Did The Surge Succeed In Reforming Islam?

There have been a few articles over the past weeks — Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker and Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in The New Republic — examining the growing debate within Al Qaeda and the broader Salafist community in regard to the appropriate use of violence against civilians in the waging of jihad. As the authors note, this debate was ongoing well before 9/11, but has become more pronounced as Arab publics have expressed revulsion at Al Qaeda’s brutality in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

While it’s important not to mischaracterize or overstate the ideological cleavage within Al Qaeda (its Salafist critics do not question the justice of resistance in Iraq, Palestine, or Afghanistan, only the tactics used) this is certainly a welcome phenomenon, one which the United States should cultivate as much as possible. But it’s simply false to claim, as some conservatives are now forwarding, that Muslim opinion turning against Al Qaeda represents a vindication of Bush’s war in Iraq.

Citing the Wright, Bergen and Cruickshank pieces, former assistant to President Bush and current Contentions blogger Peter Wehner grandly declares that “the tide within the Islamic world is turning strongly against al Qaeda and jihadism”:

The causes for this shift include an organic uprising within the Arab and Islamic world against the barbaric tactics of al Qaeda, as well as the success of the Petraeus-led strategy in Iraq, which has been indispensable in aiding the “Anbar Awakening” and which has also dealt devastating military blows to al Qaeda.

In fact, neither article mentions anything about “the Petraeus-led strategy” having anything to do with the “uprising within the Arab and Islamic world against the barbaric tactics of al Qaeda,” let alone with the ideological revolt taking place within Salafism. This is purely Wehner’s invention. It’s also important to note that Al Qaedism has always been a marginal ideology in the Islamic world. To the extent that Al Qaeda had any significant status among Muslims, this was a status granted by President Bush when he cast Al Qaeda as the new Evil Empire after 9/11.

Back in March, Wehner published an op-ed in Financial Times that attempted a similar sleight of hand. “We are also seeing large drops in support for Mr bin Laden,” Wehner wrote. “These have occurred since the Iraq war began.” What Wehner conveniently and understandably neglects to mention is that support among Arabs and Muslims for bin Laden and Al Qaeda skyrocketed because of the Iraq war. This has only begun to change because of the years of Al Qaeda’s unremitting brutality in Iraq which resulted from the U.S. invasion.

Wehner’s argument essentially amounts to a defense of the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that doing so gave Al Qaeda an opportunity to kill thousands of Iraqis and show how evil they are. I don’t find this argument convincing or morally defensible. I don’t think Iraqis would either. I don’t think any decent person would, frankly.

This Wall Street Journal editorial from Saturday is similarly dishonest. Citing the same Wright, and Bergen and Cruickshank articles, as well as CIA director Hayden’s assertion of “significant setbacks for al Qaeda globally,” the Journal wrote:

To certain sophisticates, this is all al Qaeda’s doing: By launching suicide attacks on Shiite and even Sunni targets, and ruling barbarically wherever they took control, the group has worn out its welcome in the Muslim world.[…]

But the U.S. offensives in Afghanistan and especially Iraq deserve most of the credit.

“Certain sophisticates” — you’ve got to love the conservative anti-intellectualism at work here. Among those “certain sophisticates” who grasp the central importance of Al Qaeda’s “ruling barbarically” as the root cause of its delegitimization among Arabs and Iraqis are…the vast majority of Iraq and counter-terrorism analysts, including General Petraeus himself. Petraeus deserves credit for perceiving the change in Iraqis attitudes, and for developing a strategy to take advantage of it, but to credit the surge for the Anbar revolt is to get things exactly backward. It also remains to be seen whether the Anbar strategy, which succeeded by creating bases of power separate from the Iraqi central government, will actually contribute to the long-term stability of Iraq, or continue to agitate against it.

Far from vindicating President Bush’s strategy in Iraq and the war on terror, Muslim revulsion at Al Qaeda’s tactics, and the debates currently taking place among Islamist extremists about the rightness of those tactics, represent a significant refutation of Bush’s strategy. More importantly, in as much as these critiques are being generated from within Islamism, they represent a pointed refutation of the conservative “clash of civilizations” ideology that underpins the war on terror.