clock menu more-arrow no yes

Don’t lose sight of how strange and dangerous the Trump administration’s anti-Islam worldview is

isis
Dangerous, yes — but hardly an “existential” threat to the US

The first months of the Trump administration were accompanied by scores of slightly stunned explanatory news articles detailing the no-longer-fringe Islamophobic worldview of the new president's advisers. Among the staffers espousing the view that we are at the outset of a titanic clash between Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations were Michael Flynn, Trump's short-lived national security adviser; Steve Bannon, the recently sidelined White House chief strategist; Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president (apparently soon to be reassigned); Stephen Miller, senior adviser to the president; and even the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo has spoken of the “struggle against radical Islam, the kind of struggle this country has not faced since its great wars.” Flynn, in a book with Michael Ledeen, a foreign policy wonk at the right-wing Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote: “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.”

“Islamic fascism” is Bannon’s preferred nomenclature. “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” Bannon has said. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is … will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” The idea of a high-stakes war against radical Islam is foundational to the worldview and narrative that Breitbart News, which Bannon ran before joining the Trump campaign, has been selling to millions of readers. “Our big belief, one of our central organizing principles at the site,” Bannon has said, “is that we’re at war.”

But we aren’t at war. This hasn’t been said frequently or forcefully enough. In fact, the idea that the West is at war with radical Islam, and that the survival of Judeo-Christian European culture is at stake, is completely bonkers — and incredibly dangerous. The beliefs underlying the clash of civilizations myth, especially when they animate American immigration and foreign policy, invite a spiral of mutual cultural antagonism that could lead to war. These beliefs promote toxic, anti-Muslim bigotry and a refusal to accept that peaceful and productive coexistence with Muslims is possible. They perversely cultivate the conditions for the marginalization, alienation, and radicalization of young Muslims where they didn’t previously exist.

The war with radical Islam is not generally portrayed as a large-scale conventional war between armies and navies. The prospect of anything like that seems too far-fetched to seriously consider. That’s why most right-wing propaganda about a notional Islamic war against the West focuses on “stealth jihad” — a war so insidiously quiet we might not notice we’re in it until it’s too late! However, the idea that stealth jihad can somehow add up to an existential threat to the United States, much less the entire Judeo-Christian West, is at least as implausible as the idea that a massive conventional military conflict with radical Islamic forces is looming on the horizon.

As it happens, Steve Bannon — who is essentially a grimly unfunny Alex Jones — believes in both of these outlandish scenarios: international warfare as well as a stealthy attack from within powerful enough to bring the US to its knees.

The apocalyptic worldview of Trump’s advisers is built on shaky scholarly foundations — to put it mildly

Thanks to a book called The Fourth Turning by two amateur historians, Neil Howe and William Strauss (the noted social-scientific genius behind the Capitol Steps), Bannon thinks the world faces a huge transformative crisis every four generations — every 80 years or so. If you cut yourself enough slack, you can jam the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II into the pattern.

There is no credible evidence for this idiosyncratic conjecture, divined only by these two authors, but it is nevertheless the intellectual engine of Bannon's worldview, which is described at length in his film Generation Zero. Bannon thinks the fourth crisis started with the financial crash of 2007 and will end with a world-historical clash against "Islamic fascism."

For Generation Zero, Bannon managed to find one credible historian, David Kaiser, who claims to have gleaned some insight from the generational theory of cyclical crises. He is featured prominently in the film, although, as Kaiser recalled in Time, Bannon cut out the bit of the interview in which Kaiser disagreed that the pattern of previous conflicts establishes that the next one is bound to be apocalyptic. “[K]nowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty,” Kaiser wrote, “he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused.”

Bannon nevertheless imagines that the theory of The Fourth Turning means his made-up war against radical Islam is destined to be as big as the fight against the Nazis. He also likes to compare the threat of “Islamic fascism” to the threat of Cold War–era totalitarian communism. These comparisons are hard to take seriously. But Steve Bannon still has the ear of the commander in chief, and he’s a master of propaganda, so we’d better take it seriously.

