A relatively obscure British baron has given us a useful example explaining the dominant Western thinking about revolutionary Islamism. Lord Hylton is a member of the House of Lords and his family’s possession of the title of baron goes back more than 600 years. He is active in various charitable works, including a children’s home in Bethlehem, and has just celebrated his eightieth birthday.
But this relatively unlikely person embodies the mainstream view of many or most Western officials, academics, and journalists on the contemporary Middle East. If we listen to him we can gain a better understanding of what motivates them. Here’s the key passage in which he says that we need “to distinguish resistance fighters, who may sometimes use terror methods, from ideological terrorists seeking world revolution and, if possible, world domination. The Anbar Awakening in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are good examples of religious resistance groups. They wanted to end brutal and oppressive foreign occupation but not to fight for world domination. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, on the other hand, can seldom be satisfied as they aim by violence for a completely Islamic world. ”
Here is the distinction between al-Qaeda and everyone else that is at the core of Obama Administration policy. There are good, or at least comprehensible, groups that may use terror but are really concerned about liberating their own people but don’t seek world conquest. In other words, if you are a British or American leading figure, for example, you don’t need to worry about them marching up the driveway and shooting you in front of your garage. And therefore if it isn’t a direct threat to you, why worry about it? Leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.
I want to stress that this is all a logically rational construct. The problem is that it doesn’t match the facts.
“World conquest” is a rather heady notion. It is found today mainly in films and novels, the villains fighting James Bond or the satires of Austin Powers. No one has ever really achieved anything like world conquest and only the Romans have even come close enough to make it worth talking about. When you are talking about world conquest, of course, you also need a heck of a lot of power and resources. The idea of Islamists achieving world conquest is unlikely. But then the prospect of global rule by Nazi Germany or the Communist USSR was also not likely. And Imperial Japan only sought to rule all of Asia. The British, in building their empire, never sought world conquest and neither of course did the French.
So to set one’s minimal threat standard at world conquest is rather high. Usually, the threat is actually set at whether a terrorist group or country will launch a major attack on your homeland, as with September 11 or Pearl Harbor in 1941. But that standard is a rather isolationist one. And if you surrender to those who want to seize large portions of the world, where you also have interests, then perhaps they don’t have a need to attack you. This strategy is called appeasement and it doesn’t have a good record of success.
At any rate, what’s important in this case is not the ability to achieve world conquest but the ambition to do so. And anyone who knows the Islamist literature knows that Iran and its followers or allies as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and its various branches have this ambition. After all, what are all those far-flung Muslim Brotherhood groups in Europe and North America seeking to do?
More realistic, though, there is the prospect of regional conquest, domination over most of the belt of territory stretching from Morocco to Iran or if you wish on to Indonesia. This is also unrealistic but, again, it is an ambition held by the revolutionary Islamists.
Or perhaps they only have the prospect of ruling a sub-region, the Muslim Brotherhood sets it sites on the Sunni area, in practice say from Libya through Syria; the Iranians and other Shia Islamists dream of controlling the Gulf, including such Sunni majority places as border it and have lots of oil.
Or perhaps they simply seek to take over various countries, wipe Israel off the map, expel Western influences, and subject their people to a brutal dictatorship.
The idea of “world domination” or nothing is a bit of a spread. But add to this the fact that al-Qaeda was never able to rule more than a bunch of caves. Precisely because it was so extreme–or, more accurately, restricted itself purely to terrorist tactics–al-Qaeda couldn’t build a mass base and take over the countries the way Islamists did in Iran, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and in Egypt and Tunisia. Arguably, then, al-Qaeda was much less of a strategic threat than its more sophisticated rivals.
Lord Hylton thinks the West doesn’t understand how small the danger is because it is so ignorant. He believes that the “so-called war on terrorism” is a folly:
“The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, in which I have a non-financial interest, has been working for years with the most senior religious leaders-Sunni, Shia and Christian-towards national reconciliation. This process has produced joint statements, which are being filtered down so as to reduce the general level of violence. Further mediating work is still needed with the political parties and with other opinion-formers.”
It is easy to ridicule such well-intentioned but naive people with their “joint statements” which they believe will reduce violence and produce successful mediation. The Middle East has swarms of them buzzing about wasting their money and the local people’s time. But the good baron is pretty harmless. The problem are the governments that seem to believe this sort of nonsense and set their policies accordingly; the academics pouring out students who have this mentality; and the journalists who keep telling people to go to sleep because there is nothing to worry about.