This is the third in a series of vignettes, an element in an essay in several parts. Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode. The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively. I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral. If you'd like to read earlier parts, the first vignette be found here, the second here, and the third here.
|William Henry Harrison's Meeting with Tecumseh in 1810.|
From Edward Eggleston's (1889) A First Book in American History
There is a concept which haunts American history. It is called Manifest Destiny. The idea is a simple one, really. Our ancestors, actual or intellectual, to a large extent believed that the American republic was destined to create a continent-wide democratic-republican empire. This empire would displace the native American polities, hundreds of them, as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of our destiny. The proof that we were right was to be found in our continuous success at defeating these native American peoples, steadily depopulating them, obliterating their religious and cultural traditions, and isolating them into marginal areas.
This is genocide. And our ancestors, actual or intellectual, believed it was not merely morally acceptable, but inevitable and glorious. It was a crusade.
I am an American. I'm proud to be an American. I am also profoundly ashamed of this element of our history and I'm damned and determined not to be held as culpable for it as I hold my ancestors to be.
Because I'm not just an American. I'm a human.
IV. War, Terrorism, Law, and Jihad
There is an elephant in the room and its name is jihad.
Before we discuss jihad, however, I want to lay some groundwork.
Here I will be principally discussing jihad as warfare. This in and of itself might lead to a bit of a tussle among intellectuals. Jihad, literally speaking, is probably translated as struggle or striving. There is a lot of debate about what this means – some scholars, Islamic and non-Islamic differentiate between the internal struggle and the external struggle, the striving for domination of evil and expression of God’s peace and order inside one’s self and the same externally, as a form of political-military expansion of God’s peace and order over peoples deprived of it.
It isn’t one or the other, mind you, but both. When reading Quran it is easy to see jihad used in both of these fashions. It isn’t contradictory, it is simply the use of a concept in multiple ways – like when Westerners have used crusade as both an allegorical and literal concept. If you can accept one tradition you can accept the other – outrage to the antithesis is posturing and nonsense.
Now. Here is where it becomes sticky.
The tendency of many authors at this point is to paint with a very broad brush – Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of war. Neither of these is wholly correct or incorrect. Equally, of course, these labels could be applied to nearly all religious traditions, particularly those which have been organized formally. Read of about the conquest of Canaan in the Hebraic Bible and of the monstrosities of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. Consider the wars and violence carried out by people of the Jewish faith against non-believers during the periods of the judges and the kingdoms, and of Christians during the medieval and modern eras in the names of their respective faiths. Now consider the beautiful things they have done, the kindnesses levied, the support for the poor, the weak, the injured, the hopeless, the sick, the immense good they have brought to the world.
The simple truth is that trying to easily pigeonhole religions that have existed for thousands of years and included millions or billions of people in many political contexts and holding often wildly variant ideological, philosophical, theological, and geopolitical leanings is tempting but, equally, foolish.
Read the Quran. Yes, it does in places legitimate the use of violence for the spread of the Islamic faith, particularly against polytheists and in the instance that lands once brought under the control of the faith have fallen outside of its control. It also, however, asserts that there shall be no compulsion in religion. In the same sense the Islamic world spread with incredible speed through the jihads of the first century of the faith (principally the 7th Century CE) – wars with the explicit intent to spread the faith. It should also be noted that when conquering people of other faiths the Islamic polities in almost every instance prior to the emergence of contemporary radical fundamentalist polities (with some notable exceptions) were incredibly tolerant of faiths and denominations other than their own – far more so, indeed, than Christian religious warriors during the Crusades, the Wars of Religion, the Reconquista, and the Iberian conquest of Latin America.
I could go on and on with the comparisons but the truth is that organized religion is always – always – a mixed bag when considered with an adequate sense of scale.
Problematic. Problematic in every possible way.
This isn’t enough, though. It is important to put religious violence, Islamic and otherwise, into frameworks. We need to at least be able to consider, sort it, taxonomize it, if we are to make statements about patterns that are useful and, equally, if we are to make philosophical statements. So, here we go.
