July 11, 2006
Allah Will Know His Own: On Religious War, Part 1By J.R. Dunn
On the morning May 20, 1631, the army of the Habsburg Holy League, commanded by Count Tilly and Graf Pappenheim, breached the works of the city of Magdeburg. Desperate last—ditch sorties by the defenders were swept aside, and two of the city's gates were opened to the main body of the imperial army.
It had been a long siege, lasting over six months, and two previous assaults on the 17th and 18th had been repulsed with heavy losses, so the troops were ready for blood. Apart from Germans, the army consisted of Walloon and Croat mercenaries who had signed up for thrills and loot. The army was predominantly Catholic, viewing the Protestant citizens as heretics and schismatics who deserved whatever they got. Tilly saw no need to hold them back:
Those words triggered a slaughter for which, J.C.F. von Schiller wrote: '...history has no language —— poetry no pencil.' Most of the townspeople were hiding in their homes. The troops began hauling them out, killing anyone who hesitated. Tilly soon lost all control:
Tilly soon had second thoughts and with the aid of Pappenheim began moving against his own men in an effort to end the massacre. It was too late. Kicked up by a brisk wind, fires set during the assault spread wildly and soon engulfed the town. Frenzied looting and killing continued amid the flames, with soldiers dying of heat and smoke as they hacked at their victims. At last the troops retreated beyond the city walls, even then ambushing citizens attempting to escape. When the flames died down, the troops returned to their looting, going so far as to enter buildings still ablaze. The sack continued for another three days. When Tilly reentered the city, it was to find
Tilly informed the emperor 'that no such conquest had been made since the destruction of Troy and Jerusalem.' After distributing bread to the few hundred survivors, he ordered a solemn high mass performed in the cathedral, one of the few buildings that remained standing.
That is the face of religious war. That is the inevitable end result of coupling faith with aggression.
The Thirty Years' War, of which the sack of Magdeburg is the centerpiece, was the last major religious conflict in Europe. It was also the worst.
The war began in 1618 when a few obstreperous citizens of Prague tossed two imperial representatives and their secretary out of an eight—story window in defiance of the Habsburgs, an event immortalized as the 'Defenestration of Prague.' (All three survived after landing in a large dunghill. That was the last humorous or harmless event in that part of Europe for some time to come.)
Bohemia declared itself free of the empire and appointed its own king. The incoming Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, an easygoing, conscientious, and extremely pious monarch, decided to take the Bohemian rebels in hand. With the aid of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, founder of the Catholic League, he retook Bohemia in short order.
But rather than leave well enough alone, he immediately and brutally began reimposing Catholicism on the reconquered provinces. (Much of this was in revenge for the treatment the Protestant Bohemians had meted out to local Catholics.) The Protestant Union, an association of German princes bound together for mutual defense, called for aid from other Protestant states. At first, no one responded. But after several years of skirmishing in the Low Countries, Denmark entered the war in 1625, and Europe descended into a maelstrom that lasted the better part of a quarter century.
The Thirty Years' War was the most destructive conflict in Europe prior to the modern era. Atrocity and massacre became standard methods of warfare. No war leader was guiltless, not even the able Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Most of the troops were mercenaries, and payment was slow and irregular, encouraging them to loot the peasants and townspeople. In short order a completely distinct subterranean war was being fought between the populace and the army, with individuals and small groups on both sides subject to ambush and murder without warning.
The conflict took on the aspect of a war of extermination fairly early.
Magdeburg was simply one of the worst of many such massacres. The Swedes alone destroyed over 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns across Germany, amounting to nearly a third of the settlements in the country. Even worse occurred at the hands of commanders like Tilly and the psychopathic Albrecht von Wallenstein.
With destruction came famine and plague. Epidemics broke out in no less than seven years of the war period, beginning in 1624. Disease spread like wildfire among people with immune systems already compromised by starvation. Between 1634 and 1639, plague was endemic throughout Germany. The population of the empire as a whole dropped from about 21,000,000 to 13,500,000. Only 300,000 died in battle.
