Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jihadology: Understanding Our Enemies

Twenty years ago, thousands of textbooks on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet union became totally obsolete. In the years that followed, nations that had only dreamed of statehood now had their own postage stamps and currency. To those who grew up during the cold war, it still seems like a dream.

Militant Islam has shattered any illusions we might have had that the vacuum left by the demise of communism would remain unfilled. The ruins of the World Trade Center stand as a stark reminder that America and Western democracy face determined enemies.

One of the images that remains with me from the cold war is that of "Sovietologists" and others who studied every aspect of the Soviet bloc, from its leadership to its mass media, from its dissidents to its economic problems. America was able to reach into its melting pot and assemble an admirable team of experts to provide intelligence on the Former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China.

We now have need of what the magazine "Foreign Affairs " calls "Jihadology" as an academic specialty. Foreign Affairs reports as follows on the dearth of studies of America's current adversaries.

"In 1945, the United States faced a dire threat. The rising power of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism in Eastern Europe -- and, soon enough, worldwide -- represented a new enemy that imperiled postwar hopes for a peaceful and prosperous world. The United States was poorly equipped to comprehend, let alone respond to, this emerging global danger. The federal government had few experts who spoke Russian or had a deep knowledge of Russian history and culture; universities were barely better off. The field of Soviet studies emerged as a response and became the catalyst for a network of area studies programs that would soon follow.

Today, the United States faces a similar challenge in understanding the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Much like the Soviet Union, militant Islam represents not just an army but an idea -- and one that fights in novel and highly unorthodox ways.

Despite the existence of a successful historical model, the U.S. government does not seem to have absorbed the useful lessons from the creation of Soviet studies programs in its efforts to study this new threat. Sovietology was -- especially in its first decade -- a vibrant intellectual enterprise that contributed to scholarly disciplines, public debate, and top-secret government discussions. A look at this field's success is essential to shaping how the U.S. government defines and studies the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. "

The comparison is even more apt when one considers that the communist world was hardly a monolith. You had the Soviets and the Chinese, who came very close to war. Then you had the Albanians who eventually broke with both of them. To make matters even more complicated, you had Yugoslavia, which was almost an American ally.

The Islamic world is no lest divided than was the communist world. There are Sunni Muslims and Shiite. There is bitter rivalry between the two. Turkey is a secular nation that interprets its secularism in an authoritarian way. Ethnic and religious rifts in that country are tearing away at the social fabric woven under Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Albania and Bosnia practice a very relaxed form of Islam that is considered heretical in more traditional circles.

The Southern republics of the former Soviet Union such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan feel a heavy pull from Turkey and Iran. The Saudis and the Iranians would very much like to pull former Soviet republics into their orbit. The Chechen conflict and the Beslan school attack in 2004 (in which over 300 people were killed) show that the stakes are at leastas high for the Russians as they are for America.

Baathism is a form of secular pan arabism that was heavily influenced by Naziism. Though it is heavily authoritarian in nature, it provides a definition of what it means to be Arab that allows for Christian participation in the society.

Pakistani and Indian Muslims often feel like second class citizens when dealing with Arab Muslims. Prejudice against African Muslims is intense and bare knuckled at times. If it were not for hatred of Israel and the West, the Islamic world would probably fall apart.

Understanding this fractious religio-ethnic landscape is a critical prerequisite towards navigating it succesfully. We have a lot of potential to develop a critical and deep understanding of the Islamic world. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go before our intelligence on this subject is anywhere near as useful as the "Kremlinologists" were in shedding light on the former USSR.

Developing an understanding of the Islamic world is critical to our national security. We should not waste any time in developing, strengthening and maintaining this facet of our intelligence services. Wars are won not only by outgunning the enemy but by understanding him.

No comments: