The news is filled with references to terrorism and Al Qaida again. US embassies have only recently reopened in many Middle Eastern and South Asian nations where they were closed in response to a threat of attack. The Yemeni affiliate of Al Qaida is classified as a real and immediate threat by a range of experts. In Syria, the Al Nusra Front, a group aligned with Al Qaida and drawing support from Al Qaida in Iraq, is becoming an increasingly significant part of the resistance to Assad. In Egypt twenty-five police recruits were recently gunned down by jihadists.
The usual questions are being asked. How is this possible? Why haven't we "won" the "war" on terror yet? Partisan discord colors the debate. If you are a Democrat, the answer is clear. It's all George Bush's fault. If he hadn't invaded Iraq, if he had focused on Afghanistan, victory would have been ours by now. If you are a Republican, it is, of course, Barack Obama who is to blame. He is "soft" on terrorism. He views the world through rose-colored glasses and ducks the hard choices. He has allowed Al Qaida back in the game.
The truth is much more complex. It is also much more sobering.
Terrorism analysts will often use the analogy that fighting Al Qaida is like combating a wildfire. As soon as you put out a blaze in one place, it crops up in another. If you have the right conditions, and the wind shifts, small embers can explode into an inferno with no notice.
It's a useful way to look at the problem. I've used some version of it myself on many occasions. Still, I think it fails to really adequately explain what is happening.
Let's dispense with the wildfire analogy and substitute another. Let's use the image of an underground mine fire, burning its way through seams of coal and other combustible material, searing the earth above it and exploding into view periodically in hellish chasms of fire and brimstone.
Let's also establish clearly two foundational points.
First, we are not at war with terrorism. We adopted that verbiage a decade ago to allow us to avoid describing this struggle in religious terms. Terrorism is a tactic. It is used and has been used by a vast array of groups, some secular, some communist, some Islamic, some Christian. Classifying a group as terrorist tells us nothing about its motivations, its origins or its future actions.
We are at war with a particularly virulent strain of Islamic fundamentalism. We are not at war with Islam. We are not even at war with all Islamic fundamentalists many of who are devout, peaceful and about as dangerous as the Amish.
We are at war with those Islamic fundamentalists who have chosen to wage violent jihad against the West and those secular Muslim regimes that are identified as being allied with the West. These jihadists blame Western materialism and secularism for all the ills of the Muslim world. They seek to cleanse the Islamic world of these influences, restore the "Caliphate" and recreate the glories of a mythical Golden Age of Islamic civilization.
Second, while the ideology of these jihadists is overtly religious the fuel that drives their movement and brings them a steady supply of new recruits and supporters, is most definitely material, not ideological.
Pakistan protesters stomp and burn an American flag. | Photo: Associated Press |
Most of the nations of the Muslim world are wracked by a whole series of very concrete, and very devastating economic and social problems. Population growth is out of control. Except in those nations where oil and natural gas are produced, virtually nothing of significance to the global economy is produced. Unemployment rates are high and climbing all the time. Secular education is poor or non-existent. The slums and villages are filled with angry, uneducated, unemployed young men looking for someone to blame and all too eager to blame someone else for their misfortune.
The average age in Yemen is 17. One third of the population of Egypt is between 4 and 16. Youth unemployment in the Middle East is close to 30%. In some parts of the Gulf it is 70%. Only28% of Pakistanis are literate. In most countries in the Middle East the average male does not progress past the equivalent of sixth grade. In many countries, for females, even this level of achievement is impossible.
The average annual per capita income in Egypt is $6700. That ranks 143rd in the world. The average annual per capita income in Iraq is $7200. That ranks 141st in the world. The typical Afghani earns less than $500 a year. Sixty percent of Pakistanis live below the poverty line, which is defined as $2 a day.
The conditions outlined above are not improving. There is no "dawn" or "spring" on the horizon. All the trend lines are bad and getting worse. We have not turned a corner nor is there any evidence we will do some anytime soon.
The fire of Islamic extremism is burning its way through "seams" composed of economic and social misery. It is going to continue to do so. Sometimes it will smolder for long periods underground. Sometimes it will erupt briefly into view in small displays of smoke and flame. And, sometimes, it will break to the surface and consume vast quantities of territory much as the coal fire burning under Centralia, Pennsylvania has literally killed that entire town.
We may choose, when the fire is not immediately in view, to believe it has gone out. We may pretend it does not exist. It remains, burning, growing and spreading. The ground is still hot under our feet.