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What if We Actually Had a War on Terror?

Who Is Our Opponent?

It could be argued -- and has been argued, and will no doubt be argued again -- that the unnamed opponent is the religion of Islam itself.

I personally know too many Muslims who are good, kind, gentle people to be comfortable with that; I've known too many Christians of whom I couldn't say the same thing, and know too much history to be comfortable with the idea that Christianity has an objective claim to some inherent moral superiority. Be that as it may, pragmatically if Islam itself is the enemy, then our military objective would have to be the end of Islam as a world religion.

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world. Ending Islam would mean their forcible conversion -- in the words of a famous philosopher and flying squirrel: "That trick never works" -- or their extermination. Hitler tried -- and failed -- to exterminate all the Jews. Exterminating Islam would be a genocide thousands of times as great. It is certainly impractical, probably impossible, and in any case unthinkable. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. Islam is not our opponent: the billion Muslims are not of one mind, and like people everywhere, most Muslims want to live their own lives, having children and grandchildren and dying in their beds at the end of a long and happy life. Our opponent is a fluid and shifting alliance of different groups with, in some sense, a commonality of interests: a religious ideology of strict adherence to the Qur'an, hadith, and Sunna.

The recent example that first captured current America's attention was the Islamist takeover of Iran by the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. While we tended to see this purely as an attack against the West, a position that Khomeini's followers certainly tried to encourage, it was in reality primarily a conflict among Muslims, a particular group of religious zealots against a more flexible group led by the shah -- the first Iranian ruler to have had a Western education. The Sufi communities, the Alawites, and other Muslim groups have suffered at the hands of Islamist zealots, and of course there is a 1300-year dispute between the Shi'a, the sect to which the Khomeinists belong and that rules Iran, and the Sunni, reified in the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia.

The conflict isn't just between Islam and Christianity; it's between conflicting sects of Muslims. This is an important point because our opponent would like this to become a war with all of Islam. Bluntly, if they can make us believe it is a war with all of Islam, it becomes a war of all Islam against us. And whoever leads that war against the West has the best shot at dominating the Muslim world. Bringing the United States into line with the opponent's will is an important objective, and probably one they see as necessary, but the long-term objective of the various Islamist sects is the unification of all Islam under their respective sect.

Our Objective

We've identified the opponent's objective, but then what of ours? The original formulation of the War on Terror actually stated it clearly: we want our response to be punishing enough that attacks on our civilian population are known to not be a cost-effective means of warfare against the United States, its allies, and interests.

In other words: if you try to kill our people and blow up our stuff, you will be very, very, sorry.

(Part Two of this article will appear soon at PJ Media.)