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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, May 5, 2014

On Ideology: Some Extended Thoughts

In the first years of the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Diocletian launched a massive campaign of persecution against Christians, razing churches, burning scriptures and killing any Christian leaders who resisted these actions. Many Christian priests and bishops handed over their sacred books rather than face certain death. In the years that followed, Christianity eventually gained the upper hand.

A sect known as the Donatists emerged to condemn those who handed over their books as traitors and apostates who were unworthy. They declared that these apostates could not perform valid sacraments like baptism or marriages, and that any such sacraments performed by the apostates were retroactively void.

This controversy continued for some time until, finally, Saint Augustine articulated a religious doctrine that is still in effect today, ex opere operato, which argues that the merit of a sacrament such as baptism emanates from the act itself and was not dependent on the virtue of the person who dispensed the sacrament. Over the course of centuries, this document was used by the Church to dismiss various critics and sects who splintered from the church on the basis of clerical corruption. 12th century Pope Innocent III wrote “Nothing more is accomplished by a good priest and nothing less by a wicked priest, because it is accomplished by the word of the Creator and not the merit of the priest. Thus the wickedness of the priest does not nullify the effect of the sacrament.”

Most recently, this doctrine came into play in the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, in which priests who were known to religious authorities to have molested children were permitted to continue their ministries for years and (until very recently) almost never defrocked.

It is true that the Donatist heresy had a huge influence on modern Catholic Church doctrine. It is accurate to say that the doctrinal response to the Donatists is relevant to the pedophilia scandal. It is indisputable that Saint Augustine played a critical role in shaping this doctrine. It is useful to understand this history when examining, in depth, how the church could allow evil people to continue in their ministries.

But does that mean all this history must be considered when devising practical responses to the scandal? Should news coverage and academic research use the Donatists as an essential touchstone for understanding the scandal? Do Catholics who left the church over the scandal consider Saint Augustine when making their decisions? Do prosecutors pursuing criminal cases against pedophile priests need to cite Augustine and his theological successors in their indictments?

Or is it enough to understand what happened as a failure of leadership and a desire to avoid accountability by individual bad actors within an insular system that ultimately focused on protecting itself rather than victims of pedophilia?

Today, we face similar questions in the war on terror. After September 11, a large contingent of experts, pundits and scholars understandably spent a lot of energy on explaining the nuances of the schools of Islamic religious jurisprudence in general and al Qaeda’s ideology in particular to an unknowing public and often clueless government. It was a given that we had to understand the ideology in order to be effective in our battle against al Qaeda the organization.

Over some years and with some experience, the consensus in the field has become more mixed, with a growing movement to look at more fundamental drivers of participation in al Qaeda, such as political grievances and personal predispositions. It’s important that we have people who understand and can explain key points of ideology – for example, the Sunni-Shia divide – but that understanding needs to take place in context, particularly as we discuss approaches to countering radicalization.

It is true that the fine points of Islamist ideology are relevant to al Qaeda. It is accurate to say that historical Islamic scholars contribute to al Qaeda’s ideological bent. It is indisputable that figures like 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah helped shape al Qaeda’s understanding of Islam and the role of jihad. It is useful to understand how these threads come together in the modern movement.

But is it practical to focus on these ideological underpinnings as a vital component in our strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism? Should ideology provide a singular and indispensable lens for our understanding of the movement?

It is the world’s worst-kept secret that al Qaeda’s “scholars” operate from a simplistic and often simply incorrect understanding of historical religious arguments. Al Qaeda adherents refer reverentially to the scholarship of Osama bin Laden, an engineer, and Ayman al Zawahiri, a medical doctor, often misunderstanding the arguments of non-theologians who themselves misunderstand the arguments of actual theologians.

Instead, the people who do the work of al Qaeda most often trade in archetypes and political incitements. They pick and choose from among theological arguments that serve their commitment to war, often without context. A growing number of jihadists take their guidance from anonymous interlocutors who post on extremist forums and on social media outlets with pseudo-scholarly messages far diluted from the classical sources of Islamic jurisprudence.

For many, a conclusion justifying violent action is forgone, and theology is only useful when it provides a veneer of intellectual justification. For others, the theological justifications are barely an afterthought. Consider the theological depth of this Jabhat al Nusra enthusiast on Twitter:

While it’s possible that a nuanced argument on how Ibn Qudama’s scholarship undercuts the concept of Dar al Harb might reach this guy, this process is much like lecturing an anti-government militia member on the relative merits of Alexander Hamilton’s positions in the Federalist Papers and Patrick Henry’s anti-Federalist speeches of 1788. 

You might get through to one in one hundred extremists with this approach, but the most likely outcome is that he or she will dismiss you out of hand due to your inferior knowledge of his or her mythologized, archetypical view of what the Founding Fathers (or whomever) intended.

We need to speak the language of ideology so that we can engage extremists, but the route of ideological dispute is not likely to provide an efficient approach to changing how extremists think or act.

So where does that leave us? For better or worse, the West approach has shifted a significant part of its focus from defeating al Qaeda’s organization to defeating al Qaeda’s ideas. Should we be fighting this war at the highest intellectual levels? Does the side with the best footnotes win in such a battle? Or does victory go to the side that speaks most effectively to modern day concerns?

Theology and religious ideologies are faith-based, and for many adherents, the superior ideology is the one articulated by the more charismatic or compelling messenger. This isn’t a predictable field of battle, nor is it a field where outsiders – non-Muslims and Muslims perceived to be aligned with non-Muslim interests – can be effective.

For academics, the merits of an argument can be weighed by the quality of its footnotes. For most extremists, such as Anders Breivik whose 1,518-page anti-Muslim manifesto included hundreds of references, footnotes are merely links in a suit of chainmail designed to rebuff arguments that move away from violence. 

An argument can be elaborate without being complex. One fundamental characteristic of extremism is that it sets out to simplify an adherent’s view of the world, to boil it down into a highly refined, black-and-white, us-versus-them dichotomy. You don’t win that battle by using complex arguments that undercut extremists’ historical or theological views. But you might be able to make gains by forcing extremists simply to admit to the necessity of complexity, by forcing them to confront the fact that the real world is more complicated than their ideology permits.

The current fitna in al Qaeda represents a golden opportunity in this respect, because members of the movement must concede that something has gone wrong inside their ideology, and some (but by no means all) will be forced to think about their beliefs more deeply as a result.

True believers, fanatical believers, are nearly impossible to reach, but as in all things, there are degrees. While some extremists have entirely replaced their perceptions of the real world with a narrative fed to them by ideologues, others are using ideology as a crutch to explain what they perceive in the real world around them. Those are the people who can be reached, when their ideology fails to meet expectations in the real world, but it’s a mistake to hope you can pull one ideological rug out from under them and simply replace it with a rug more to your liking.

The enemy of ideology is not a different ideology. The enemy of ideology is pragmatism. If we feel we must attack the ideology of al Qaeda with the same fervor that we attack its organization, we need to ground that approach in the real world instead of dwelling too deeply on the dusty archives of religious history. For the sake of learning, it’s important to understand where al Qaeda comes from, but we not should mistake that understanding for a strategy.
Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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