I was shocked and disturbed by one of the passages Seth Mandel quoted Wednesday from a book by a well-regarded scholar of comparative religion. According to Karen Armstrong, ascribing Islamist terror mainly to religious motivations is wrong; “Terrorism experts agree that the denial of a people’s right to national self-determination and the occupation of its homeland by foreign forces has historically been the most powerful recruiting agent of terrorist organizations.” As Seth correctly noted, that claim ignores some pretty glaring historical evidence. But it also ignores the latest hard data, published just this month by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
According to INSS, only 3 percent of all suicide bombings in 2014 were carried out against foreign armies. The vast majority targeted home-grown governments, militaries, and security services or rival ethnic and religious groups. And needless to say, almost all were carried out by Muslim extremists.
Nor can Armstrong and her unnamed experts be excused on the grounds that the world has changed since her book was published. A decade ago, before the explosive rise of Sunni-versus-Shi’ite violence in places like Iraq and Syria, the collapse of several Arab states and resulting internecine violence in places like Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and the upsurge of violence by groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan, perhaps their thesis might have been more tenable. But Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence was published in 2014–the same year in which “foreign occupation” accounted for a mere 3 percent of all suicide bombings.
One can understand why experts might prefer to view Islamist terror as a response to “foreign occupation,” because if that were true, the whole problem would be within the West’s power to solve: Withdraw all Western forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, and other countries; force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, India from Kashmir, China from Xinjiang, and so forth; and presto, no more Islamist terror.
Nevertheless, this view has two big problems even aside from the fact that it belies the data. First, it denies Muslim extremists any agency, refusing to acknowledge that they could possibly have dreams and aspirations of their own. All the goals the extremists claim to desire–restoring the caliphate, imposing Sharia law, defeating the West, eradicating Israel, reconquering Andalusia–are dismissed as mere window-dressing.
Indeed, this view reduces Muslims to mere human versions of Pavlov’s dog, responding automatically to the stimulus of “foreign occupation” with no possibility of doing otherwise. And it ought to go without saying that any theory that reduces some human beings to puppets dancing on a string pulled by others–i.e., that ascribes agency to Westerners alone while denying it to Muslims–is liable to be a poor explanation of reality.
Second, because it is a poor explanation of reality, this theory not only precludes any possibility of dealing with the real problem posed by Islamic extremism, but is liable to lead to counterproductive solutions. For instance, if “foreign occupation” were really the problem, then withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan might be productive. But if the problem is that Muslim extremists want to restore the global caliphate, Western withdrawals are actually counterproductive. Withdrawing leaves behind weak governments that the extremists can easily topple, giving them control of more territory and resources; it also makes the extremists look like they’re winning, which attracts more supporters to their banner.
The best way to defeat an extremist ideology is to show its potential adherents that it’s a dead end incapable of producing any real-world gains. But to do that, the West must first recognize that the problem is the ideology, not the straw man of “foreign occupation.”
Originally published in Commentary on January 16,2015