[api] Michael Doran: Somebody Else's Civil War

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Russil Wvong

Jan 15, 2003, 1:34:33 AM1/15/03
The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an article by someone named
Michael Doran that I found interesting. I did a search and found
that he'd written an earlier article, "Somebody Else's Civil War",
published in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs and
in the collection "How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War".

From what I can tell, it's a very important article.

Doran attributes the September 11 attacks to a civil war going on
within the Islamic world, between radical Islamists and conservative
regimes. So far the radical Islamists have been losing their battle
against their "near enemy", and they decided to strike against their
"far enemy", America.

Polarizing the Islamic world between the umma and the regimes
allied with the United States would help achieve bin Laden's
primary goal: furthering the cause of Islamic revolution within
the Muslim world itself, in the Arab lands especially and in Saudi
Arabia above all. He had no intention of defeating America. War
with the United States was not a goal in and of itself but rather
an instrument designed to help his brand of extremist Islam
survive and flourish among the believers. Americans, in short,
have been drawn into somebody else's civil war.

Washington had no choice but to take up the gauntlet, but it is
not altogether clear that Americans understand fully this war's
true dimensions. The response to bin Laden cannot be left to
soldiers and police alone. He has embroiled the United States in
an intra-Muslim ideological battle, a struggle for hearts and
minds in which al-Qaeda has already scored a number of victories
-- as the reluctance of America's Middle Eastern allies to offer
public support for the campaign against it demonstrated. The first
step toward weakening the hold of bin Laden's ideology, therefore,
must be to comprehend the symbolic universe into which he has
dragged us.

The article is similar in some ways to George Kennan's article
"The Sources of Soviet Conduct": it attempts to explain the
adversary's behavior based on his psychology and ideology.

The article is no longer available from the Foreign Affairs website,
but it's been posted to a number of places on the Internet:

I'm surprised it hasn't gotten much discussion on Usenet.

There's also an interview with Doran on the web, included below.


Doran: America not bin Laden's primary target

Marilyn Marks
Princeton Weekly Bulletin
January 14, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 13

Princeton NJ -- In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs
magazine, Michael Doran, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies,
presents a provocative answer to the question many Americans have been
asking since Sept. 11: Why do they hate us so much?

Doran argues that the United States is not the primary target of
radical Islam at all, but is being used as a means to foment Islamic
revolution and topple regimes viewed by Muslim extremists as corrupt
and nonbelieving. Here, he discusses his analysis, which is also
published in a new book, "How Did This Happen: Terrorism and the New

Q. In your article, you argue that the United States is not Osama bin
Laden's primary target. What is his primary goal, and what events did
he hope the attacks on Sept. 11 would set in motion?

I argue that bin Laden dragged us into a civil war between radical
Islam and its local enemies. His primary goal was to foment Islamic
revolution, not unlike the kind of revolution that Iran experienced in
the late '70s and early '80s. His most important targets were Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan, but he would have been happy to see his stringent
brand of Islam wielding state power anywhere in the Muslim world. Many
in his organization, including his top advisers, Ayman Zawahiri and
Muhammad Atif, came from Egypt, where for years they had struggled to
carry out an Islamic revolution. These men undoubtedly calculated that
the war with the United States would advance their cause in their
native land.

After the war began, we in this country were rudely awakened by the
fact that many in the Arab and Muslim worlds have little sympathy for
America's war aims. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, there is much
evidence that bin Laden is a popular figure. Bin Laden himself, of
course, was more attuned to Saudi anti-Americanism than we were, and
he sought to capitalize on it.

He envisioned the following scenario: Washington was supposed to
respond to the Sept. 11 attacks by pressuring the Saudi leadership to
take a more active role in our war against the Taliban. Incorrectly
anticipating a prolonged and bloody conflict with the United States,
he sought to play on the spectacle of Americans killing innocent
Muslim civilians.

Bin Laden intended to open up a chasm between, on the one hand, a
Saudi regime inextricably tied to its American patron and, on the
other, a Saudi society broadly sympathetic to al Qaeda. He expected
that the same dynamic would operate in Pakistan as well.

