they were mistaken to commit so much blood and treasure to nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But America’s attitude might change. Iraq may descend into civil war, especially now that the Americans have armed and trained 100,000 Sunni fighters in the so-called Sunni Awakening, Petraeus’ “rent-an-Arab” strategy to contain communal violence until American troops could leave.
Pakistan’s Punjabis might weary of the Pashtun tribes who have made common cause with the Taliban and Afghanistan. The Balochis, whose homeland is divided between Iran and Pakistan, might revolt successfully against both. Iran – particularly if an Israeli strike crippled its nuclear ambitions – might turn aggressive towards its neighbors. Lebanese Sunnis might have it out with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Some future American administration, though, might throw up its hands in frustration, and a future intelligence chief might whisper to the president, “If they want to kill each other, why not help them?” That was America’s stance during the Iran-Iraq War. Divide-and-conquer served the British well; that is how they managed to rule India with only 3,000 regular army officers, most of whom spoke local dialects and donned local dress.
Unlike the British, America has little aptitude for manipulation. Americans believe that everyone is like them and that all movies have happy endings. To start with, Americans don’t learn languages. According to the Modern Language Association’s (MLA’s) 2006 survey of instruction in foreign languages, American universities enrolled only 2,463 students in Arabic at the advanced level. Of those “advanced” students, perhaps one in 10 would become expert. Apart from immigrants, whom intelligence agencies employ only with great caution, the prospective hiring pool of advanced students in Arabic is measured in the hundreds.
Among other languages spoken in Muslim countries, the MLA reports the following number of students (but does not tell us how many are “advanced”): 0 Albanian, 94 Bengali, 243 Farsi, 301 Indonesian, 5 Kurdish, 5 Malay, 103 Pashto, 4 Somali, 624 Turkish, and 344 Urdu. Even if America set out to promote sectarian conflict in the Muslim world, it would have great difficulty making its intentions understood.
Russia has more urgent reasons to sow discord in Muslim countries, and centuries of experience in doing so. Simply because America has committed its reputation and resources to stability in the Muslim world, Russia has an interest in promoting the opposite. Russia views the world as a chessboard, in which pressure on the flanks increases its control of the center of the board. Moscow’s on-again, off-again deal to supply Iran with an advanced anti-missile system, for example, represents a bargaining chip that it can use with Washington for a variety of purposes.
There is a deeper Russian interest in fostering Muslim weakness, though. Before mid-century the Russian Federation likely will have a Muslim majority. Russia already depends on 12 million guest workers, overwhelmingly from Turkey or from the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. Some analysts, for example Stratfor’s George Friedman, predict that Turkey will challenge Russia for control of the Caucusus. At the moment, Russian and Turkish interests are linked. Turkey wants to export Russian oil and employ its surplus workers building Russian infrastructure. But this may not be true forever, and Russia must guard against the rise of a new Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey.
Turkey is a hotbed of prospective heresies, often rooted in ethnic substrata that resisted the mainstream Arabic model of Islam. Between 15% and 30% of Turks adhere to the Alevi sect, a nominally Shi’ite sect whose character is hard to define; different scholars attribute influences from Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and even Byzantine Christianity. The most prominent Alevi scholar in the West was the convert Muhammad Sven Kalisch at the University of Munster in Germany. Professor Kalisch since has repudiated Islam and resigned his position as chief instructor of Muslim pedagogues for the German school system, although he continues to teach at Munster.
Kalisch, as I reported at the time, scandalized the Muslim world with a 2008 paper claiming that the Prophet Mohammed was a figure of myth . Citing the work of Western Koran critics, Kalisch claimed that the prophet’s life was the fabrication of 8th-century apologists:
It is a striking fact that such documentary evidence as survives from the Sufnayid period makes no mention of the messenger of god at all. The papyri do not refer to him. The Arabic inscriptions of the Arab-Sasanian coins only invoke Allah, not his rasul [messenger]; and the Arab-Byzantine bronze coins on which Muhammad appears as rasul Allah, previously dated to the Sufyanid period, have not been placed in that of the Marwanids. Even the two surviving pre-Marwanid tombstones fail to mention the rasul.
Islam, he concluded, was a revival of the old Gnosticism expunged by Christianity and embraced instead by the Arabian tribes. In spite of the provocative character of his claims, Kalisch was defended by the large community of Alevi Turks resident in Germany.
Kalisch appears to be the theological equivalent of a lone gunman. He devised his thesis quite on his own, and quashed the controversy he created by abjuring Islam. Nonetheless, he showed how simple it is to invent new Islamic heresies. With handful of provocateurs and a small amount of funding, his project well might have become more than a minor irritation. With a dozen scholars, a score of operatives on the ground, and a budget of a few million dollars, a competent intelligence service could have a handful of Muslim heresies merrily contending for the mantle of the prophet.
Turkey may have its own reasons to meddle in its neighbors’ religious affairs. It wants to be the dominant Muslim power, and well may do so; it has the combination of people (over 70 million), economic capability and military power to do so, and does not want its historical rival Iran to become a regional hegemon. A quarter of Iranians are Turkish-speaking Azeris, and an ascendant Iran would have the means and motive to work enormous mischief in Turkey.
Far too much was made of the theology department at the University of Ankara, which Newsweek in 2008 hailed as “the new face of Islam.” A new edition of the Hadith (narrations concerning the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed) and a desultory gesture towards modernization made the Ankara group celebrities for a moment – before Turkey turned towards a more fundamentalist reading of Islam under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At the time, Sunni fundamentalist websites denounced the Ankara theologians as agents of the Vatican, citing the presence in the department of a Turkish-speaking Jesuit . That is ludicrous; perhaps more than any Catholic order, the Jesuits go to extreme lengths respect other cultures and religions. Although this particular accusation was the product of paranoia, paranoids still have enemies. If Turkish intelligence decided to employ its university theology departments to manufacture designer heresies for use in Iran, for example, the capability is in place.
This sort of speculation may seem fanciful at the moment. In the context of regional conflict, however, the prospect of asymmetrical warfare by religious means might become far more practical. There are so many ways in which the region might descend into religious conflict that it is pointless to make book on the scenarios. In another location I suggested that Petraeus’ temporary success in the 2008 surge might lay the groundwork for a Thirty Years War in the region . Weapons are there to be used, and theological weapons may turn out to be some of the nastiest means of war-fighting at hand.
1. Scandal exposes Islam’s weakness Asia Times Online, November 18, 2008.
2. Tin-opener theology from Turkey Asia Times Online, June 3, 2008.
3. General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010.