Monday, February 20, 2006

Vox umma, vox Allah

Even as the Bush Administration asserts that Osama Bin Laden is trapped and that Al Qaeda is on the run, a key Jihadist victory has been achieved to little fanfare.

The umma has awakened.

The response to the Muslim cartoons, as unsettling as it has been to observers in the west, has marked a key milestone in Bin Laden’s campaign to rebuild the Caliphate and challenge western democracies. The umma, the Muslim nation, a transnational community sharing a single faith, responded to the call of the ulama, the clerical community and rose at once, seemingly with one voice. The voice of the umma––to borrow from the Latinate expression vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God––rose as if the voice of Allah.

It was not the rallies and riots in the Arab nations that were notable, as those, particularly in Iran and Syria, had the trappings of officially instigated events, but rather those within the western democracies themselves. Protesters across Europe, fully armed with banners chanting the likes of “Down with freedom, God is Great”––and the eternal cry of those in need of an outlet for their discontent, “Death to America”––took to the streets to protests the publication of cartoons that to the non-believer seemed benign, second rate parody.

While the rise of the umma and the demand that non-Muslim states and peoples adhere to certain Koranic proscriptions marks a fundamental challenge the western notions of pluralism, it should first and foremost be understood for what it is, a profound victory for Bin Laden in a strategically complex battle for the hearts and minds of Islam. The rise of the umma, the emergence of a self-identified Islamic nation that is transnational and inter-sectional does not necessarily imply the radicalization of that same community, but it is certainly a precondition to the radicalization that Bin Laden seeks. He has, through the 9/11 attacks and the responses that it engendered, achieved a significant milestone in pursuit of his longer-term goal.

As little as five years ago, it was easy to dismiss as absurd the Jihadist dreams of reestablishing the Caliphate, the great transnational Muslim nation established in the wake of the death of the Prophet Muhammad that continued in various forms until its final dissolution 85 years ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire. By the end of the 20th century, with the help of national borders drawn by colonial powers, Islam had become a dispersed faith, decentralized into a world of regional and sectoral potentates more often at war with each other than not. Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Persian vs. Turk vs. Kurd. Pastun vs. Tagik. On and on.

Bin Laden’s strategies were artful and indirect. His goal in attacking America was not first and foremost to kill Americans, but rather to engender an American military response. And in George Bush, Bin Laden had the foe that would serve his purposes. Imbued with a messianic zeal to lead Freedom’s March into the heart of Islam, Bush has played the role of the Crusader to Bin Laden’s Saladin, and through a chain of missteps and abuses––from Abu Graib to Guantanomo to the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis in a unilateral war that bore no credible link to the attacks on America––undermined America’s moral authority with the very population whose support he sought to win, and steadily elevated Muslim disquiet and ultimately religious identity.

The Global War on Terror is entering a new phase. The Bush Administration is quietly dismantling the Bush Doctrine, as the Neoconservative experiment has fallen out of favor and the March of Freedom is being set aside in the face of adverse electoral outcomes in the Middle East, the looming prospect of electoral defeats at home, and the emerging realization of how badly the war in Iraq and the doctrine of unilateralism has damaged America in the world. It is an open question if in this new phase an Administration with a penchant for boots on the ground and aggressive rhetoric can reverse course and learn new subtleties, and even humility. In this new phase, however, the broader community of nations has a great stake and will not sit idly by and let America lead alone. If the Danes have done nothing else, they have woken people up.

The GWOT cannot survive the radicalization of the umma that Bin Laden envisions. The battle for the soul of Islam is a battle for the viability of religious pluralism in the west. Bin Laden understands this, and he also knows that the Caliphate is unlikely to emerge during his lifetime. Like Moses, he does not expect to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, but he has seen the emergence of the umma and believes that the battle he has longed for has been joined.

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