To give a simple face to complex hostile movements constructed by a radical vision of Islam, America needed, over the past thirty years, to build several public enemies number one. Through the media, they constructed small Hitlers – who obviously did not have sufficient power.
First there was Mohamed Farah Aïdid in Somalia, then Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and finally Aboubacar al-Baghdadi in Mesopotamia. These three Sunni Muslims undoubtedly had American blood on their hands. They are now dead.
For the last two, the armed revenge of the United States has given rise to a whole media theatre at the White House. Trump’s staging on October 27 merely imitated Obama’s on May 2, 2011.
The media hype of the enemy turns out to be a double error: it stimulates followers in a politically frustrated Muslim youth; it leads Western public opinion to believe that it is enough to behead a symbolic figurehead to make a whole movement disappear from the face of the earth.
If one were to be taken in by the media circus orchestrated by the American executive, one could reasonably form the impression that intolerant Islamists are simply running from one defeat to the next. Defeat in the fall of Kabul and the flight of the Taliban on 13 November 2001, defeat in the capture of Baghdad on 9 April 2003, defeat in the execution of Bin Laden on 1 May 2011, defeat in the liberation of Mosul on 9 July 2017, defeat in the death of the “Caliph Ibrahim” of the Islamic state on 26 October 2019.
The reality is very different. Despite this string of defeats that garner so much media coverage, these Islamists are making steady progress in the Arab-Muslim world.
Despite being motivated by the desire to improve people’s lives by bringing them democracy and justice, the costly American military interventions in the Islamic world – in Somalia (January 1993), in Afghanistan (October 2001), in Iraq (March 2003), in Libya (March 2011, in support of France and the United Kingdom) – have failed to improve the situation of the populations in those countries in any meaningful way.
Nor have they succeeded in discouraging the jihadist vocations of a youth who, tired of the government of men, naively believes that the application of the “law of God” (the sharia) is likely to solve all of the problems facing Eastern societies.
Deprived of colonial know-how and only willing to do nation building on the cheap, Westerners are now helpless in the land of Islam.
After the Second World War, the West understood that it was futile to claim to govern the whole world, and that the time was ripe for decolonisation. So it decolonised.
But it then followed the American neo-conservative movement in believing that it had a sacred duty to bring the benefits of Western liberal values to these newly independent peoples.
The West has tried to do so sincerely, even sacrificing its own soldiers in pursuit of this noble cause. But seriously underestimated was the entrenchment of traditional Islam, where politics cannot be separated from religion, in the societies the West was entering.
Since Westerners considered their political system to be the best in the world, they thought that the reconquered peoples would welcome it with enthusiasm. They failed to understand that few people accept without hesitation the idea that foreigners, even those armed with the best intentions, can simply walk in and impose their own political system upon them.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have resumed all their campaigns. In Mesopotamia, Islamist ideology is far from being near all, especially since it is not really pursued by a powerful Turkish neighbour that is led by a Muslim Brother. In Somalia, the Islamist “chebab” refuse to admit defeat. In Libya and the Sahel, Islamist Katibas are constantly getting richer thanks to human trafficking.
The great Western mistake was to believe, naively, that they could play a role in the necessary reform of Islam. Impatiently, they even used their military superiority to do so, before falling into the trap of asymmetric warfare. Instead of marching into Iraq, Tony Blair would have done better to tame his “Londonistan”.
Westerners mistakenly believe that they can play any role in the reform of Muslim societies. But this can only come from Muslims themselves when they realise that the “government of God” that they prefer to that of men only leads to dead ends.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.