At its peak, the Soviet Union and its communist allies controlled one-third of the Earth's landmass. State communism in the Soviet Union and China led to the deaths of around 100 million of their own citizens. When Nikita Khrushchev said, "We will bury you," to capitalist North America and Western Europe, he had the ability to do it. The Soviet Union was a nuclear power with the means to unilaterally end all life on Earth.

Similarly, Nazi Germany assembled what was arguably the most effective war machine in human history up to that point. At their peak, the Nazis and their allies controlled about half the territory of Europe. It took the combined military power of the British Empire, the United States, and the Soviet Union to subdue them.

For much of the war, the Germans had superior military technology, and they consistently inflicted more casualties than they sustained. More than 10 million Soviet soldiers died in order to take about 4 million German lives and turn back the Nazi attack on the Eastern Front. The effort may well have failed if not for the assistance of a brutal Russian winter.

The Nazis and the Cold War communist bloc were a threat to the free world because they controlled vast territories, had huge conscripted armies drawn from huge populations, and projected massive military power. These avowed enemies of the United States could and did conquer entire countries and regions, installing their own client governments and propaganda machines.

“Radical Islam” cannot pose a remotely comparable threat to the United States, much less the entire West.

Even if every Islamic country turned hostile overnight, “the West” has an insurmountable lead in wealth and force

The combined military budget of the nine biggest-spending Muslim-majority countries came to about $186 billion in 2015. The United States alone more than tripled that, spending $596 billion in 2015. And the NATO countries combined — a good proxy for “the West” — spent $892 billion. Of course, most Muslim-dominant countries are friendly to the United States. The biggest spenders — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iraq, and Algeria — are all either allies or friendly to the US and Europe. Turkey is in fact a member of NATO.

Of Muslim countries, only Pakistan has nuclear capabilities, and its weapons are aimed at India. Iran, the biggest predominantly Muslim country officially hostile to the United States, spends less on its military than Canada. The most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, Indonesia, maintains close and friendly relations with the United States and spends just a little more than Mexico on defense.

Geopolitical power, hard and soft, is largely a function of economic strength. The combined GDP of the 57 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is about $7 trillion. That’s less than half the GDP of the United States alone. The European Union’s GDP is roughly the size of America’s. In sum, the combined economy of the US and the EU is nearly five times larger than the combined economy of all Muslim-majority countries.

But this is an exceedingly silly exercise. It shows only that even if the entire Muslim world were hostile to the United States, and unified in that hostility, it would not pose much of a threat. But how many radical anti-US Muslims are there? Not many. Again, the vast majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims live in countries with which the US is friendly.

None of this is to deny that fundamentalist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have basically declared war on the entire world. Nor is it to deny that ISIS is a traveling horror show of deranged murder-cultists who rule despotically over a sizable patch of territory. And it's certainly not to say that terrorists animated by an extremist version of Islam don't kill plenty of people, and will continue to — some Americans included. It's just to say that from the perspective of empirically grounded risk assessment, this barely ranks as a minor threat to American or Western life and limb. The threat to European or American civilization is zilch.

ISIS came to life because the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan weakened those states and destabilized the region, making it possible to conquer some territory with motivated troops and a bunch of Ford F-150s mounted with machine guns and rocket launchers. ISIS doesn’t have tank brigades, doesn’t have a navy, doesn’t have an air force, and is not going to get much further than it’s gotten. ISIS poses a terrifying existential threat to people in bits of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but that's it. The threat the group poses to anybody else is sporadic terrorism, which is the weapon of choice when you don't have real geopolitical power.

An American is more likely to die from a lightning strike than an act of terrorism committed by a Muslim — and that estimate takes into account the 3,000 deaths on 9/11. You might argue that Americans are more likely to die beneath a toppled bookshelf than in a jihadist’s suicide attack because of aggressive anti-terror policies. I’m not so sure about that. America’s war on terror produced the regional destabilization that allowed ISIS to get a footing.

In any case, if it is truly the case that the risk of death by Islamic terrorism can be reduced to approximately zero through official anti-terror zeal, that suggests the threat is manageable — indeed, that it is being managed.

The conceptual — and numerical — absurdity of “stealth jihad”

Ah, but what about the enemy within? When pressed about the weakness of ISIS as a military force, defenders of the clash of civilizations view tend to retreat to the idea that radical Islam is waging war on the West in secret. The “stealth jihad” view can be largely traced to Frank Gaffney, a conspiracy theorist and Trump campaign adviser credited with giving Trump the idea for the “Muslim ban.”

