The Role of Religion in the Battle Space Since 9/11
May 25, 2011
About the speaker
Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, Ph.D. D.D. is the Director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, which conducts research into Islamic movements and trends in contemporary Islam, especially radical Islam and terrorism. Sookhdeo served as International Director of the Barnabas Fund, a relief and development agency channeling practical help and support to Christian minorities.
An author, lecturer, advisor and consultant on issues of war, conflict and society, Sookhdeo has been a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University UK, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Defence Academy, UK, and a Fellow of the Security Institute UK.
He received his Ph.D. from London University, School of Oriental and African Studies, D.D. by Western Seminary, Oregon, USA, validated by University of Oregon, for work on Pluralism, and D.D. by Nashotah House, Wisconsin, USA (Anglican Episcopal) for work on human rights and religious freedom.
He received the Coventry Cathedral International Prize for Peace and Reconciliation in 2001 and the Templeton UK project trust prize for progress in religion for his caring evangelistic ministry in the east end of London in Spring 1990.
Sookhdeo is the author of almost twenty books on Christian persecution, interfaith relations, and the threat of Islamic terrorism. His most recent book is The Death of Western Christianity: Drinking from the Poisoned Wells of the Cultural Revolution (2017).
Other Westminster lectures
He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:
1. ISIS: Its Origin, Methodology and Objectives (2014)
2. Marked for Destruction: Christians in Syria and Egypt (2013)
3. From Benghazi to Damascus: Are We Losing the Ideological War? (2012)
4. Fighting the Ideological War Lessons from the United Kingdom and the United States with Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo at the Heritage Foundation (2012)
5. Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (2012)
6. Responding to Islam: Lessons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Bishop George Bell (2012)
7. Update on Afghanistan: A Security Briefing (2010)
8. Terrorism and Subversion on the Homefront ( 2010)
A One-Day Conference
Key Bridge Marriott, Arlington, Virginia, May 25th, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The death of Osama bin Laden will significantly affect both sides in the war on terror. The most important questions now are how will al Qaeda and its associated movements respond to the death of their leader, and is the United States safer or in more danger today? The Westminster Institute is bringing together world-renowned authorities and national security practitioners for a one-day special event in Washington, D.C. Together they will provide answers to these questions and also address the broader questions of what impact bin Laden’s death will have on non-violent jihadists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and what strategies can the U.S. employ to turn this battlefield win into a definitive victory.
For more on the role of religion in the battle space, see David Des Roches’ Westminster talk, Push and Pull of Religious Extremism: Who Are the Terrorists, How Are they Recruited, What Can We Do?.
Our focus is really the role of religion in the battle space, if we call it that. Looking at the terrorist groups, Al Qaeda, which I think some of us have studied in considerable depth. Most of us would have degrees of experience. Some of us are concerned with battlefield situations whether Iraq or Afghanistan, of course, we’ve had Libya and currently we are considering the position of Syria, and what exactly is the role of religion in battlefield situations, in counterterrorism, in counterinsurgency. How do we make sense of what is happening?
And so, well, politicians that make their comments, particularly about the Syrian context, how can we better understand what is taking place? It’s one thing to know. It’s another to understand. In the New Testament Greek, there are two words of knowledge, oida and ginosko. Oida is to know with the head, head knowledge. Ginosko is to know in the heart, out of experience.
And what I believe that we will be attempting to do today is to address both entities to increase your knowledge, so that we know what is happening but we want to take you further to help you to understand what is taking place, what are the forces at work, to try to get into the inside. But I hope that we can meet both of those two objectives.
So without much more ado, I’m going to kickoff. Islamic terrorist attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs that are evil but not insane. Some call this evil Islamic radicalism. Others, militant jihadism. Still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever it is called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam. So said President Bush on the sixth of October 2005.
Five years later, President Obama in his National Security Strategy of 2010 said, “We reject the notion that Al Qaeda represents any religious authority. They are not religious leaders, they are killers, and neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents.” Very rightly, a distinction is made by both presidents, concerning terrorism and Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization from a religion, the religion of Islam.
So rightly, a distinction is made. The dilemma though is can you dismiss both entities absolutely or is one contingent on the other. And I believe that that is where the fundamental difficulty lies and what I want to do in my paper is really to address that.
Understanding a threat is key to being able to counter it effectively. The threat of violent Islamism poses to the West must be understood as a cultural battle, an ideological battle, and a theological battle. A correct understanding of ideology is only possible by means of a correct understanding of the theology that undergirds it. Looking at our misunderstanding, one can see one of the reasons that may be behind it. We tend to forget that behind an ideology is a theology.