Germany suffered the worst —— Lower Saxony's population dropped by 10%, the population of Pomerania by a full half. Historians estimate that urban areas suffered a 33% population loss. In rural districts this reached as high as 40%. Some regions of the country required two centuries to recover. Germany itself remained disunified until the 1870s. Speculation exists that the cultural scars lasted even longer, dictating some aspects of German behavior up until WW II.
That's the full portrait of religious war, its course, its results, and its costs. Numerous others have occurred throughout history: the Albigensian Crusades in Provence in the early to mid 13th century, French Wars of Religion of the late 16th century, the Spanish Reconquista, which lasted nearly eight centuries, from 722 to 1492. Other more recent conflicts have also had religious aspects, including World War II and several of the conflicts comprising the Cold War. National enshrining of ideology in the place of religion (Nazism in Germany, State Shinto in post—Meiji Japan, Communism in the USSR and its 'liberated' clients) often meant that modern warfare took on many of the characteristics of earlier religious wars.
What are these characteristics? Religious wars are bloody and savage beyond any rational purpose. Atrocities tend to take the place of tactics — anyone searching for evidence of the twistedness of human nature need look no further. Overlaying a template of supernatural good and evil over mere human conflict leads to complete dehumanization of the enemy beyond anything that occurs in normal warfare. During the Albigensian Crusades, Simon de Montfort ordered the slaughter of an entire town, including friendly Catholics, with that most cynical of all military phrases, 'Slay them all — the Lord will know his own.'
The result often takes on the character of genocide. No serious military thinker excuses such brutality. In fact, the two greatest explicitly forbid it. 'It is better,' said Sun Tzu, 'to capture an enemy's city than destroy it.' In Clausewitz, the idea is implicit in his often—misquoted dictum, 'War is policy carried out with the addition of other means.' War must be waged in favor of limited policy aims. Questions of ultimate good and evil have no place in human warfare, and can only lead to the 'absolute war' that Clausewitz saw foreshadowed in the Napoleonic wars.
In large part because of this characteristic brutality, religious wars often fail in their aims. They tend to end through exhaustion, to the benefit of neither side. The Thirty Years' War, started by the Habsburgs to regain a rebellious province, ended with permanent eclipse of Habsburg power and the decline of the Holy Roman Empire. (The imperium limped on for another century and a half before being euthanised by Napoleon.) The sole beneficiary was France, which manipulated all sides to its own advantage. Some things never change.
Religious war has again become a matter of urgency in light of the War on Terror. The Jihadis transparently view their campaign as religious in nature, a blatant attempt to impose their reactionary interpretation of Islam on the Muslim umma and the world beyond, their ultimate goal a universal theocratic state based on a perverse image of the original Muslim caliphate. The rhetoric of religious war has begun to seep into Western discourse as well, in large part offhandedly, without much in the way of thought or analysis. It couldn't happen otherwise —— the simplest analysis in truth tells us that religious war is a recipe for failure, something we don't need, don't want, and should go to considerable lengths to avoid.
The Jihadis (Al—Queda and its international offshoots and collaborators) exist for religious conflict. Salafism, the cult form of Islam practiced by the Islamists, is as much an ideology of aggression as Nazism and Communism. It was designed as such: its two major figures, Maulana Mahdoudi and Said Qutb, effectively reconstructed Islam by throwing out every element not related to Jihad, the concept of holy war, and rechanneling the remainder to express pure hostility against anyone not a follower of their interpretation of the Koran.
This means not only Christians, not only seculars, not only Westerners, but any unenlightened Muslim. Shi'ites, Obadis, Sufis, even most brands of Sunni are enemies and potential victims. Salafism effectively transforms the entire earth into Dar al—Harb, the 'House of the Sword' in which unlimited warfare is permitted. Christianity is overtly a religion of mercy — a faith whose God deliberately sacrificed Himself out of pity for human suffering can be viewed in no other way.
