The end of the War on Islam

Why America's decade-and-a-half freakout over Islam is over

The “Muslim Ban”, one of the most odious legacies of the Trump administration, is gone. That’s a relief. But beyond simply expunging one more bigoted piece of Trumpian symbolism, the ban’s cancellation — and the lack of controversy around that cancellation — serves to remind us how much less anxious Americans have become about the religion of Islam in general.

As multiple Presidents took pains to reassure us, America never actually went to war with global Islam. But given the rhetoric gushing out from much of the American press and American society for a decade and a half, you could forgive someone for thinking we had. During the years between 9/11/2001 and the fall of ISIS in 2017, Islam was the chief bogeyman of conservative America and much of the foreign policy establishment. It wasn’t just conservatives who spilled a lot of ink over Islam either — the entire New Atheist movement basically broke with the Left over the issue. Anxieties about Islam were decidedly mainstream — the cover of TIME Magazine on June 30, 2003 read: “Should Christians convert Muslims?”.

Islamophobia and anxiety about Islamic radicalism featured prominently in the 2016 election season. Who can forget the spectacle of Trump trying to bully poor Hillary Clinton into repeating the catchphrase “radical Islamic terrorism”? Or the rash of anti-Muslim hate crimes (or hate crimes against non-Muslim South Asians stupidly mistaken for Muslims) that followed on the heels of Trump’s election? In 2017, a poll found that Americans approved, 53% to to 41%, of requiring Muslim immigrants to register with the federal government, and approved 48% to 42% of suspending immigration from “terror-prone regions”. In many ways, 2016 was the peak of American Islamophobia.

But what’s really weird is how quickly all of this seems to be receding into memory. Islamophobic attacks have fallen at a rapid clip since early 2017. A recent poll found that only 20% of Americans (and 34% of Republicans) now want to ban immigration from Muslim countries. Other polls have also found that anti-Muslim sentiment is now strongly unpopular in America. Islamophobia is far from dead, but it’s no longer widely accepted, and it no longer feels connected to a wider anxiety about geopolitical conflict.

Of course, for Muslim Americans (and for South Asian Americans in danger of being visually stereotyped as “Muslim”) the specter of Islamophobia, and of renewed clashes between America and Muslim countries, is still very clear and present. I am sure it will be decades at the very least before those worries recede. But I think it’s worth asking why the perception of a conflict between the U.S. and global Islam has receded. I see several reasons — some unambiguously positive, others more ominous.

The U.S. won the War on (Islamist) Terror

This is a thing that you used to get yelled at for saying in public — no one wanted to jinx it, or encourage complacency, or minimize the terror attacks that still do strike many parts of the world. But it has been true for a while:

  1. Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, and the senior al Qaeda leadership has pretty much all been killed or captured.

  2. Al-Qaeda has failed to launch an attack on U.S. soil since 2001.

  3. Attacks by al-Qaeda over the past decade have all or nearly all been the work of loosely affiliated regional groups like AQAP or Al-Shabaab that have sworn nominal allegiance to al-Qaeda.

  4. ISIS has lost all of its core territories in Iraq and Syria, and its founder and leader is dead.

  5. ISIS managed six small terror attacks in the U.S., with the only two fatal attacks being the Orlando and San Bernardino shootings. These attacks were “stochastic terrorism”, perpetrated by lone-wolf types who said nice things about ISIS but very possibly had other motives.

Of course no one knows the future, and some other dangerous Islamist group might emerge and start launching terror attacks, etc. I doubt it, for reasons I’ll explain later. But if so, the U.S. is well-equipped to stop it in its tracks.

The U.S. won the War on (Islamist) Terror the old-fashioned way: By being an effective state and outfighting the enemy. I know people don’t like hearing that the U.S. is an effective state, but it is. We rolled up terrorist financing networks, infiltrated and disrupted terrorist organizations online, and built a massive security state. Yes, we did some security theater — removing our shoes in the airport being the most ridiculous legacy — but we also did lots of very effective security stuff, like having the NSA spy on everyone. When offered an explicit choice between privacy rights and security, Americans chose the latter, as evidenced by the lack of enduring and transformative outrage over Ed Snowden’s revelations.

