One popular narrative on the American right is that the West is engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Some phrase it in terms of Islam being at war with the West, while some are willing to cast the war as being between the West and radical Islam (rather than all of Islam). Not surprisingly, the various terrorist groups that self-identify as Muslim would probably be quite pleased with this narrative: they also would like it to be a war between all of Islam and the West.
There are various psychological reasons to embrace this narrative. Seeing oneself on the side of good in an epic struggle with evil is certainly very appealing. This provides a person with meaning and a sense of significance that is so often lacking in modern life. There is also the lure of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance. These are strong motivating factors to regard those who are different as an implacable enemy—inferior in all ways, yet somehow demonically dangerous and devilishly clever.
There are also powerful motivations to get others to accept this narrative. Leaders can use it as political fuel to gain power and to justify internal oppression and external violence. It also makes an excellent distractor from other problems. As such, it is no surprise that both American politicians and terrorist leaders are happy to push the West vs. Islam narrative. Doing so serves both their agendas.
While the psychology and politics of the narrative are both very important, I will focus on discussing the idea of the West being at war with Islam. One obvious starting point is to try to sort out what this might mean.
It might seem easy to define the West—this could be done by listing the usual Western nations, such as the United States, France, Germany, Canada and so on. However, it can get a bit fuzzy in areas. For example, Turkey is predominantly Muslim, but is part of NATO and considered by some to be part of the Western bloc. Russia is certainly not part of the classic West, but is the target of terrorist groups. But, perhaps it is possible to just go with the classic West and ignore the finer points of this war.
Establishing the war is fairly easy. While many terrorist groups that claim to be fighting for Islam have declared open war on the West, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have not done so. As such, the West is only at war with some Muslims and not with Islam. Likewise, Islam is not at war with the West, but some Muslims are. Muslims are also at war with other Muslims—after all, Daesh (which likes to call itself “ISIS”) has killed far more Muslims than it has killed Westerners. The West could, of course, establish a full war on Islam on its own. For example, President Trump could get Congress to declare war on Islam.
There are, however, some obvious practical concerns about taking the notion of a war on Islam seriously. One concern is the fact that while the are some predominantly Muslim nations that are hostile to the United States (such as Iran and Syria), there are others that are nominal allies (such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) and even one that is part of NATO (Turkey). As such, a war against Islam would entail a war against these allies. That seems both morally and practically problematic.
A second concern is that many friendly and neutral countries have Muslim populations. These countries would probably take issue with a war against their citizens. There is also the fact that the United States has Muslim citizens and waging a war on United States citizens could also prove somewhat problematic both legally and practically. But perhaps Muslim Americans could be treated the way Japanese Americans were treated during WWII. That worked out great, so why not just repeat history? Donald Trump has laid out some of his thoughts on this matter, at least in regards to handling the war with Muslims in America. He has considered requiring Muslims to be registered in a special database and to identify their faith. As those who are familiar with history will remember, this sort of thing has been done before. While I am no constitutional scholar, this sort of thing would seem to be a clear violation of basic civil rights and is clearly immoral.
A third practical concern is determining the victory conditions for such a war. “Classic” war typically involves trying to get the opposing country to surrender or to at least agree to conditions that end the war. However, a war against a religion would seem to be inherently different. One rather awful victory condition might be the elimination of Islam, either through extermination or conversion. This sort of thing has been attempted against faiths and peoples in the past with varying degrees of “success.” However, such exterminations seem to be rather morally problematic—to say the least. Alternatively, Muslims might be rounded up and kept in concentrated areas where the West could observe them and ensure they did not engage in any hostilities against the West. This also seems rather impractical and morally horrifying.
Victory might be defined in less extreme ways, such as getting Islam to surrender and creating agreements to behave in ways that the West approves. This is, after all, how traditional wars end. There are, of course, many practical problems here. These would include the logistics of Islam’s surrender (since there is no unified leadership of Islam) and working out the agreements all across the world.
Or perhaps there is no actual intention to achieve victory: the war on Islam is simply used to justify internal suppression of rights and liberties, to manipulate voters, to ensure that money keeps flowing into the military-security complex, and to provide pretexts for military operations. As such, the war will continue until a more traditional opponent can be found to fill the role of adversary. Russia seemed eager to get back into this role, but they now seem willing to take part in the war on terror.
One reasonable counter to the above is to insist that although the ideas of a war with Islam and a clash of civilizations are quite real, a more serious approach is a war with radical Islam rather than all of Islam. This narrower approach could avoid many of the above practical problems, assuming that our Muslim allies are not radicals and that our and allied Muslim citizens are (mostly) not radicals. This would enable the West to avoid having to wage war on allies and its own citizens, which would be rather awkward.
While this narrowed scope is an improvement, there are still some obvious concerns. One is working out who counts as the right sort of radical. After all, a person can hold to a very radical theology, yet have no interest in harming anyone else. But perhaps “radical Islam” could be defined in terms of groups that engage in terrorist and criminal acts that also self-identity as Muslims. If this approach is taken, then there would seem to be no legitimate justification for labeling this a war on Islam or even radical Islam. It would, rather, be a conflict with terrorists and criminals—which is as it should be.
There are some very practical reasons for avoiding even the “war on radical Islam” phrasing. One is that using the phrase provides terrorist groups with a nice piece of propaganda: they can claim that the West is at war with Islam, rather than being engaged in conflict with terrorists and criminals who operate under the banner of Islam. The second is that the use of the phrase alienates and antagonizes Muslims who are not terrorists, thus doing harm in the efforts to win allies (or at least to keep people neutral).
It might be objected that refusing to use “radical Islam” is a sign of political correctness or cowardice. While this is a beloved talking point for some, it has no merit as a serious criticism. As noted above, using the term merely serves to benefit the terrorists and antagonize potential allies. Insisting on using the term is a strategic error that is often driven by bravado, ignorance and intolerance. As such, the West should not engage in a war on Islam or even radical Islam. Fighting terrorists is, of course, another matter entirely. We should certainly put an end to Daesh and other such groups to protect the West and Muslims. And Western Muslims.