At War with Radical Islam: A Recipe for the Wrong Kind of Leadership in the Twenty-First Century

Dieter Dettke

Georgetown University

Dr. Dieter Dettke is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Dr. Dettke served as the U.S. Representative and Executive Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Washington from 1985 until 2006 managing a comprehensive program of transatlantic cooperation. In 2006, he joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and from September 2006 to June 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is “Germany Says ‘No’: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy,” published by theWoodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, 2009.

Dr. Dettke is a foreign and security policy specialist, author and editor of numerous publications on German, European, and U.S. foreign and security issues.

He studied Law and Political Science in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, and Strasbourg, France and was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1967/68.

In the summer of 2014, Stephen Bannon gave a talk at the Institute for Human Dignity in Rome via Skype saying that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is […] metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.”[1] Bannon is now the Chief Strategist for President Donald Trump and has a seat on the National Security Council of the United States of America. Within the Trump administration he is in a unique position of power and occupies a role in national security policy decision-making without parallel. If his perception of Islam determines America’s security policy in the future, the change of power in Washington will inevitably make a common approach in the fight against terrorism more difficult not only for America’s European partners, but even more so for the many Islamic countries siding with the West in their own fight against extremism, among them core Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The issue the West is facing today is not Islam as a religion or more fundamental and radical branches of the Islamic faith. The issue is terrorism and terrorists falsely acting in the name of Islam. To put religion and terrorism in one basket is a crucial mistake. As much as the West needs a credible counterterrorism strategy, war and faith need to be kept on different levels lest we risk unlimited and permanent warfare involving 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims, a global war by any standard. Considering the use of force against terrorism is different from the discourse about and between different religions.

Unfortunately, during the presidential campaign Trump called for, among other things, a “Muslim ban,” implying that the United States should deny entry for Muslims in general. No wonder, then, that the administration’s recent temporary travel ban has been perceived as the implementation of the more controversial Muslim ban proposed during the campaign. The Executive Order barring entry to the United States for citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, seven predominantly Muslim countries, is now under judicial review. The list, incomplete as it is, includes Iraq, a country America helped rebuild after the 2003 disastrous military intervention and where there are still American troops present in the fight against ISIS. For Iraq, the recent travel ban is supposed to be permanent, which most security experts consider a serious strategic mistake in the context of Western counterterrorism operations against ISIS and the caliphate with its territorial roots in Iraq and Syria.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the East-West conflict, Sam Huntington saw the clash of civilizations as the predominant antagonism of the twenty-first century and correctly diagnosed that tolerance between the two religions declined in the 1980s and 1990s,[2] reaching a new culminating point after September 11, 2001. With their global ambitions, Islam and Christianity have a long history of rivalry, competition, and war, but for centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims were also able to live side by side and in peace. Open military conflict was the exception, not the rule, and Huntington uses the term “quasi war”[3] when describing the overall relationship between Islam and the West, reserving the concept of war for military-style acts of terrorism or catastrophic terrorism. He cautioned that his terminology still implied that “a quasi-war is still a war”[4] but also maintained that both Islam and the West “kept the intensity of the violence at reasonably low levels and refrained from labeling violent acts as acts of war requiring an all-out response.”[5] These distinctions are important in order to avoid a degeneration of cultural rivalry and competition into violent military conflict. In spite of the inherent conflict potential between Islam and the West, Huntington assumed that “a global war involving the core states of the world’s major civilizations is highly improbable but not impossible.”[6]

Whether a global war between Islam and the West could happen also depends on Western strategies both in the war on terror as well as in the “quasi-war” of ideas, faith, and convictions. Huntington concludes that Islamic fundamentalism is not the underlying problem for the West. The more fundamental issue, he suggests, is the other culture, its superiority and, at the same time, the inferiority of power perceived on the Islamic side.[7] These are the driving forces for Islamic extremists reverting to terrorism as the preferred weapon.

Classical war usually has a beginning and an end and is defined by a distinct battlefield. Terrorists do not fight on battlefields, they have no time frame, and they try to avoid a clear decision about winning and losing. To achieve victory is difficult if not impossible. As Martin van Creveld has shown, more often than not, Western wars against terrorism have been quite unsuccessful: France in Indochina and Algeria, the Netherlands in Indonesia, the U.S. in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, India in Sri Lanka, and South Africa in Namibia are examples. What can be done successfully is in many cases below the level of war and the use of military force: reduce their threat potential, destroy their infrastructure, cut off their resources, reduce their recruitment potential, and restrain their capabilities.[8] This would point more in the direction of a quarantine and, in the case of ISIS, to deny them media access and stop their ability to export a vicious and murderous ideology, or in short, dry them out.

ISIS is by far the richest and most modern terrorist organization. It is equipped with heavy modern weaponry and uses a sophisticated media strategy to advance its goals. More than 27,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq including from Europe, the U.S., and Canada. We have to assume that there are sleeper cells in every country. This is a challenge for open societies and their domestic intelligence and police forces, in particular in Europe where borders are easy to penetrate. Terrorist attacks in Europe are also increasingly innovative as the attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels, and Berlin have shown. ISIS and the caliphate are not only, and not primarily, an existential problem for the West. They are an existential problem for Sunni Islam. King Abdullah of Jordan is correct in seeing ISIS first and foremost as a Muslim problem and declaring that Muslims must take ownership of ISIS and work together to combat it and its vicious form of terrorism including the killing of Muslims. Europeans know from the British experience with Irish terrorism and from the French experience in Algeria that it is important not to respond in kind with brutality. It will only intensify the level of violence without ending it. What ISIS wants to achieve is that the West engages in an anti-Islamic hate campaign so that ISIS can pose as the protector of Muslims and count on pulling Muslims into their twisted ideology.

After the ISIS-inspired attack on a Christmas market in Berlin killing eleven people, Germany learned the hard way that even as the country is trying to be open to Islam, it is not protected against Islamic terrorism. A growing anti-immigration movement—affiliated mainly with the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) and the anti-euro and anti-European integration party Alternative for Germany (AfD)—is now trying to turn around the argument on Islamic terrorism saying that because of Germany’s openness to Islam, there is terrorism. While there can be a link between immigration and terrorism, the fact is that Germany as well as other countries cannot turn back the clock on immigration. Diversity is here to stay and Germans and Europeans have to make diversity work through integration. With strong Muslim minorities in Germany and Europe any conflict between Islam and the West runs through the middle of each society. Existing Muslim communities, in particular those integrated with a high rate of success, such as many Turkish communities, also call for restraint in the relationship between Islam and the West. Europe and the United States must strive to cooperate both in managing diversity as well as in efforts to deal with the dark side of immigration. What needs to be avoided is the creation of parallel societies. Such a development would make integration impossible.

In the past, the United States, as a nation of immigrants, set the example for living with religious diversity. In fact, the United States has been the preferred destination for millions of people seeking religious freedom. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reflects the preeminent value of religious freedom by declaring that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In reality, America today is a complex universal society and managing diversity is the only way forward for the United States. It is also increasingly the only way forward for European societies, including countries with a homogeneous past. To take the emergence of more or less universal societies back to an imaginary homogeneous past would be extremely costly and should not be part of a Western policy agenda.



[1] See excerpts in The New York Times, February 2, 2017, p. 15

[2] See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996), paperback edition 2011.

[3] Ibid., 217.

[4] Ibid., 216.

[5] Ibid., 216.

[6] Ibid., 312.

[7] Ibid., 217.

[8] See for example Ulrich Schneckener, Transnationaler Terrorismus, Charakter und Hintergruende des ‘neuen’ Terrorismus (Frankfurt am Main:Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006), p. 191-246.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.