That was all the stuff we did to beat al-Qaeda and to make sure that no more Qaeda-like groups emerged. As for ISIS, we also bombed them and helped their enemies take away their territory. They fought hard, but were utterly overmatched.

Winning a War on Terror is not like winning a normal war. There is no surrender, no victory parade. The terrorist groups simply degrade or turn their attention elsewhere until we start noticing them less. Perhaps the true measure of victory is whether a blogger such as Yours Truly can write “we won the War on Terror” without provoking a massive backlash.

Of course, terrorism itself is a military tactic rather than a movement, so it will never be defeated; you might as well fight a War on Flanking Maneuvers. Right now, the terror threat in America has shifted; White supremacist terrorists now constitute a much larger source of death and destruction than Islamists. Presumably, the security state developed to fight the Islamists will now be turned against this new threat.

The Right found other people to worry about

Some of America’s 16-year panic over Islam was due to terror attacks, but some was due to the fact that the American Right simply panics about stuff. It is what they do. Communism, crime, rap lyrics, the War on Christmas, Dungeons and Dragons, video games — always just one thing after another. Some of the panics are much more justifiable than others, but the supply of panic is roughly fixed.

Readers on the Right are not going to like hearing this, but some portion of the panic over Islam was not really about terror attacks, but a displaced fear of the demographic and cultural changes that were taking place in America in the 2000s and early 2010s. The conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was a Muslim was obviously just a stand-in for the fact that he was part African. The fear of Sharia Law probably had something to do with the decline of Christianity in the U.S. The years of 2001-2016 were years of high immigration and rapid demographic change, and many people on the Right were afraid of that, and it was easy to associate those things with a “foreign”-feeling religion like Islam, especially given the backdrop of the War on Terror.

But the Trump Era changed this in two ways. First of all, it gave people on the Right permission to express explicit worries about one of the things they were really scared of — immigration. Instead of using the foreign-seeming-ness of Islam as a proxy, conservatives were free to point the finger at actual foreigners. Second, the Trump Era saw the reignition of America’s biggest and most fundamental and most divisive social conflict — the Black-White Conflict. Given a choice to fight about the Black-White Conflict vs. anything else, Americans will choose the former. With Antifa and BLM to worry about, who needs ISIS?

This change will be durable, I think. The GOP has decisively shifted away from the party of Bush to the party of Trump, and Trumpism has decisively shifted away from attacking Islam to attacking BLM, wokeness, Antifa, anarchism, rioters, etc. etc.

ISIS discredited jihadism

The War on Islam isn’t ending simply for America-specific reasons. Big important stuff has also happened within the world of Islam! I assume there have been lots of cultural changes in Muslim countries since 2001, and those are probably important, but I’ll just focus on one thing I do know something about: ISIS discrediting jihadism.

Al Qaeda attacked plenty of other Muslims, but their biggest and most spectacular attacks were against America — the “far enemy”, as they called us at the time, to contrast us with the “near enemy” of Muslim regimes they didn’t like. But ISIS started off killing and oppressing Muslims in the Middle East, and despite a few small scattered terror attacks in Europe and the U.S., they never really lost that local focus. That didn’t exactly endear them to their fellow Muslims.

In addition, ISIS’ ideology and behavior were so obviously retrograde and dead-end that one look at what they were doing would turn off nearly anyone. They burned some guy alive on video. They brutally oppressed the areas under their military control. They treated their international recruits like servants. They advanced a version of Islam so hilariously medieval that pretty much every important Islamic cleric denounced them. In a word, they sucked.

Also, they got beat. They clearly didn’t have the military strength to actually establish a caliphate, or create a new country, or do much of anything really. Almost nobody likes an insane totalitarian medievalist, but absolutely no one likes a totalitarian medievalist loser.

