ISIS Isn’t the New Soviet Threat

Republicans who suggest otherwise have forgotten Christianity and Judaism’s own history of violence. 

Mike Huckabee
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 18, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

According to the Republican candidates for president, our country faces two mortal threats. One is Hillary Clinton. The other is radical Islam. And it’s not enough to target jihadists with military force, as President Obama has. The Republicans say we must go further. We must identify radical Islam as the enemy.

Two months ago, campaigning in New Hampshire, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared: “We need a commander-in-chief in this country who stands up once and for all and says our biggest threat is radical Islamic terrorism.” Walker asserted that “radical Islamic terrorism is like a virus, and if you don’t take it out entirely, it’s like a virus in your computer that will keep coming back.” A week later, announcing his own candidacy, Sen. Ted Cruz described a president (meaning himself) who would explicitly pledge to “defeat radical Islamic terrorism.”

Last weekend, at South Carolina’s Republican state convention, other 2016 hopefuls piled on. Rick Santorum said ISIS “wants to bring back a version of Islam that was popular in the seventh century.” He proposed: “Let’s bomb them back to the seventh century.” Other contenders, including Jeb Bush, spoke of Christians and Jews under assault. Rick Perry likened the current struggle to the Cold War. He called for “the same resolve that we [had] to defeat Soviet Communism.” Perry scorned any comparison between Muslim and Christian violence. “We need a president who’s not an apologist for radical Islamist terrorism, suggesting that it’s just like the Crusades and the Inquisition,” he said.

Wednesday morning, Mike Huckabee joined the chorus. Our enemies, he explained, are “rooted in Islamic jihadism. Whether it’s al-Qaida, ISIS, they’re all leaves from the same tree.” Obama’s great failing, said Huckabee, was that “he will not identify this enemy as Islamic jihadism.”

Superficially, the candidates are correct. ISIS, al-Qaida, and their ilk are Islamic. These groups represent a segment of Islam, though certainly not the whole faith. But the GOP’s demagogy around this issue—courting Christians and Jews by depicting Islam as a particularly sick or violent religion—reflects and perpetuates ignorance of religious history. Christians and Jews aren’t immune to the fanaticism that’s convulsing Islam. We’ve been through it before.

That lesson emerged this week from the Faith Angle Forum, a two-day conference on religion and public life. The speakers weren’t politicians or Muslims. They were scholars of ISIS or of religious history. So they felt no need to whitewash or exaggerate the connections between Islam and violence. Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton, led off the discussion. While drawing distinctions—Salafism is just one branch of Islam, violent jihadists are a minority within Salafism, and ISIS is a peculiar statist faction of killers—Haykel trashed the academic pretense that ISIS isn’t Islamic. Its ideology, he noted, is what attracts its followers. Its leaders enforce Islamic laws and present well-informed, albeit warped, interpretations of sacred texts.

But Haykel also trashed the idea that terrorism should be fought like Communism. ISIS isn’t a serious threat to the West, he argued. Its focus is on fomenting war among Muslims, not between Muslims and Christians. It targets Shia, Sufis, and Arab regimes it views as apostates. Will McCants, a Brookings Institution fellow and former U.S. adviser on terrorism, made the same point. ISIS and other Salafists think their job is to save Islam. They see themselves as reformers.

In the United States, reform connotes peaceful, constructive change. Cruz, Huckabee, Perry, Santorum, and Walker all claim to be reformers. But reform also has a bloody history. In this century’s Arab upheavals, Haykel hears echoes of the Protestant Reformation. In Martin Luther’s time, too, there was a decline of traditional authority, an empowering revolution in information technology, a religious backlash against corruption, and a yearning for primordial clarity of faith, including a direct understanding of sacred texts. The analogy is ominous. It took Christians more than a century of fighting before they conclusively renounced religious war.

Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, extended this analogy in the conference’s closing session. He argued that the pattern of religious civil war goes back not just to the Reformation, but to Jewish uprisings of the first and second centuries. The Great Revolt against Rome, the Diaspora Revolt, and the Bar Kokhba rebellion nearly wiped out the Jewish people. Only after decades of bloodshed did Jews surrender the madness of trying to live in or bring on the apocalypse.

Sacks sees the three Abrahamic faiths as sibling rivals. Each is vulnerable to a pathological dualism that can erupt in prolonged violence. Judaism had its bloodbath about 1,500 years after its birth. So did Christianity. Now it’s Islam’s turn. If Sacks is right, religion per se isn’t the source of violence, but it can’t claim to be wholly unrelated. And none of the three Abrahamic religions should fancy itself immune. From the standpoint of violence, Sacks argues, Judaism and Christianity aren’t better than Islam. They’re just older.

Can Islam’s eruption run its course more quickly, and with less bloodshed, than Judaism’s or Christianity’s? The speakers offered ideas, but they acknowledged that only Muslims can resolve a Muslim civil war. One thing the rest of us can do is resist political appeals to our naïve sense of moral superiority. We’re all leaves from the same tree. We can’t end Islam’s civil war by bombing ISIS back to the seventh century. We certainly shouldn’t go around defending the Crusades or the Inquisition.

ISIS and al-Qaida are Islamic threats. But what that means, in reality, is that they’re a far greater threat to Muslims than to anyone else. And the sickness that produced them isn’t a Muslim pathology. It’s a human one.