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.