First, I suggest that we remember that we are talking about political violence – that is to say violence (the compulsion, injury, or deprivation of life, liberty, and/or property) that is aimed at determining how values will be allocated – who will hold power, how they may acquire power, what they may do with said power, what institutions will they operate within the framework of, and so forth.
Political violence, in other words, is a form of dispute resolution – a nasty and irregular form thereof, but a form of dispute resolution nonetheless. We can see it as one of a few general types of dispute resolution: the use of existing institutions to resolve disputes, the adoption of mutually negotiated and contracted new institutions to resolve disputes, the use of nonviolent resistance to resolve disputes in conscious violation of existing institutions, and then the use of violence to resolve disputes, again in violation of existing institutions.
Political violence may be internally operative or interagency in form – it may be the product of actors or factions within a polity trying to effect change or external actors or factions or polities trying to do the same. In terms of the modern nation-state this means that we can roughly classify all political violence as international, intranational (domestic), or transnational (bearing hallmarks of both international and intranational conflict).
Political violence can come in a host of varieties but two are of particular interest here – terrorism and warfare. Distinguishing between the two is, frankly difficult – both meet von Clausewitz’s standard, which is to say that both constitute a continuation of policy and politics by other means – that is to say means which are not, in and of themselves, political.
When I was young and full of vinegar and hubris I wrote an essay – it was my honors thesis in college, actually – in which I attempted to define war as a Platonic concept and distinguish between the various sub-categorizations thereof using a similar means. I was interested in having good, clear definitions that could then be a proper basis for further scientific, philosophic, and legalistic study and discussion. The definition for war that I finally, after months of reading and thought, came up with was this:
War is mass violence with a political end or ends.
Generic? Sure. Simple? Definitely. But there is a utility to it. It is going to help us figure out some things.
First, the term “mass” – I use it in the sense of Marxian political thought. Mass refers to a large number of people, a faction (which might include a class in the Marxian sense) engaging in the violence. That means lone wolf terrorists aren’t really terrorists at all. They’re assholes. They don’t represent a movement, even a horrific one. They don’t represent a zeitgeist or a series of negotiated strategic, tactical, or ideological positions – even poorly developed ones. No. They represent themselves. They are acting out, alienated, perhaps insane. They are not warriors. They are not even terrorists. They are criminals and naught else.
This also points to another truth – lone actors are not predictable in the same way groups are. They cannot be infiltrated. They do not have extensive networks. They are reflections of selected political iconography and goals in society piece-mealed together. The response to them of necessity is exclusively a domestic one – criminal investigation, mental health, tactical goods recordkeeping, and so forth.
In dismissing the lone actors from consideration in our taxonomy something of utility is revealed. When we distinguish between war and terrorism our principle distinguishing characteristic is simply this: war is considered legal, or at least an activity being carried out by entities that are conceivably legal actors, while terrorism is illegal and often, though not necessarily, is carried out illegal actors.
Let me elaborate. The way we think about war and terrorism today is really something like this:
Legal war: war that is deemed legal by its participants and/or the international system.
Illegal war: war that is deemed illegal by its participants and/or the international system.
Terrorism: political violence that is deemed illegal by the state participants/end-recipients thereof and/or the international system.
Interesting, right? What is further interesting is when we subcategorize terrorism:
State-Sponsored Terrorism: When terrorism is conducted by an actor regarded as an appropriate sovereign, which is to say a state, meaning that it has the right to use force under right conditions internally and externally.
Non-State-Sponsored Terrorism: When terrorism is conducted by an illegitimate user of force, which is to say a non-state actor.
All this necessitates a bit of unpacking. You see, we live in a time when, after centuries of rather intense violence humanity has settled on a basic, somewhat tenuous, but ultimately essential principle: only states may use force (the right to deprive someone, in one or more ways, of their life, liberty, and/or property). This monopoly of force gives the state the power to act as arbitrators of domestic and international conflict, alleviates the frequency and intensity of violence, and while being far from perfect has made our current world the most peaceful, stable, technologically advanced society in the history of humanity by leaps and bounds. Already evolving by the early modern period as a notion as part of the emergence of secularism (remember this bit), modern bureaucracies, and the visible clearly in the work of the two thinkers properly acknowledged as the fathers of modern political science, Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, this concept is the most important definer of what constitutes legal or illegal violence. The assumption that will develop is this – in modern polities, and modern interstate polities, only the state has the right to initiate political violence. Individuals have the right to use violence, but only insofar as they are rightly defending their life, liberty, and/or property from actors who are illegally assaulting them, and then only until the state intervenes on their behalf.
