The Continuum of Muslim Opinion

Thomas Friedman offers us a little schematic:

Second, in this war on terrorism, there is no “good war” or “bad war.” There is one war with many fronts, including Europe and our own backyard, requiring many different tactics. It is a war within Islam, between an often too-silent Muslim mainstream and a violent, motivated, often nihilistic jihadist minority. Theirs is a war over how and whether Islam should embrace modernity. It is a war fueled by humiliation — humiliation particularly among young Muslim males who sense that their faith community has fallen behind others, in terms of both economic opportunity and military clout. This humiliation has spawned various jihadists cults, including Al Qaeda, which believe they have the God-given right to kill infidels, their own secular leaders and less pious Muslims to purify Islam and Islamic lands and thereby restore Muslim grandeur.

This is an interesting idea, but doesn’t common sense suggest a much more complicated situation in which Muslim opinion exists along a pretty broad continuum. There’s a huge conceptual space between wanting to “embrace modernity” in a way that a secular American Jew like Friedman or I would have amenable (after all, the Republican Party doesn’t meet that standard) and wanting to roam around the world killing everyone in the name of purifying Islam. If the entire Muslim world were governed by rights-respecting democracies it might be relatively easy to draw clear lines between dangerous violent people, and people just advancing a conservative political agenda. But that’s not the situation that exists, so you have a muddle of different actors who embrace violence to differing degrees against different targets and for different purposes.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s probably helpful to think about the wave of “propanaganda of the deed” terrorist attacks in the late 19th century. Alexander II, President of France Sadi Carnot, Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, King Umberto I of Italy, US President William McKinley, Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolyin, Spanish Prime Minister José Canalejas, and King George I of Greece were all killed between 1881 and 1912 by anarchists. And that’s to say nothing of various failed assassination attempts, random bombings, etc. It was a big problem at the time. And Europe was chock-a-block with left-wing political movements at the time ranging from the ancestors of modern-day Social Democratic parties to the Bolsheviks. Simply expressing a desire for real political democracy counted as a radical left-wing stance in most of Europe. At the time you could place people on a continuum of violence and radicalism, but it would have been hard to simply draw a line and say “here’s the war, go fight the bad guys.” And in retrospect, of course, nobody talks about anarchist violence because a then-obscure Russian splinter group wound up taking over a major country and killing dramatically more people than the anarchists ever had.