Christians needed to compartmentalize the basic teachings of their faith in order to embark on religious warfare. Muslims do not, a fact that Salafism takes possession of and amplifies until it drowns out all other messages emerging from the Koran. Salafism is the preeminent ideology of religious warfare, in which all the elements of belief have become inseparable from malice, from murder, from genocide.
Few in the West have any clear understanding of Salafism. As in much else, Western liberals have no clue. Their own religious impulses deadened to the level of New Age trivia or a vague belief in good works, they have no way of grasping the nature of an enemy driven by religious mania. Their response is a combination of earnest plans having no relation to actual events (Peter Beinart's book The Good Fight: Why Liberals———and Only Liberals———Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again is only the latest example) and frivolous challenges to whatever aspects of the current campaign arouse their displeasure. They have no more idea of what is facing them than a fish does of a net.
Conservatives have some grasp of religious fanaticism. But they still fall short of recognizing the hold that Salafist Islam has over its adherents. The current administration hit early on a winning formula — roll up domestic terror networks, continue hunting the terrorists overseas, encourage change in the Muslim world to deprive the Islamists of future support. It has worked very nicely, scattering the Jihadis and depriving them of any domestic success for five years. But we must never underestimate these people. The Jihadi views these events as the tribulations that a true believer must endure before deliverance, and one possible method of deliverance is to instigate universal jihad — goad the Muslim umma to open defiance of the West. As it stands, this possibility, to adapt Donald Rumsfeld's terminology, is an unknown unknown. It must be, at the very least, converted to a known unknown.
There's a peculiarity inherent in Jihadi attacks on the West that has never been adequately explained. They seem almost designed to attract attention and create outrage as much as anything else. Isolated, spectacular events, usually with atrocious aspects, carried out in areas with sure media coverage, often capital cities. They're never part of a series (9/11 being a partial, and unique, exception), never backed up, never appear to be an element in a planned campaign. No overarching strategy has ever been apparent. New York '93, the Cole attack, 9/11, Bali, Madrid, London.... Add to these the Iraq attacks, beheadings, torture murders, deliberate strikes against meliorative 'transnational' figures such a UN officials, NGO personnel, and media figures, the very people viewed as potential allies or resources by conventional insurgents. None of this is random; there's a very strong sense of purpose apparent. And what could that purpose be? Spectacle, atrocity, elimination of middlemen....
If I were a religious fanatic, that's what I'd do if I wanted to provoke reprisal strikes. Strikes carried out on the 'eye for an eye' principle, for no purpose beyond satisfying rage, that would leave the bodies piled high. Strikes that could easily be portrayed as attacks on the Muslim umma at large.
The Jihadis were very likely guilty of mirror—imaging — judging an opponent's possible responses by what they themselves would do in the same situation. This marks a serious misunderstanding of the Western mindset. The modern temperament is not served by ritual, but by results. The swift campaign against the Taliban, and the not—so—swift campaign to unseat and capture Saddam Hussein, were military efforts typical of contemporary military thinking — overwhelming force precisely applied to destroy enemy capabilities with a minimum of civilian, and even military casualties.
Far from inflaming the Muslim world, these campaigns impressed many Muslims favorably, with even Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese Druse leader notorious for his anti—Americanism, giving credit to the U.S. Our greatest victory against terror so far may be one we are not yet in a position to grasp — cheating the Jihadis of a chance to trigger a sectarian war.
Many of the events since that time — the destruction of the Askiriya mosque, the assassination of Iraqi Shi'ite leaders, mass beheadings, the Jordan hotel attack — can also be understood in this context. A sectarian conflict in Iraq is one that could easily be ramped up to open religious warfare on an international level. The Jihadis have not abandoned their goal of all—out religious conflict. They haven't abandoned it because, short of the actual establishment of a Salafist caliphate, it is the most complete possible victory they can imagine.