All this explains why essentially no one in the Muslim world actually liked ISIS:

And it’s not just that they quietly disapproved of ISIS. Muslims viewed fighting ISIS as a top policy priority. And they followed through with this — it was Muslim Iraqis and Kurds and Syrians who defeated ISIS in its original territory, and Muslims elsewhere who are fighting ISIS’ remnant satellite organizations now.

Remember how in the wake of 9/11, commentators used to always demand that moderate Muslims condemn jihadists? Well, folks, they did one better — they shot the jihadists.

The Middle Eastern Stately Quadrille

Which brings me to the political changes in the Middle East. Here, be warned, I’m on far shakier ground than in the previous sections, since I am neither a historian nor an expert on conflict and international affairs.

In 2019 I wrote a blog post making a loose analogy between the Middle East’s modern conflicts and the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe. If the protracted conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East was analogous to the Thirty Years’ War — a region-wide sectarian conflict that morphed into a state conflict and ultimately helped hasten the separation of church and state — then the current period seems more analogous to what came after the Thirty Years’ War.

What came after the Thirty Years’ War in Europe was about 150 years of limited conflicts between monarchies, mostly over territory, economics, and bragging rights, fought with small professional armies rather than the mix of mercenaries and zealots that had dominated before. These included, but were by no means limited to, the War of the League of Augsburg, the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Great Northern War, the War of the Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years’ War. During this period, the European great powers — England, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia — shifted alliances fairly frequently, in a process known as the “stately quadrille”.

In recent years, the Sunni-Shia conflicts of the Middle East seem to have largely given away to a series of proxy wars between at least 4 regional great powers — Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. I wrote a Twitter thread about this in October 2020. To recap:

  • The Syrian Civil War is/was pretty much a proxy war between Turkey and Russia/Iran.

  • The Libyan Civil War is a proxy war between Turkey and Syria on one side, and Egypt, UAE, Sudan, and Russia on the other side.

  • The Yemeni Civil War is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a bunch of other random countries declaring their support for one side or another.

  • The Armenia-Azerbaijan War had Turkey backing Azerbaijan, with Russia ultimately jumping in to stop the conflict.

These conflicts seem likely to do three things:

  1. They will absorb the attention of Middle Easterners who want to fight for some cause.

  2. They will shift the locus of anger and passion in the Middle East away from religious issues and toward political/national issues.

But most importantly:

  1. They will de-emphasize the role of America in Middle Eastern conflicts and allow/encourage the U.S. to disengage from the region.

Already, Biden has announced that he will end support for the Saudi war in Yemen. In general, the U.S. is pivoting to Asia very strongly, and has zero appetite for further conflicts in the Middle East. That will mean less attention focused on the U.S in that region, and fewer angry young people who decide that America is the problem and needs to be attacked.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to other regions like Afghanistan and North Africa. But I predict that a shift toward secular conflict in the Middle East, and a withdrawal of the United States from an active military role in the region, will do much to prevent the re-emergence of the “U.S. War on Islam” trope.

The War on Islam shifts elsewhere

Of course, this whole post has been about the U.S. and its relationship to Islam. The rest of the world is another matter. Europe is still having issues. More ominously, the world’s two biggest countries have decided to crack down harshly on their Muslim minorities. China has established an extensive and reportedly quite brutal system of “reeducation camps” for its Muslim Uighur minority, in which a large part of the “reeducation” is forcing people to renounce Islam. India’s current Hindu-nationalist government, meanwhile, has implemented a law that threatens to strip many Muslim Indians of citizenship, threatened to create its own system of concentration camps, and generally encouraged random anti-Muslim violence.

In other words, the War on Islam has mainly just shifted locations. And it’s now shifting to countries with fewer effective checks and balances on state oppression of minority religions. That is an ill omen indeed.

So we shouldn’t be cheering in the streets and throwing victory parades over the fact that America no longer seems to be in conflict with global Islam. We can breathe a small sigh of relief, but only a selfish one.