US vs. Islamic State: Don’t out-zealot the zealots

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivers a sermon at a mosque in Iraq in this image posted on a militant website in July.
Associated press
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivers a sermon at a mosque in Iraq in this image posted on a militant website in July.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group now calling itself the Islamic State, recently threw down the gauntlet at the United States, intending to malign America as what he called the “defender of the cross.” He promised “soon enough . . . direct confrontation.” Not long after, President Obama took him up on it. Islamic State savagery has been on full display in Iraq, and Obama’s bold, if initially limited, intervention in behalf of Yazidi refugees and other vulnerable civilians at Mount Sinjar marks only a first stage of what will surely be a long struggle. How that struggle is defined will be crucially important going forward.

Baghdadi’s invoking of the cross, of course, echoes the crusader references that have been a staple of contemporary jihadist polemics, as if this contest has its roots in the 11th century. In Arabic, the word crusade is rendered as “war of the cross,” with deadly implications that the United States came slowly to appreciate after George W. Bush offhandedly defined his response to 9/11 as “this crusade, this war on terrorism.” With little or no idea of what it was getting into, Washington found itself in a full-blown religious war — attempting to out-zealot the zealots. The misbegotten US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan both served as massive recruiting festivals for self-anointed defenders of a brutal god.

But religion is not, and never was, the issue here. Islamic State barbarism explicitly targets religiously defined enemies — Christians, the quasi-Islamic Yazidis, Shiite apostates — but that is no reason for the United States to be confused again about its own purposes. The rescue of besieged innocents presents a demand to conscience without regard for the god they worship. Worship has nothing to do with it. Neither does God.


If Iraq is to find peace, and if the broader Middle East is to pull back from the brink of catastrophe, the furious avidity of Islamic State must be checked. That’s clear. But our purpose must be to stop fanatic zealotry, not to match it. That means a defense of values rooted not in “the cross,” as Baghdadi imagines, but in the precious secular principles of human dignity, equality, and the right of others to be others. The era of crusading religious violence really ended in the West with the Enlightenment, which called into question every absolute claim. A politics of checks and balances emerged. A culture of self-criticism was born.

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Zealots are incapable of the self-critical second thought, and that defines the mistake that George Bush, Dick Cheney, and their supporters in Congress made at the outset of this war. Convinced of their own divine sanction — “God is not neutral,” Bush declared — they matched the blind, bloody puritanism of Al Qaeda with an unquestioning absolutism of their own. Today, John McCain is a living relic of that self-sanctified mind-set. He, ever innocent, would have us meet Baghdadi’s militant fervor with an escalated martial fervor of our own.

President Obama operates out of very different instincts. He is patently ambivalent about the use of military force, and openly skeptical that American power by itself can draw order out of chaos. By the orthodoxies of national security doctrine, the president is an apostate. Yet his refusal to ignore the Islamic State rampage against the Yazidis amounted to an acknowledgment that the these devils were set loose by the American intervention in the first place. That put a unique burden of moral responsibility on this nation’s shoulders. The United States did not invent Baghdadi’s murderous jihadism, but we empowered it. Even the barest backward glance made clear that the Yazidis were endangered by what we had done. We owed them a chance to live, and gave it to them.

Obama’s decision to continue the air strikes after the siege was over, though, is something else: a too familiar replay. After all the mayhem caused by open-ended US bombing campaigns, a self-critical spirit means refusing to keep meeting bloody zealotry on the ground with bloody zealotry from the air — lightning bolts of American hubris unleashed yet again. Aware that no nation is ordained by God, that every nation’s capacity for mistakes is large, and that violence brings its own unstoppable dynamic, we must rededicate ourselves to international structures of democratic politics as the alternative to brute force. That faith — not the cross, and not bombing, either — is the faith America must defend.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.