An invading army is marching toward Baghdad—again. The last time infidels conquered the City of Peace was in 1258, when the Mongol horde, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu, defeated the Arab Abbasid caliphate that had ruled for more than five centuries. And if the ripple effects of that episode through Islam’s history are any guide, the latest invasion of Iraq will unleash a new cycle of hatred—unless the United States can find ways to bolster the credibility of moderate Islamic thinkers.
Saddam Hussein, who has led Iraq’s Baathist socialist regime for nearly 25 years, is no caliph. The U.S. military has come as self-declared liberators, not as conquerors. Yet the U.S. invasion of Iraq resonates strongly with fundamentalist Muslims because they see Saddam’s downfall—and the broader humiliation of the Arab world at the hands of the latter-day Mongols—as righteous punishment. Since the 13th century, Islamic theologians have argued that military defeat at the hands of unbelievers results when Muslims embrace pluralism and worldly knowledge. The story is drilled into Muslim children from Morocco to Indonesia: nearly 2 million people put to the sword; the caliph trampled to death; and the destruction of the great library, the House of Wisdom. The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918 for the same reason Muslims lost Baghdad in 1258: The rulers and their people had gone soft, approaching religion with tolerance and accommodation rather than viewing civilization as divided between Islam and infidels.
The U.S.-led invasion of secular Iraq is the ultimate vindication of this worldview, the capstone of a series of modern Muslim defeats that began with the first Gulf War and continued through the next decade with the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing campaigns against Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the repression of Islamist groups in Algeria and Egypt, Russia’s brutal military campaign against Chechen separatists, and the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamists see these cataclysmic events as opportunities to purify Muslim souls and to prepare for an ideological battle with the West.
Fundamentalists believe they have every reason to anticipate victory in this battle, because the story of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad didn’t end in 1258. The Egyptian Mamluks were able to halt the tide of Mongol victories in the Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine two years later. In less than a century, the Mongol conquerors themselves converted to Islam, and Islamic power resurged in Turkey and India after being dislodged from the Arabian heartland. The lesson, according to Islamists, is that even the defeat of Muslims has a place in God’s scheme for Islam’s eventual supremacy in the world.
In addition to the historical narrative, Muslim fundamentalists also have prophecies about the apocalypse attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to buttress their cause. These signs are described in hadith, the sayings of Mohammed passed down through oral tradition before being recorded at least 100 years after his death. One hadith that has currently captured the attention of fundamentalists is “The hour [of the world’s end] shall not occur until the Euphrates will disclose a mountain of gold over which people will fight.” The “mountain of gold” could be a metaphor for a valuable natural resource such as oil, and “the Euphrates” may refer to Iraq, where the river flows. Just as some Christian fundamentalists saw the creation of the state of Israel as fulfillment of biblical prophecy heralding the Day of Judgment, so too will some Muslim fundamentalists interpret the U.S. occupation of Iraq as setting the stage for the final battle between good, led by Mahdi (the rightly guided), and evil, represented by Dajjal (the deceiver).
Armed with prophecy and history, Islamist movements see the humiliation of fellow believers as an opportunity for mobilizing and recruiting dedicated followers. Muslims have often resorted to asymmetric warfare in the aftermath of military defeat. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his Fatah movement captured the imagination of young Palestinians only after Arabs lost the Six-Day War and East Jerusalem in 1967. Islamic militancy in Kashmir can be traced to India’s military victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Revenge, rather than willingness to compromise or submit to the victors, is the traditional response of theologically inclined Muslims to the defeat of Muslim armies. And for the Islamists, this battle has no front line and is not limited to a few years, or even decades. They think in terms of conflict spread over generations. A call for jihad against British rule in India, for example, resulted in an underground movement that lasted from 1830 to the 1870s, with remnants periodically surfacing well into the 20th century.
This fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has failed to penetrate the thinking of most Muslims, especially in recent times. But religious hard-liners can drive the political agenda in Muslim countries, just as Christian and Jewish fundamentalists have become a force to reckon with in secular nations such as the United States. And with over 1 billion Muslims around the globe, the swelling of the fundamentalist ranks poses serious problems for the West. If only 1 percent of the world’s Muslims accept uncompromising theology, and 10 percent of that 1 percent decide to commit themselves to a radical agenda, the recruitment pool for al Qaeda comes to 1 million.
Suspicions about Western intentions date back to the British, who came as friends during World War I and ended up colonizing and dividing Arab lands. Thus, the Americans face the difficult task of overcoming Muslim mistrust. The United States must avoid any impulse to act as an imperial power, dictating its superior ways to “less civilized” peoples. It should be prepared to accept Islamic pride and Arab nationalism as factors in the region’s politics, instead of backing narrowly based elites to do its bidding. Patient engagement, rather than the flaunting of military and financial power, should characterize this new phase of U.S. intervention in the heart of the Islamic world.
If U.S. President George W. Bush’s promises of democracy in Iraq and a Palestinian state are not kept and if the United States fails to demand reforms in countries ruled by authoritarian allies, the umma (community of believers) would have new reasons to distrust and hate. The dream of helping Muslims overcome their fear of modernity will then remain unfulfilled. And the world will continue to confront new jihads.
Originally appeared in Foreign Policy, May/June 2003