It’s very interesting, four months after 9/11, an individual – and we do not know his name but he produced a book called, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the future of America.” It’s titled anonymous but published by a very reputable publisher. He in gathering material together came to the following conclusion, “Most Americans, experts, officials and civilians, have still not addressed the role of religion in bin Laden’s activities and message in a frank and analytical manner.” He went on to say, not so much demonizing bin Laden and his cohort, but how do we understand what actually shaped him and what motivated him?
So this issue of how we understand the role of religion in a battlefield context whether they be fixed battles which we’ve had to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan or whether it be battles with terrorism is fundamental.
After 9/11, Henry A. Crumpton, who was Deputy Chief of Operations of the CIA Counter Terrorist Center, was tasked by President Bush with defeating Al Qaeda and bin Laden. Crumpton recalls in his memoir, how he considered good Muslims to be America’s allies in the struggle against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. He wrote, “Our focus should be on Al Qaeda and their affiliates. We must define our enemy in very specific, very narrow terms. This is not a war against Islam. It is just the opposite,” and so he goes on.
Crumpton rightly affirms that Muslims must be our allies. But, how did he conceive that AQ had emerged from within the wider Muslim culture if he did not address that culture and, in particular, the theological basis of that culture? How did he envisage that Muslim allies could defeat them without tackling the religious ideology that motivated and drove bin Laden and his followers
A few weeks after 9/11, Crumpton attended a briefing with President Bush at Camp David to discuss a strategy for a response against AQ in Afghanistan. After this briefing, the CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh described the theological impact of AQ on Muslims around the world. Nakhleh, a Palestinian Christian, had joined the CIA in 1993 and eventually became director of political Islam strategic analysis program in the Directorate of Intelligence. He too gave solo briefings to senior policymakers.
Nakhleh’s fascinating book, A Necessary Engagement, written after his retirement in 2006, chose his focus on the ideology of Islamism, but seems not to recognize any link with the theology of Islam itself. He holds that Muslims living in a non-Muslim country should be able to reconcile their faith and their citizenship with these countries.
He fails to recognize that in order for them to do that, they either have to abandon the faith or dismiss it as something important or engage in a massive reinterpretation. Nakhleh appears to care mainly about whether any particular Islamic group accepts or eshues violence as a method of achieving their goals. He shows little interest in knowing what the goals are, an attitude shared by American policymakers whom he briefed. To focus on the means and not the end is extraordinarily shortsighted. Islamists all share the same aim: the creation of an Islamic state ruled by Sharia and this is an end result completely incompatible with freedom, equality, or democracy.
Daniel Pipes asserts that non-violent Islamists pose a greater threat than the violent ones. Again, Nakhleh writes about ideology, but didn’t about theology. Similarly, the 9/11 Commission Report recognized that the Al Qaeda ideology was a root cause of Islamist terrorism but refused to recognize that the ideology was itself rooted in a classical interpretation of the religion of Islam. I quote, “The enemy is not Islam, a great world faith, but a version of Islam. The enemy goes beyond Al Qaeda to include the radical ideological movements inspired in part by Al Qaeda but has spawned other terrorist groups and violence. Thus, our strategy must match our means to two ends: dispatching the AQ network and in the long term, prevailing over the ideology that contributes to Islamist terrorists.”
Nevertheless, the report uses the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 132 times. In other words, it’s saying, let’s focus on the organizations, the structure, ideology is there, but let’s not grapple with what really is shaping that ideology. Crumpton was right in asserting that the U.S. and the West are not at war with Islam. And I want to reaffirm that. In no way is the U.S. and her allies in any way involved in a war with Islam as a world religion. The dilemma though is that whilst we can affirm that, how do we deal with the interpretation of a religion that deals with violence? At that point, we must address ideas.
If interpretations are rooted in hermeneutics, which has to do with how we understand and interpret a particular faith, then we cannot dismiss the faith and the religion. We cannot remove it from the equation. So there has to be a battle of ideas and it has to think through theology. So trying to win the battle of ideas without using theology is foolhardy. As Walid Phares has written, “A war of ideas is raging,” nevertheless, “behind the War on Terror. The outcome of the second is ineluctably conditioned by the consequences of the first.” In any conflict, it is necessary for the general to make his decisions based on realism not optimism. Unless we recognize the 13:08-13:12 radical interpretation of Islamic theology in motivating AQ, we impose a serious handicap on our counter terrorist efforts.
