The lessons of all these transitions from unaddressed discontents to religious fanaticism hold true for violent outbreaks down the centuries on virtually every continent and in all major faiths. When regimes insist that time must hold still and deny traditional or perceived rights, fundamentalist religion is always lurking nearby. At the beginning of “The Plague,” Albert Camus speaks of how a bacillus can lurk, dormant and undetected, only to reappear unexpectedly when conditions are right. Extremist religion has its own bacillus, and it has proven impossible to exterminate: There are no proven antibiotics for the plague of fanaticism. When political sanitation goes wanting, it strikes.
Yet, that does not mean religious extremism can be addressed strictly through political measures (or through diplomacy, that great Western superstition). The only chance to minimize the violence is to intervene early on to create political and social breathing space for restive populations. Once religious extremism has taken hold, the pattern cannot be reversed. This is an absolutely vital point for American leaders to grasp. If the banner of jihad (or a crusade) has been raised successfully, the peaceable kingdom is finished. Only shedding blood ruthlessly can eliminate or at least reduce the problem ”” the enemy enraptured by faith must become more terrified of you than he is of his god. Usually, you must kill him.
This matters vitally today as the U.S., disappointed by its experience in Iraq, threatens to return to its disastrous “Habsburg” policy of the latter half of the 20th century, in which the greatest democracy in history and the beacon of humankind supported a long parade of vile dictators and authoritarian regimes in the interests of stability.
The great strategic problem today isn’t instability. The current instability confronting us is the result of our insistence that outwardly stable Middle Eastern states were the highest geopolitical good in the region. The great enabler of Islamist terrorism has been the artificial stability imposed on the Middle East by local despots backed by foreign powers. Increasingly, populations saw no hope of meaningful change. Right on schedule historically, charismatic religious bigots stepped in to offer not only hope, but a divine dispensation. It cannot be repeated too often or too forcefully: When human beings see no hope of remediation on this earth, they become susceptible to the prophets of religious violence, to the argument that their God wants them to punish their oppressors. And their conversion is a one-way street.