Q. How do the extremists in al Qaeda view the world, and the place of
the United States in this world?

Al Qaeda represents a particularly extreme version of Salafi
Islam. Its primary concern is to purify Islam, which bin Laden and his
followers believe is no longer practiced by most Muslims in its true
form. Their biggest complaint is that Muslims today have, under the
influence of Western culture, adopted idolatrous practices. Their
worldview centers on Islamic law, which purports to organize every
aspect of a believer's life.

So when Muslim states follow the example of Western countries and
adopt laws and practices not in accordance with Islamic law, they are
by definition promoting idolatry, since they have replaced God's law
with man-made law. Since Western culture promotes democracy and
secularism, since it entices Muslim elites in the Middle East to
follow permissive Western cultural values, it is the primary source of
"global idolatry," as bin Laden referred to America recently.

In this worldview, Western civilization always has been dedicated to
the destruction of Islam. Israel is the spearhead of the latest
Western onslaught into the Islamic body politic. Thus al Qaeda speaks
in terms of a Zionist-Crusader alliance. We are Crusaders, because we
are simply the latest in a long line of Western warriors who have
taken an oath of enmity toward God and Islam.

Q. Who has been winning the "civil war" between moderate and extremist
Muslims so far? We get the impression from news reports that more and
more people are embracing the Salafi "evil America" point of view, yet
you note that the extremists represent a tiny minority of Islam and
that, with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Sudan, political Islam
generally has failed to take power.

It's hard to call the civil war between the fundamentalists and their
mainstream Muslim enemies. In the political realm, the fundamentalists
are losing. In the 1980s and 1990s, they suffered some tremendous
defeats. They were crushed in Egypt, Syria and Algeria. In other
places, such as Jordan where they did not revolt outright, they were
marginalized or co-opted.

In the social and cultural arena, however, they have been making
significant advances -- by establishing networks of voluntary
societies and by establishing social services like hospitals and
schools that often provide better services than do their state-run
counterparts. So, in the cultural sphere, their star has been
rising. In politics, therefore, they sometimes show a disturbing
ability to set the agenda, to capture the moral high ground, as they
would seem to have done in the current crisis.

Q. Is there something inherent in these extremist groups that makes
them politically ineffective, even when they manage to set the moral

The political failure of these extremist Islamic groups is not only
the consequence of the repressive powers of the states arrayed against
them. They do not have good answers to the most serious problems that
beset their societies. Despite their very strong vision of social
welfare, they have a very weak economic vision. Their primary demand
is that the state should implement Islamic law exclusively, and they
assert that this step alone will solve all of the economic and
political problems, but it is difficult to see how this is so. The
Taliban, for instance, hardly looked like a regime that, even in more
propitious political circumstances, would have produced an economic
revival for Afghanistan.

Q. Since the attacks on Sept. 11, many people have said that
U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the despair of the Arab
world. Would these attacks still have occurred if there were no
settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip? If there were no
U.S. sanctions on Iraq? If the U.S. had no military presence in Saudi

In a sense you are asking the question, "What are the primary sources
of the anti-Americanism that al Qaeda is tapping into?" This is the
most hotly debated issue in Middle Eastern studies today. My guess is
that most academic experts on the region would answer that the three
issues you mention are in fact the heart of the matter.

In my view, it is true that bin Laden wants to get the Americans out
of Saudi Arabia, but he and his organization also want to topple the
Saudi government, not to mention all other governments in the Middle
East. If the internal struggle, the intra-Muslim "civil war," is
indeed the heart of the matter, then U.S. foreign policy is of
secondary importance. And so, for that matter, is the Israeli stance
in the conflict with the Palestinians. It is clear that bin Laden is a
very late convert to Palestinian nationalism. His conversion mimics
that of Saddam Hussein, who attacked Israel in 1991 in order to keep
Kuwait. Obviously, Iraq did not invade Kuwait in order to save the
Palestinians, and al Qaeda is not trying to save them by blowing up
parts of Manhattan. So I don't agree with the prevailing wisdom.