Things seem simple for a time. As long as a state in its capacity as a state is using violence it is legal, war being merely a condition of open and intensive, extensive violence rather than hidden, low-level violence. Anyone else using violence is doing so illegally, unless they are doing so in self-defense. Peachy.
The problem is that rather quickly in the modern era certain things become problematic. First, there emerges a sense that states sometimes use violence in ways that violate generally held norms and moral conventions – that is to say in acting apparently legally they are committing acts both intolerable and unacceptable. As the logic of the social contract emerges and matures the general assumption is that sometimes, just sometimes, it is morally justifiable to rebel against one’s state – effectively to develop an anti-state that will replace a ruling regime upon the successful completion of a war. Philosophically speaking these rebellions are justified when a state either oversteps its rights vis-à-vis the society it governs or fails to protect said society. Legalistically rebellion was, and remains, problematic – the ultimate decided of whether a rebellion was legal all too often seems to be one of if the rebels won, then yes; if the rebels lost, than no.
There is a bit of utility to that, of course – winning infers a significant level of public support, or at least a lack of active public hostility adequate to destabilize a young polity – but frankly this remains a tough nut to crack.
Secondly, it became clear that some states were more aggressive and bellicose than others – they were more prone to use violence than other states as a mechanism for achieving internal policy change or enacting foreign policy goals. This includes not merely extortions and threats, or even wars of aggression, but imperialistic wars, wars specifically aimed to deprive one state of its statehood. Gradually, and it was very, very gradual, the international system evolved in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This system steadily ceded more and more power to determine when interstate violence was legitimate or not from the states to the international system, eventually in the form of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that, effectively, constitute social contracts between states and are modeled on a variety of early modern sources – including the American Articles of Confederation (compare it to the United Nations – you’ll be surprised) and Immanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace: APhilosophical Sketch.”
The upshot is this – after the disastrous series of world wars that wreak havoc on humanity through the whole course of the modern era, culminating in the First and Second World Wars (the world wars so devastating that historians ultimately abandoned any other attempt to classify them) and the emergence of a potential Third World War (which, had it occurred or should it occur would have or will likely include thermonuclear, biological, and chemical weapons on such a scale that the question of humanity surviving is largely academic and the question of life of any kind surviving nearly so) the states grudgingly, imperfectly, and nonetheless revolutionarily conceded a point – states should not have an absolute right to determine when they should or should not exercise their right to violence at the interstate scale.
The model they turned to was simple – it was the same that had been used for the individuals that constituted states. States were naturally and inalterably legitimate in defending themselves from attack and, equally, in defending their allies and weaker states from illegal attacks. But in order to legally initiate a war against a state that had not attacked them first and illegally they needed permission from the global community – permission granted in the form of a United Nations sanction, and more specifically in a permission from the United Nations Security Council.
Furthermore, it became clear that states could and do sometimes engage in violent acts which are essentially immoral against populations under their control. These acts have become regarded, if we wish to use a catch-all phrase, as crimes against humanity. In the instance a state is carrying out such a crime it becomes legitimate for factions within a society to rebel against their state.
This actually makes things clearer but also more complicated. We can regard political violence as legal or illegal according to these terms rather simply, but war and terrorism as terms are simply inadequate to capture all of the varieties of political violence. At minimum we need to include politicide, that is to say the killing, forced removal, de-politicization, and so forth of an entire faction of a society. The most infamous variety of politicide is of course genocide, a term coined by Raphael Lempkin to describe the Armenian and Jewish genocides of the early the early 20th Century.
