The idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by extremists” is a dangerous fantasy.”
In his brilliant attack on religion (“The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason,” W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2004), Sam Harris presents a view of Islam that suggests (if it doesn’t predict) that the radicalism of ISIS and Al Qaeda is representative of a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion. And that interpretation is epitomized in suicide bombings and the wanton destruction of as many humans (whether of the faith or not) as possible.
Harris portrays Islamic fundamentalism as unique among the organized religions in that it promotes intolerance and the belief that paradise is guaranteed to those who die in defense of the religion. Harris views suicide bombings as a manifestation of such beliefs and further postulates that Islamic fundamentalism would readily engage in mass killings at the highest possible level were the means available. The 9/11 attacks are small potatoes from his perspective of what an Islamic group like ISIS would do if it had the means.
My purpose in leading with Harris’s views is not to argue whether his characterization of Islam is correct. Rather, I want to explore the ramifications of his views if he is correct. For if he is correct, then the use of weapons of mass destruction by a group like ISIS would be a real threat to the civilized world. (I assume for purposes of this article that there is universal agreement that the kind of terrorism ISIS and al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups engage in is hostile to the interests of civilized society.)
Let’s assume, just to play out the potential threat, that ISIS somehow secures a nuclear bomb capability and that it also attains the means to use that capability. Let’s further assume that, like the 9/11 attacks, the explosion of a nuclear bomb delivered by ISIS is largely successful (i.e., the bomb destroys a major city, immediately killing 20 million people, with another 40 million deaths from the after-effects in the months and years that follow). And just to drive the point of my hypothetical, let’s assume the attack is on a major U.S. city (maybe New York).
Now, let’s consider the possible responses by the United States. Assume, as in the 9/11 attacks, that our intelligence agencies quickly identify the responsible group and that the ISIS caliphate (the Islamic State) then controls much of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Egypt. (I’ll only insert here that such a geographic map would be part of the goals ISIS has, since establishment of a caliphate is clearly mandated by their dogma.) And just to complicate the picture (not unrealistically in my view), let’s further assume that ISIS has by this point de-centralized its terrorist operations so that its missile capability is spread amongst any number of heavily populated metropolitan areas within the geographic region it controls.
Finally, let’s assume that the U.S. political landscape is largely the same (from an ideological perspective). The nation is divided between hawks and doves, between those who view Islam as a dangerous religion and those who view it as a noble religion that has been hijacked, between those who regard acts of terror as acts of war and those who view them as criminal acts, and between those who believe ISIS must be defeated militarily and those who believe every military attack on ISIS and the population base it controls just creates more ISIS recruits and further cements the call to arms that it uses to secure more support from Islamic fundamentalists.
My guess is that, irrespective of the actual identity of the U.S. president at that time, he or she would immediately seek and secure a Congressional declaration of war on the Islamic State. That part would be easy. The harder decision would be whether to send in hundreds of thousands of ground troops coupled with “shock and awe” conventional bombing or to respond with our own nuclear attack. The nuclear option would wipe out much of the Middle East (it would have to in order to be effective). That would, perforce, include Israel, it being just a tiny island in the midst of my hypothetical ISIS land mass.
The “softer” response would leave the country open to further nuclear attacks at worst or to years of a “quagmire” of the likes of Afghanistan or Vietnam. It would lead to divisions in the country not unlike those experienced in both of those wars and would potentially end no less successfully than did those.
The nuclear response would change the face of the world forever, leaving much of the Middle East in ruins (beyond ruins, really; today’s nuclear bombs are thousands of times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It would also mark the United States as the biggest mass murderer in the history of the human race. (Some would say it already holds that ignominious distinction from the number of non-combatants killed in all previous wars – especially the destruction of much of Japan, even apart from the two atomic bombs, in the aerial assaults at the end of World War II.)
Neither of these options leads to a happy conclusion. Indeed, no option since 9/11 has really led to a happy conclusion. We are still at war with the ideology that was represented in those attacks. We may feel safer, what with all the TSA airport agents and the loss of privacy in our personal lives via the Patriot Act and enhanced government electronic surveillance. But we really aren’t safe, nor can we ever truly be safe, if the Harris perspective is accurate.
Islamic fundamentalism appears to be more virulent than ever. All of the military and para-military and diplomatic strategy employed in the last fifteen years have only enhanced its appeal for many Muslims. The promise of paradise in the after-life continues to pull in more recruits. ISIS may be transitory, but the ideology isn’t.
Sam Harris may be wrong about Islam. But does anyone doubt what ISIS would do if it could?