A key assumption of stealth jihad propaganda is that something like ISIS's fundamentalist vision of Islam — the medieval elements, the torture, the beheadings, the obsession with building a caliphate — is indeed the genuine article. On this view, Islam is essentially committed to the imposition of religious law, or sharia, on believers and nonbelievers alike.

In their heart of hearts, therefore, all Muslims are committed to replacing secular political authority with Islamic religious law. This makes Islam an inherently seditious doctrine impossible to square with loyalty to a secular liberal-democratic regime. Those who take this line — and Bannon, Gorka, Miller, Pompeo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions seem to number among them — tend to think that affording First Amendment protection to Islam threatens the very fabric of liberal, Western, Judeo-Christian civilization.

Trump’s travel ban is going sideways in the courts because it was, in fact, conceived as straightforward religious discrimination based on the idea that America is at war with Islam. Under such conditions, religious liberty for Muslims is an unaffordable luxury. The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact!

This is all quite crazy. But we need greater clarity about just how crazy it is. So let’s grant the assumption that all Muslims seek to replace secular, democratic government with sharia. Muslims make up just 7 percent of Europe’s population. Pew Research projects that the number will increase to 10 percent by 2050. In the United States, Muslims make up just 1 percent of the population, and are projected to hit 2 percent in about three decades. The states of Europe and North America are not weak. They maintain strong and effective control over their territory and populations.

The means by which such tiny minorities could assert control in strong states dominated by other religions and robust liberal norms remains utterly mysterious.

Of course, there’s a great deal of doctrinal variety within Islam, just as there is within Christianity. The idea that all Muslims are committed to fundamentalist ideas about the political authority of Islamic religious law is absurd. It’s not much less absurd than assuming that all Catholics — or even all Christians — are inherently seditious, because they all secretly swear fidelity to the pope as their political leader. It’s nonsense.

Muslims in countries in which Islam is already recognized as the official religion do tend to support the integration of sharia into their countries’ legal codes. In Muslim-majority countries in which Islam is not given official legal recognition, fewer Muslims wish to see sharia made the law of the land. There’s no good data on Muslim support for the incorporation of sharia into the official law of Western liberal democracies, because it’s irrelevant. Muslims are very small minorities throughout Europe and North America.

CIA director Mike Pompeo
CIA Director Mike Pompeo has compared the clash with “radical Islam” to World Wars I and II.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Germany’s population of 4.8 million Muslims — that’s about 6 percent of the total population — is the largest in Europe. The majority of German Muslims are of Turkish descent. According to Pew, just 12 percent of Turks want to make sharia the official law of Turkey — an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Suppose we then double that for Germany, and say that 25 percent of German Muslims want German law to be replaced by sharia. That’s 1.45 percent of the German population. What can that tiny sliver of the population possibly do to undermine the institutions of one of Europe’s strongest states, and a national culture deeply committed to liberal ideals?

If Muslims in majority-Christian Western liberal democracies had three times as many kids as the rest of the population over several generations and every single member of the Muslim population 30 years from now actually did adhere to ISIS’s extremist throwback version of Islam and all of them actively coordinated to impose sharia on the West — they still wouldn’t get close.

In the real world, by contrast — in which Muslims in Europe and North America are hearty supporters of liberal norms and institutions; in which they practice mainstream, non-fundamentalist versions of their religion; in which they strongly disapprove of radical Islamic terrorism; and in which they will still be outnumbered 9 to 1 in Europe and 98 to 1 in the United States 30 years from now — the idea that anything at all about the West could be threatened by “stealth jihad” is either an expression of studied ignorance or a form of malicious religious intolerance.

It is a bitter irony that those who claim to defend Western civilization are waging a political assault on the bedrock principles of religious toleration and pluralist mutual accommodation that the freedom, prosperity, and power of the West were built upon. If we are in a war to save the West, it is a war against those who invent phantom enemies, and against those who think we can no longer afford the principles that make our civilization worth defending.

Will Wilkinson is the vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center, and a Vox columnist.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.