Terrorism is also problematic in that it is not simply illegal political violence but it is, as I’ve noted earlier, sometimes difficult to distinguish from irregular or guerilla forms of warfare. All of these hinge on using emotions to amplify effect, all of them call for the attacking of soft targets, and all of them are favored in asymmetric strategic and tactical circumstances – even state-sponsored terrorism is largely a response to the geopolitical or ideological imperatives driving a relatively weak power in a system dominated by great powers or even superpowers.
This leads us back, finally, to our discussion of jihad. When conceptualized as form of political violence it does not neatly fit into these categories – this shouldn’t surprise us as it, like the concept of the crusade, evolved as a concept long before state monopoly of force, international law, and the like emerged as talking points of political philosophy. How then do we classify it? I would argue that we need to consider the major philosophies or doctrines of war that are possible and determine when and if jihad can be attached to these concepts.
This is still problematic. Doctrines of war don’t easily mesh with our distinction of terrorism from warfare – unless, that is, we assume, grudgingly perhaps, that in the eyes of participants in terrorism they perceive their actions as always analogous to guerrilla warfare. If we make this assumption than we can squeeze all forms of jihadi into a single intellectual framework – probably.
I’d argue that there are four fundamental ways in which we can approach the ethics of warfare, at least in the sense of when is warfare legitimate to begin, which itself informs what means might therefore justifiably be employed:
Nihilistic Doctrine: Put simply we live in a world in which competition is a manifestly truth and in which the only clear governing determinant of success, cultural, political, economic, and social, in the long-term is relative strength in conflict. The only necessary justification for warfare is the pursuit of power. Imperialistic.
Crusader Doctrine: This doctrine is essentially based upon faith – the belief that revealed truths have asserted the moral superiority of one religion, ideology, people, culture, etc. over others and that this relative superiority legitimates the conquest and forced conversion (institutionally and/or personally) of other polities (often couched as “liberation”), the obliteration and replacement of other polities, or some combination thereof. Victories are generally taken of confirmation of beliefs. Imperialistic.
Humanitarian Doctrine: When states are regarded as committing crimes against humanity and/or states are undergoing regime failure and effective Hobbesian anarchy then it may be argued that intervention in the affairs of a state by external states and actors is legitimate or even morally necessary, implying a universal human social contract and the existence of universal human rights which are not couched in any particular religious or ideological precepts. Not intentionally imperialistic, but imperialism may be an unintended (or secret) end result.
Just War Doctrine: The argument that violence as a means of resolving conflict is always morally problematic and that it should be principally reserved to instances of self-defense or defense of those immorally and/or illegally attacked by others. Hobbesian-Kantian in intellectual terms, implies universal human rights of a minimalistic type which are not couched in any particular religious or ideological precepts. Least opportunity of imperialism. When domestic-only effectively becomes a restatement of Locke’s philosophy of regime change.
So. A few points are clear. First, jihad is incommensurate with nihilistic approaches to the philosophy of war. Secondly, when jihad is mapped onto humanitarian or just war concerns, which it often has been and will continue to be, just as other philosophies and religious approaches will map their ends onto these philosophies. Third, when jihad follows the crusader doctrine it does not mesh with contemporary, modern, internationalist, universalist approach to politics – it is not unusual in this regard – neither do premodern Christian crusader, pseudoscientific social Darwinist, post-modern Stalinist or fascist approaches, or a host of other approaches.
So, when is jihad to be condemned? If we believe that that contemporary global justice and stability hinges on the contemporary universal acceptance of just war doctrine with the potential of limited application of humanitarian doctrine when applied by fully universalistic institutions then the assumption must be that ANY religious or ideological faction refuses to accept the compromise position of the current systemic agreement it constitutes a threat, including jihad and jihadi.
Here is the kicker. Under the just war doctrine we are largely self-restrained to attacking such radical jihadi (as well as their analogs in other ideological and religious traditions) only in response to their prior attacks on us or others.
This has an advantage, actually. Such self-restraint, if actually held to, lends just war doctrinaires a clear emotional utility – it is hard to hate the self-defenders, easy to hate those who attack sure of their ideological correctness. That means the gains of just war doctrinaires are more likely to be enduring than those of crusader doctrinaires.
As for humanitarian interventions – well, that remains to be discussed.
To be continued.