Donald Rumsfeld was much mocked in some quarters when in 2002 as Defense Secretary, he sought to distinguish between known knowns and unknown knowns but his realism and his humility in acknowledging the administration’s lack of knowledge and understanding and its lack of ability to change other people’s thinking should be commended. In 2009 he wrote, “If I were grading, I probably would say we deserve a D or a D- as a country on how well we are doing in the battle of ideas that is taking place in the world today.” In the 9/11 Commission Report, issued on 22nd July 2004, it had urged the need for the U.S. to use public diplomacy to counter resurgent ideology.
A year later, Karen Hughes, a former television reporter who had been a close advisor to President Bush, was appointed to head up efforts to achieve this despite the fact that she appears to have know background knowledge of Islamic theology, an ideology that she needed to counter. The lack of success in American public diplomacy in changing Islamist ideas can be attributed in part to at least to the irrelevance of some of the methods attempted. For example, the Radio Sawa, a 24-hour Arabic radio service, which in 2002 was launched to replace Voice of America, a 12-hour, content rich, Arabic service. What did it do? Play pop music both Arabic and Western. Robert Reilly, one of our speakers, commented on the situation. He said, “In the War of Ideas, performing a lobotomy on your on enemy might be a good move. It is almost unheard of to perform a lobotomy on yourself and then declare it a success. How would you like to have a superpower adolescent in your neighborhood?” It took a lot of courage for him to say that.
So, what evolved? Three elements of engagement, addressing three arenas. One was homeland security and the need to develop a counter terrorist strategy. The second, having to address the Muslim world and so, a strategy of engagement that had to do with public diplomacy. And a third, the battleifield situations where our forces found themselves armed and he particularly, the development of a counter insurgency program, COIN. They had to look at how they would engage the religion as well as the ideology.
As we saw earlier that religion was embedded in the CIA from a very early period, in fact, particularly from 1996 it seems also likely that religion played a part in the thinking of the FBI at a very early period. Ali Soufan was an FBI agent who addresses the issues of ideology and how he has sought to convinve his own masters that they had to look at ideology and he in a recent article argued very strongly that the U.S. had failed to address the issue of ideology. But I believe he himself makes a mistake for when he looks at ideology, he sees it mainly as dealing with how the West is perceived. He looks at issues of alienation. What he does not do is address the issues of theological unpinning of the ideology. So I would argue that they’ve developed no overarching strategy either shortterm or longterm.
Well, over the years, experts were brought in to advise both President Bush and President Obama on how the U.S. should engage with the Muslim world, on how it should deal with Al Qaeda. This included academics, politicians, military, and even retired missionaries. Yet, despite all of these efforts, it is difficult to see a clear strategy emerging which would address the terrorist threat being faced in the U.S. and to develop both counter terrorist and a counter insurgency policy to respond to the situation in the Muslim world where some governments were allied to Islamist extremism where Islamist extremism was fast taking hold and developing to battlefield situations.
Of course, the U.S. had to have partners and so strategies began to develop both within the UN organizations like the OSCE and other international entities. The difficulty was how do you develop a longterm strategy, particularly in a country like the U.S.? Different contexts require different solutions.
Politicians are only there for a fixed period. They can’t plan twenty years earlier. They can’t make structures which outlast them. Strategies can change, so multiple approaches can develop depending on the context and the time period but I would argue it left the U.S. vulnerable to uncertainty about how exactly to deal with AQ and Islamist extremism and may I say you see this a few days ago in Mr. Kerry’s recent statement about the presence of Al Qaeda in Syria – or about the non-presence of Al Qaeda in Syria.
Now, they have developed also a strategy of separating violent and nonviolent Islamists. Here the problem is a confusing one. The Brookings Institute argued very strongly in 2010 that the U.S. was in a state of confusion in addressing the issue of Islamism and urged a major shift in policy so that the U.S. would engage with nonviolent Islamists. So at this point in time the thinking was, ‘We can’t address Islam. We are now dealing with terrorists and there’s an ideological basis. So we’ve got reconcilable Islamist or political extremist Islam.
Is it possible to focus on the extremists, divide them into two into the non-violent extremists and the violent extremists, support the non-violent extremists politically so they can take power (i.e. Morsi) and then use them to neutralize the violent extremists?’ The idea here was to strengthen relationships with nonviolent extremists and potentially look to them coming to power to achieve stability in their countries and regions. I believe this was a very dangerous policy to engage in and to the degree it shaped.