The obvious objection to what I have just said is, "OK, al Qaeda might
not be primarily motivated by opposition to American foreign policy,
but the wider society is." There is no denying that some American
policies, such as our support for Israel and sanctions against Iraq,
are unpopular. But it is important to analyze anti-Americanism and
anti-Zionism in the Arab world as political speech. When leaders in
our own country justify particular policies on the basis of their deep
commitment to freedom and democracy, no serious political analyst
would take these statements at face value. The statements would be
interpreted against the backdrop of the domestic political debate,
national interests, etc. But when Arab political actors invoke
opposition to Israel and the United States, we tend to take what they
say at face value.

In my view, much of the discussion in the Arab world about Palestine,
Iraq and America's role in both is not only about those three
issues. It is also about other things.

Q. Can you give an example?

An important example is the Palestine question, which has a strong
symbolic role in Arab and Muslim political speech. Palestine as a
symbol means, among other things, the disregard that the West has for
Arab and Muslim suffering. Obviously, when a Palestinian talks about
Palestine, he or she is talking about the situation at home. But when,
for instance, Saudis, Egyptians or Iranians invoke Palestine, they are
often discussing their own circumstances as well.

Rightly or wrongly, most Arabs perceive Washington as the guardian of
the current Arab political and economic order, which, quite frankly,
stinks. Consider, for instance, Saudi Arabia, whose problems are
typical. Nearly 50 percent of the Saudis are under the age of
15. While the population has been increasing at more than 3 percent a
year, the average real income in the kingdom has decreased
precipitously -- perhaps by as much as 50 percent in the last
decade. The monarchy, like most Arab governments, does not permit
freedom of expression or of assembly. In my view, the extreme anger
that many Saudis are expressing toward America has its roots in that
dismal state of affairs rather than on this or that policy that
Washington might be pursuing.

Q. Should the U.S. make any changes in its foreign policy as a
response to the realities you discuss in the Arab world? If so, what
should it do?

My analysis suggests we should promote political liberalization and
economic growth. Exactly how Washington can achieve these goals under
the current difficult circumstances, I cannot say. It's a very tall

Q. What is the result of the war so far in terms of al Qaeda's
position? Do the losses on the battlefield amount to a lasting blow,
or have the extremists advanced their cause nonetheless?

So far, the war is a success for the United States. I was full of
gloom and doom at the beginning, because I strongly suspected that the
Bush administration did not fully understand the political minefield
in the Middle East, and I feared that it was allowing al Qaeda to pull
us into a prolonged, Soviet-style war in Afghanistan. But President
Bush did not allow al Qaeda to sell the war to the Muslim world as
America vs. Islam.

The speed with which we toppled the Taliban and the fact that the
attention of the world community will be focused on the problem of
starvation this winter are accomplishments of great
significance. Liberating people from political oppression and
starvation is very good propaganda. If we root out al Qaeda from
Afghanistan, we will have significantly damaged the ability of the
extremists to inflict severe harm on us in the short term.

With regard to the long term, however, much will depend on whether we
remain engaged with the Muslim world and its problems. If we turn our
back on Afghanistan this time as we did in the past, we will
demonstrate that we care about the welfare of Muslims only when we are
under attack. For instance, it has not been lost on people in the
Middle East that America was not particularly concerned about
starvation in Afghanistan until the World Trade Center went down.

It is also much too soon to tell how these events will affect the
balance of power between extremists and moderates. The extremists have
been dealt a significant political setback, but their cause will not
disappear. In the social and cultural realm, they remain very much a
presence in most Middle Eastern countries.

Radical Islam has one great strength: It is calling for a new
order. We, together with the Middle Eastern guardians of the existing
order, have very little to say in response. Bin Laden and others like
him are broadcasting a populist critique of local tyranny and its
relationship to the international political and economic system. The
Middle Eastern leaders and America have no answers to this critique of
tyranny. Middle Eastern states have significant powers of repression,
but they have no alternative vision to offer in place of the clearly
unacceptable status quo.

Q. What should secular and/or moderate leaders in the Arab world --
those on the other side of the civil war -- be doing at this moment to
advance their position?

In order to avert disaster, secular and moderate leaders need to
articulate an attractive vision of the future that can command the
loyalties of their public. Again, it's a very tall order. Such visions
do not issue directly out of a few minds sitting on top of a
repressive state. These visions rise out of a free cultural
debate. Such a debate has been long absent from the Middle East.

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