THE INEVITABLE CYCLE OF RADICALIZATION
In the GWOT the United States faces a foe – Islamism – that is a decentralized, radical, anti-staus quo movement that is now without a state, having lost their sanctuary provided by the Taliban. A post on H-Diplo the other day by John Zimmerman, on an unrelated topic of the 1960’s American Anti-war movement, spurred me to think about where the Islamists are likely to evolve ideologically over the next few years. Professor Zimmerman wrote:
“Edwin Moise writes: “Leftist political groups are notorious for the waythey attack one another, fighting over doctrinal differences.”
I also noticed this phenomenon among leftist groups. However, one needs tokeep in mind that, despite narrow doctrinal differences which would seem insignificant to an outside observer, there was hardly any difference inthe end results sought by these groups. A similar phenomenon is noticeable among Islamists, who differ only on issues such as tactics not end results.”
On-spot observation ! This process of evolving militancy and radicalization is observable in many historical extremist movements regardless of whether the premises of the particular movement are based on socialism, religion, nationalism or race. I would argue that this dynamic results from the movement possessing a general ideology that is sharply critical of the status quo without having a recognized authority who can be the arbiter of that ideology’s theoretical boundaries or tactical application.
In an attempt to establish such an authority, factions within such movements employ the rhetorical demonization against one another that previously were levied against the mainstream society. Lenin claimed ” majority” ( Bolshevik) status for his faction and set about abusing, bullying and hectoring the ” minority”(Menshevik) and moderate foreign socialists like Karl Kautsky. Within the Nazi Party’s early days before Hitler’s authority became suffocating, nationalist-volkische Nazis drove out Left-socialist Nazis from the movement (Strasser), converted them ( Goebbels) or killed them off in the Night of the Long Knives ( Rohm and SA leadership). Islamist extremists are in that stage right now and denunciations of religious apostasy ( which under the Sharia are a capital offense) are an important tool for the most radical elements to push the more moderate Salafist and Hanbali Islamists in the direction of consolidation behind the revolutionary Qutbist worldview proffered by al Qaida.
This dynamic is arguably to the great advantage of the more extreme elements within an already radical movement who tend to promote their position as one of “authentic” status and the moderate position as counterfeit, weak or even traitorious to the movement’s goals with such traitors being deserving of death. Note it is not always the most extreme factions who win the day. Hitler kept the extremists to his right – Rosenberg,Bormann, Streicher, the Austrian Nazi Party radicals – in check until late in his regime. Lenin ultimately destroyed his untrustworthy and anarchic-terrorist Left-S.R. junior parters – but the whole movement tends to be pushed further from the mainstream and radicalized by such internal struggles.
In the case of the American anti-war movement we saw the rise and radicalization of the SDS and ultimately the emergence of groups like the Weather Underground and the Progressive Labor Party – who would have been unimaginable on campus in 1962 or 1963. Unlike America’s priviliged radical chic of the 1960’s, the Islamists arrived on the scene with violence as part of their political culture and recent history. Further radicalization will likely take them in one of two directions – consolidation or entropy.
The first possibility is that the Islamists will consolidate into a more unified, coherent, disciplined movement as I suggested above and become a less decentralized foe in hopes of seeking recognized leadership as defenders of the Ummah. Zaqawri’s recent ” pledge of allegience” to Osama bin Laden may be evidence of this trend taking place. If this is the case their political legitimacy in Muslim eyes will come to depend less on their ideological militancy and spectacular gestures of resistance to America through Terror and more on their military competence to rack up some credible, lasting victories.
The second possibility is fratricidal infighting as radical factions engage in cut-throat, sectarian battles for power, prestige and leadership of the Islamist movement. This will lower the effectiveness of Islamists in carrying out high-magnitude terror operations against the United States on the level of 9/11 by diverting resources. But it will also spur them through competition to attempt more, lower-level, horrifying assaults like we saw in Beslan to garner attention for themselves and their groups. We can also expect that an ” entropic ” outcome is bad for Muslim Gap states that already teeter on Failed State status as competing Islamist groups migrate to places of weak authority in order to conduct their internecine struggles. We could easily see the replay of 1980’s Lebanon and 1990’s Somalia in Iraq and Pakistan under such a scenario.
This is why connecting the Arab-Islamic world Gap states is of overriding importance. Connectivity reduces room for the enemy to manuver under either scenario, mitigates some causes of discontent and gives room to non-Islamist civil society to provide alternatives to both Islamism and status quo authoritarian regimes.