Certain years leap out as turning points in world history: 1517, 1776 and 1917. These are years when powerful ideas strode onto the world stage: the Reformation, democratic capitalism and revolutionary Communism.
The period around 1979 was another such dawn. Political Islam burst onto global consciousness with the Iranian revolution, the rise of the mujahedeen after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamization program in Pakistan and the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world.
The ideas that seized the imagination of millions had deep and diverse intellectual roots. For example, the mid-20th century thinker Sayyid Qutb mounted a comprehensive critique of the soulless materialism of America, tracing it in part to the separation of church and state — the fatal error, he believed, that divided the spirit from the flesh. In the Muslim world, he argued, body and soul should not be split asunder, but should live united in a resurrected caliphate, governed by Shariah law.
This vision could manifest in more temperate ways, as clerics seeking to exercise political power, or in more violent ways, as jihadists trying to overthrow Arab regimes.
By 2006, in an essay called “The Master Plan,” Lawrence Wright could report in The New Yorker how Al Qaeda had operationalized these dreams into a set of sweeping, violent strategies. The plans were epic in scope: expel the U.S. from Iraq, establish a caliphate, overthrow Arab regimes, initiate a clash with Israel, undermine Western economies, create “total confrontation” between believers and nonbelievers, and achieve “definitive victory” by 2020, transforming world history.
These were the sorts of bold dreams that drove Islamist terrorism in the first part of the 21st century.
To the terrorists behind Thursday’s bombing outside the Kabul airport, the murder of more than a dozen Americans and scores of Afghans may seem like a step toward that utopia. The humbling American withdrawal from Afghanistan may to them seem like a catastrophic defeat for Western democracy and a great leap toward the dream of a unified Muslim community.
But something has changed over the past several years. The magnetic ideas at the heart of so many of these movements have lost their luster.
If extremists thought they could mobilize Muslim opinion through acts of clarifying violence, they have failed. Across 11 lands in which Pew surveyed Muslims in 2013, a median of only 13 percent had a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda.
In his 2011 book, “The Missing Martyrs,” Charles Kurzman showed that fewer than one in every 100,000 Muslims had become an Islamist terrorist in the years since 9/11. The vast majority rejected the enterprise.
When political Islamists tried to establish theocratically influenced rule in actual nations, their movement’s reputation was badly hurt. In one of extremism’s most violent, radical manifestations, the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria became a blood-drenched nightmare.
But even in more moderate places, political Islam is losing favor. In 2019, The Economist surveyed the data and concluded, “Across the Arab world people are turning against religious political parties and the clerics who helped bring them to power. Many appear to be giving up on Islam, too.” Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi of Iran noticed the trend in his own country: “Iranians are evading religious teachings and turning to secularism.”
Globally, terrorism is down. Deaths from attacks fell by 59 percent between 2014 and 2019. Al Qaeda’s core members haven’t successfully attacked the U.S. homeland since 9/11. In 2017, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, began a process of marginalizing radical Wahhabism.
Experts see Islamic extremism’s fortunes slipping away. “The past two decades,” Nelly Lahoud writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “have made clear just how little jihadi groups can hope to accomplish. They stand a far better chance of achieving eternal life in paradise than of bringing the United States to its knees.”
In The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria notes that “most Islamist terrorism today tends to be local — the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. That’s a major reversal from the glory days of Al Qaeda, when its leaders insisted that the focus must be not on the ‘near enemy’ (the local regimes) but rather the ‘far enemy’ (the United States and the West more broadly).”
In this humiliating month, as the Taliban takes power in Afghanistan and ISIS still spreads mayhem, it’s obvious that even local conflicts can create incredible danger. But the idea of global glory — a fundamental shaking of the world order — that burst on the world stage roughly 40 years ago has been brought low.
The problem has not been eliminated by any means, but it has shrunk.
We blundered when we sought to defeat a powerful idea through some decisive military victory. But much is achieved when we keep up the pressure, guard the homeland, promote liberal ideas and allow theocracy to shrivel under the weight of its own flaws.
The men and women, in and out of uniform, who have done this work over the past 40 years, and are still giving their lives to it, deserve our gratitude and admiration.
All Rights Reserved for DAVID BROOKS