President Obama’s recent claim that Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam was nothing new. Since 9/11, we have heard from both ends of the political spectrum that jihadist terror has material causes and psychological conditions created by social, political, or economic dysfunctions. This argument is an old one, and was common in the aftermath of 9/11. Typical of such thinking was Bill Clinton’s claim that “these forces of reaction [al Qaeda] feed on disillusionment, poverty, and despair.” Left unexplained is the fact that billions of other people around the world even more impoverished and hopeless have not created a multi-continental network of groups dedicated to inflicting brutal violence and mayhem on those who do not share their faith or who block their visions of global domination.
Such materialist analyses ignore or rationalize the historical and theological context of modern Islamic violence. As a result, well into the second decade of our war against jihad we are still misdiagnosing the problem and hamstringing ourselves by resorting to democracy-promotion or economic development, solutions that have nothing to do with the root of the problem––the theologically sanctioned violence, intolerance, and totalitarian universalism that define traditional Islam.
A recent example of this failure of imagination appeared in The Wall Street Journal in an essay by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. De Soto is one of Latin America’s most eloquent champions of free-market economies and the prosperity, freedom, and opportunity they create. Referencing the success of some Latin American countries in throwing off dirigiste or socialist economies, de Soto claims that in the Muslim world as well, “Economic hope is the only way to win the battle of the constituencies on which terrorist groups feed.”
To buttress this claim, de Soto uses an analogy between Islamic jihadists and the radical Marxist-Leninist terrorist group “Shining Path” that troubled Peru in the 90s. Just as economic and legal reforms created opportunity and wider prosperity, and thus drained support for Shining Path, de Soto argues, so too in the Middle East similar attention to encouraging entrepreneurship and laws favorable to business could neutralize the numerous jihadist outfits. This analogy, however, ignores crucial differences between a faith-based movement and one like communism predicated on a secular, materialist ideology.
Islam and communism do share similarities, as numerous writers have noted for nearly a century. Bertrand Russell wrote in 1920, “Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam . . . Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahommet [Mohammad].” Later, French sociologist Jules Monnerot wrote in 1949, “Soviet Russia is merely the geographical center from which communist influence radiates; it is an ‘Islam’ on the march, and it regards its frontiers at any given moment as purely provisional and temporary. Communism, like victorious Islam, makes no distinction between politics and religion, but this time the claim to be both universal State and universal truth applies not only within a civilization or world which co-exists with other different civilizations, other worlds, but to the entire terrestrial globe.”
These comparisons, as Ibn Warraq shows in his survey of them, are apt insofar as they highlight the universalist ambitions and totalitarian nature of communism and Islam as ideologies. But the important differences between the two belief systems as they actually appear in practice make the analogy less useful when the issue is how to reform Islam and neutralize jihadism. We can see this problem in a more recent, and influential, example of comparing the Soviet Union to Islam, Natan Sharansky’s 2004 The Case for Democracy, which inspired George W. Bush’s failed ambition to create democratic freedom in Iraq. Sharansky argued that just as the Soviet Union collapsed because of the innate desire for freedom, so too in the Muslim world creating democratic governments that respected political freedom and human rights would deprive jihadist leaders of recruits.
This analogy, however, ignores a profound difference between communism and Islam. Soviet communism was a materialist, atheist ideology imposed by force on a deeply religious people. It tried to suppress the religious needs of Russians, and to deliver material prosperity in compensation. It failed on both counts. Notice that today an autocratic Vladimir Putin enjoys widespread support among Russians, partly because he acknowledges the religious sensibilities and pride of the Russian people, and champions their belief that religious piety lies at the core of their national identity and separates them from the godless secularist West. And this support remains strong despite the manifest dysfunctions and corruption in the Russian economy.
Putin’s autocracy is similar to the even more autocratic governments in the Muslim Middle East. There such regimes are careful to respect and gratify the religious sensibilities of their peoples, most obviously in Saudi Arabia, where the support and tolerance of Wahhabism and jihadism abroad have helped to keep the House of Saud in power. So too in Iran, where the Mullahcracy enjoys significant support among the mass of pious Shiites in the villages and towns beyond the reach of Western cameras in Tehran; or in Turkey, where Tayyip Erdogan has rolled back a century of Kemalist secularization and democratization by reviving traditional Islam’s pride of place as the sole paradigm for social and political order.
In all these examples, autocratic leaders, for all their tyranny and illiberalism, still maintain solidarity with their people founded on their religious piety, a harmony between rulers and ruled that did not exist in Soviet communism. And they share resentment and often hatred of the West and especially the United States, which to the pious Muslim is a godless Sodom of materialism and depravity fostered by rootless individualism and irresponsible license camouflaged as prosperity and democratic freedom. So even though the desire for political freedom and material prosperity isn’t being met by autocratic Middle Eastern regimes, religious needs are.
It is this profound Islamic spirituality that de Soto and other secularists ignore. If the economic development championed by de Soto and others has wrought the impiety, sexual license, and godlessness that Muslims can see everyday on satellite television and the internet, why would they want to gain such a world at the cost of their immortal souls? That this picture of the U.S., one now nearly a century old, is a one-sided caricature to some degree doesn’t matter. It is what Muslims see, what they hear in Friday sermons at their mosques, and what sharpens the centuries old, cosmic conflict between the faithful and the infidels, the House of Islam and the House of War.
Economic development is not the answer to Islamic terrorism. Iran and Turkey are not impoverished nations, yet they actively support and fund jihadist terror. So too does Qatar, which is fabulously wealthy. Like the autocrats, jihadists share fundamental beliefs with millions of Muslims worldwide. The latter may not blow themselves up or wage jihad personally, or they may believe that such violence is tactically wrong, but that doesn’t eliminate the spiritual solidarity, desire to live under shari’a law, and dreams of Islamic global dominance founded on traditional Islamic belief and practice, a solidarity that an atheist, secularist ideology like communism never enjoyed with the masses of people, whether in Russia or Peru. Until we see jihadism as a spiritual rather than a material phenomenon, we will continue to pursue tactics and policies doomed to fail.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.