ISIS Is Not Waging a War Against Western Civilization

A primer for Marco Rubio.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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The French flag flies at half mast above the Town Hall in Liverpool, England. November 16, 2015.
The French flag flies at half mast above the Town Hall in Liverpool, England. November 16, 2015.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

At least Marco Rubio didn’t answer the attacks in Paris by demanding that the United States accept only Christian refugees. He left that to Ted Cruz.

But given the Florida senator’s reputation in GOP circles as a foreign-policy wonk, it’s worth looking in some detail at just how ridiculous his response was.

“The attacks in Paris,” Rubio began, “are a wake-up call.” Forgive the pedantry, but this is among the stupidest clichés in politics. Wake-up calls are things you plan yourself because you want to be awoken from your vslumber at a set time, usually by a hotel clerk. The Paris attack was a horrific surprise orchestrated by France’s enemies. It wasn’t a “wake-up call” unless you believe its ultimate author was France itself.

The linguistic weirdness continues a couple of lines later. “This is not a geopolitical issue where they want to conquer territory and it’s two countries fighting against each other,” Rubio declared. “They literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical, Sunni Islamic view of the future. This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilizations.” Notice that Rubio never explicitly defines who “they” are. According to the French government, the Islamic State perpetrated Friday’s attacks. Rubio, however, said what occurred in Paris is a “clash of civilizations.”

But ISIS isn’t a civilization. In parts of Iraq and Syria, it’s a self-declared, though unrecognized, state. Elsewhere, it’s a network of terrorist groups linked by a common ideology. “Civilizations” are cultural groupings. In calling the Paris attack a “clash of civilizations,” Rubio evoked Samuel Huntington’s famed 1993 Foreign Affairs essay of the same name. In that essay, Huntington defined “civilization” as “the broadest level of cultural identity people have.” And he suggested that the world contains “seven or eight” major ones: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African.”

The most straightforward way to interpret Rubio’s statement, therefore, is that the civilizational “they” that attacked Paris is Islam. Among the grassroots conservatives Rubio is wooing in his campaign for president, that’s a popular view. After all, recent polling in states like Iowa and North Carolina suggests that upwards of one-third of Republicans would like to make Islam illegal in the United States.

Ben Carson and Donald Trump have indulged that sentiment crudely. Rubio, typically, is doing so more subtly. But it’s worth noting how fundamentally his analysis diverges from that of both of America’s post-9/11 presidents. George W. Bush said America was at war with an ideology that had “hijacked Islam” in the same way Nazism had hijacked Germany or communism had hijacked Russia. Barack Obama has argued that even this assessment gives violent jihadists a stature they don’t deserve. Rubio, by contrast, is going far beyond Bush. And he’s doing exactly what the Islamic State wants: He’s equating ISIS with Islam itself.

Then there’s the end of Rubio’s statement: “[T]hey do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”

This is simply false. The Islamic State may hate tolerance, liberty, and women’s rights. But that’s not why its cadres attacked Paris.

A review of the organization’s history makes this point clear. The Islamic State began in 2004 as al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, not because its then-leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, discovered that female motorists populate America’s highways, but because America had just invaded Iraq. When the United States began withdrawing troops from the country, al-Qaeda in Iraq did not follow them home. It instead went to war against Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Then, after the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, it began fighting his Alawite regime as well, changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and declared a caliphate in the territory it controlled. “For more than a decade,” notes the Georgetown University and Brookings Institution terrorism expert Daniel Byman, the Islamic State “focused first and foremost on its immediate theater of operations.”

According to Rubio’s logic, this focus makes no sense. If what motivates the Islamic State is hatred of liberal democracy, why has it spent years fighting the authoritarian governments of Syria and Iraq? And why did it reportedly down a Russian airliner last month? After all, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not known for its commitment to liberal democracy either.

The obvious answer is that the Islamic State fights those who block its path to power, whether they are liberal democracies or not. It attacked Russia because Russia joined the war in Syria on Assad’s side. Although Moscow has focused many of its air strikes on other Syrian rebel groups, the Islamic State evidently now sees the Russians as a battlefield enemy. That’s also how it sees France, which in September expanded its air strikes against ISIS from Iraq to Syria. Just last week, France announced it was sending an aircraft carrier to launch raids against the organization from the Persian Gulf. ISIS specifically cited France’s participation in the “Crusader campaign” in Syria in its statement claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks.

To be sure, the Islamic State doesn’t only define its enemies militarily. Its statement of responsibility also referenced those in France who “dare to curse our Prophet,” a reference to the attacks this January, claimed by al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons poking fun at the Prophet Muhammad. But as repulsive as the Hebdo attack was, it still wasn’t motivated, as Rubio suggests, by hatred of liberal democracy per se. Had the jihadists merely wanted to strike at tolerance and free speech, they could have attacked any French university, bookstore, library, or publication. The assailants, Said and Cherif Kouachi, chose Charlie Hebdo because, in their twisted worldview, mocking Muhammad represents a form of war against Islam. In Cherif’s words, “We defend the prophet.”

Obviously, explaining the Islamic State’s attacks does not in any way justify them. Only a totalitarian sees cartoons as an act of war. And viewing Friday’s attacks as a response to French foreign policy, as opposed to French liberalism, does not make French foreign policy wrong. It was the Islamic State’s genocidal attacks on the minority Yazidi sect in August 2014 that drew the United States and its European allies into the war against the group in the first place. Both morally and strategically, limiting—and ultimately eliminating—the Islamic State’s nightmarish dominion over millions of human beings justifies war.

But a just war is still a war. Contra Rubio, the struggle against the Islamic State is absolutely “geopolitical,” and it has everything to do with America’s “military assets in the Middle East.” Women drive in Costa Rica too, but the Islamic State is unlikely to attack it, because Costa Rica is not contesting ISIS’s control of the Middle East. The United States and France are challenging that control, and as long as they are, the Islamic State will try to attack them. America’s domestic freedoms, precious as they are, don’t have much to do with it.

This article was first published in the Atlantic.

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