Arousing the Muslim umma — or even a substantial portion of it — to jihad would transfigure the Islamist situation. At the moment, they are isolated and divided, confined to a few small backwoods regions the likes of Waziristan. Their sole recent 'victory' is the dubious conquest of the cesspool city of Mogadishu. Their recent offensive operations have uniformly met with disaster. Effective Western counterintelligence programs have resulted in the premature introduction of an untried and seriously flawed 'distributed network' strategy, very likely too complex for the misfits they have attracted as foot soldiers.
An active jihad would immediately turn things around for them. Vast areas of the Middle East and Eurasia would be open for exploitation. A new and inexhaustible pool of recruits, of all levels of society, education, and intelligence, would become available. New sources of financing, weaponry, supplies, and logistical support would appear. No longer outlaws, the Jihadis would sit among the councils of government as co—equals or even leaders. Salafism would have a good chance at becoming the standard mode of Islamic belief. An enormous stride toward the new caliphate would have been taken.
The outlook for the West would turn grim to a similar degree. The Middle East, including Afghanistan, would no longer be a tenable forward area of operations. American and Coalition casualties would skyrocket. The sacrifices made to create stable Muslim democracies would go up in smoke. Eventual withdrawal would be inevitable. With that, friendly Arab governments would simply be swallowed.
The fate of Israel will be on the block. Europe would effectively neutralized, only one step above dhimmitude. The Jihadis could then look forward to alliances with various outlaw states, including Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, which would allow them easy access to the continental United States with weapons at last equal to their rhetoric.
We no longer fight with arquebuses and halberds. With the full range of modern weaponry deployed against the West and millions of potential Jihadis willing to use them, many of the nightmare scenarios rampant in the days following 9/11 would be given flesh. The loss of the first city or neighborhood to WMDs would be followed by the establishment of a security—based society the like of which the United States has never seen. This would include a national police force, detention camps, forced repatriation, constant surveillance, the entire totalitarian gamut. The New York Times can be depended on to deplore it, if The New York Times is anywhere to be found.
Instead of a relatively short war (by such standards) — twenty—five to thirty years of fire—brigade actions confronting and destroying a slowly—diminishing number of Jihadi networks, we would be looking forward to a war of two hundred years or more. Not quite a clash of civilizations, since Salafism can never comprise a civilization any more than the Manson commune could. But a long, grinding conflict with results as impossible to foresee as they were for Ferdinand II. Conquering and occupying the United States is a physical impossibility. But there are other degrees of catastrophe. Recall that such conflicts often end in truces of exhaustion, with both sides no more than societal ghosts of what they once were.
That's the real danger. Because whatever emerges from the other side of that gauntlet will not be anything we recognize. The America that survives a religious war with Islam will be neither democratic, nor Christian, nor free, but something else, something hard, cold and strange. Recall the contention, unproven and unprovable, that the flames of Magdeberg were reflected by the flames of Auschwitz. If the Founders were to return to today's America, they would above all be surprised, but I think generally pleased at what they found. It is highly unlikely that anyone would be pleased at a post—jihad America.
So it follows that religious war is something to avoid. And the question arises as to why so little is being done to accomplish this. The Muslim umma is to some extent inoculated against religious extremism, as they are any form of social change. Islamic extremism is commonly directed as much against other Muslims as it is kaffirs.
Since the days of the Kharijites, extremists have brought little more than misery and horror, and Islam is a faith of long memories. But Islam is also a faith in which the ethic of bloodshed possesses deep roots. Jihad, the concept of sacralized struggle, is a basic element of the creed, sanctified by the words of Mohammed himself. This gives the Jihadis an unusually firm basis on which to build.
There have been uncomfortable signs within the umma in recent days: a burgeoning increase in anti—Americanism, a small but measurable rise in Al—Queda recruitments, the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll that reveal disturbingly high levels of paranoia, alienation, and support for terrorism among many Muslim populations.
While the level of commitment to Jihadism remains minimal, a billion—plus people is a large reservoir. Converting even a small percentage of that number to the Salafist agenda would be catastrophic. Religious war provides a potential way out for the Jihadis. It's an exit that needs to be blocked.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.