The murders of American diplomatic and military personnel in Libya underscore the consequences of America’s longstanding failure to uphold the rights of Americans to live and speak their minds in the face of the Islamist threat.
For decades, U.S. policymakers have refused to recognize the religious character and goals of the Islamist movement. That movement—which encompasses Tehran’s mullahs, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and many others—is a political ideology that seeks to subjugate all the world’s peoples, by physical force, under the supreme governing authority of Islamic religious law, in every area of life and thought.
America has for decades failed to see how that audacious long-term plan of conquest—however grandiose and fanciful it might seem—in fact actuates the Islamist cause. Whether the Libyan murderers and the mobs in Cairo and in Sanaa were truly incensed by a YouTube film or merely using that as a pretext, the Islamist goal remains to enforce submission in body and mind—on pain of death. The West’s long history of religious wars attests to the fact that until religion has been defanged and marginalized by reason, it is deadly.Our failure to understand this has crippled our policymaking.
The pattern is stark.
Rewind three decades to a watershed crisis. The 1979 raid on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ensuing captivity of American diplomats were acts of war blessed by Iran’s jihadist regime. Did Washington assert itself, declare that American lives are untouchable, and vow to retaliate with all necessary force unless the hostages were freed?
The Carter administration disavowed serious military action, eventually imposed some limp sanctions, and agonized over how best to accommodate Tehran’s demands (for money, legal immunity, a face-saving resolution). We caved. The ayatollahs correctly drew an ominous lesson that when attacked, America will not do a damn thing.
What followed was a spate of attacks that Tehran and its jihadist allies spearheaded. Perhaps the most audacious were the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and the barracks of U.S. Marines, killing 241 Americans. Reagan’s response? Loud but empty rhetoric about retaliation, followed by meek capitulation.
Raid an embassy, take Americans hostage, murder Americans—and get away with it. That was a bright green light inviting more aggression, from an America apparently willing to surrender its self-respect.
It was against this backdrop that Ayatollah Khomeini decided he could now tell Americans what we can think and say, issuing a death-sentence fatwa on Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," and his American publisher, for having offended Mohammad and Islam. In the face of this religious endorsement of totalitarian thought control, did the George H. W. Bush administration declare that an American’s freedom of speech is inviolable? Did it vow to end the regime in Iran if anyone, anywhere dared to act on Khomeini’s death decree?
No. On the contrary, even as U.S. booksellers were flooded with death threats, even as two bookstores were firebombed, even as employees of American publishers trembled in fear of an assassin’s bullet—the administration was passive. Effectively, that non-response sold out the principle of freedom of speech, in deference to a blood-lusting Islamist cleric.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, were the climax, up until then, of a mounting series of jihadist attacks. Bush quickly assured us that the attacks had nothing to do with religion. The subsequent U.S. military response in Iraq and Afghanistan, far from seeking to defeat Islamists, in fact brought many to power through Bush’s crusade for elections. Despite the large-scale military deployment, our policy remained one of conciliation (let the Afghans and Iraqis define their own constitutions) and active appeasement (trying to bribe Tehran to stop its aggression).
This policy failed to dissuade jihadists from viewing America as (in bin Laden’s favored phrase) a paper tiger. A case in point was the 2006 Muslim riots over Danish cartoons lampooning Mohammad. The raging of mobs, the burning of flags, the firebombing of embassies—all this was meant to coerce the nations of Europe and North America to bow down before Islamic religious law. Practically all of them did. In unison. With a perfunctory nod to the right of free speech, George W. Bush’s administration betrayed that principle by indicating that perhaps the cartoons were better left unpublished, while the State Department criticized their publication as “offensive to the beliefs of Muslims.”
The cycle is clear. Islamists attack, expecting a non-response. We, unable or unwilling to tackle the issue of religion, submit, conciliate, appease—inviting them to ramp up their aggression.
Is it any wonder that our embassies in the Middle East are besieged, breached, bombed?
The cycle persists, because without connecting the dots to see the big picture,without grasping the uniting religious goal of the Islamist movement, we cannot take the steps necessary to stop it. Until we end America’s policy of passivity, inaction and appeasement, we can only expect more Islamist aggression.
Elan Journo is a fellow and director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute. His book, Winning the Unwinnable War: America's Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism, analyzes post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of Rand's philosophy.