by Robert Wright
According to some officials in Sri Lanka, last week’s bombing of hotels and churches by ISIS-affiliated jihadists came in retaliation for the mosque shooting in ChristChurch, New Zealand five weeks earlier.
There are reasons to doubt this claim, including the fact that preparing an attack like this probably took more than five weeks. On the other hand, five weeks is plenty of time to change the date of the attack and the target list—and a ChristChurch-inspired change of plans could explain why the terrorists struck no Buddhist temples, which would have seemed likelier targets than churches given recent ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. It could also explain why the terrorists struck no Sufi Muslim mosques, which were loathed by the hyper-puritanical Muslim preacher who led the attacks.
In any event, there are two things worth highlighting against this backdrop, and together they suggest that the world could be entering a new phase of terrorist violence.
(1) The ChristChurch bomber, in his manifesto, explicitly said he hoped his attack would inspire retaliation. And he hoped this would then inspire counter-retaliation by his fellow white nationalists.
(2) Whether or not the Sri Lanka attack was retaliatory, it makes tactical sense for ISIS to depict it as retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack—and, in the future, to actually stage such retaliatory attacks. “Global avenger of attacks on Muslims” is a good recruiting brand, and the old ISIS brand—”governor of an actual land-occupying caliphate”—doesn’t work now that ISIS holds no big chunk of real estate.
You see where this could be heading: toward a positive feedback cycle of a very negative kind. You could call it Clash of Civilizations 2.0.
I reviewed Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations long, long ago. In fact, this was so long ago that when I worried, in the final paragraph, about the clash of civilizations becoming “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” I wasn’t thinking about a clash between “the West” and “the Muslim world” in particular. (Huntington divided the world into multiple “civilizations”—western, African, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, etc.—and posited inherent tensions among them.)
But then 9/11 happened, followed by unwise American military interventions in Muslim countries, along with the unwise assertion by some American commentators that we were at war with Islam itself—all of which was a gift to jihadist recruiters, for whom the clash of civilizations became a kind of business model. In the post-Iraq-war years, it became clearer and clearer that the specific self-fulfilling clash-of-civilizations prophecy to worry about was indeed the one involving “the West” and “Islamic civilization”.
Now that prophecy seems to have entered the second stage in its self-fulfillment.
Clash of civilizations 1.0 heated up as state actors (mainly the US), in the course of overreacting to non-state actors (mainly al-Qaeda), attacked majority-Muslim state actors (most notably Iraq). This not only strengthened the non-state actors’ recruiting argument that the West was attacking Islam but also fostered the chaotic conditions in which terrorist groups take root. So ISIS was born and surpassed al-Qaeda in strength.
Now, with this grim dynamic having gotten critical early support from US policies, it seems to be sustainable without further help from state actors, via the enthusiastic participation of non-state actors. The main players, in this scenario, would be jihadist terrorists and white nationalist terrorists, locked in an endless game of tit-for-tat, a game of potentially intensifying carnage—especially if they get ahold of various kinds of spooky weapons, ranging from the old-fashioned (nukes) to the futuristic (designer pathogens).
“Game” may seem like too lighthearted a word for this context, but it’s worth emphasizing (as I noted after the ChristChurch attack) that these two kinds of extremists are literally playing a non-zero-sum game. Given their short-term goal—attracting more followers—the escalation of this conflict, and its depiction as a clash of civilizations, is win-win.
Figuring out how to defuse a cycle of violence that isn’t critically fueled by state actors is, by definition, a challenge for makers of state policy. Of course, it would help if America quit doing stupid things—like helping to fuel a war in Yemen and courting war with Iran—but the days when non-stupid US policy alone could avert an escalation of terrorism may well be gone. And policies that could now bring de-escalation are non-obvious—and, in any event, well beyond the power of the current administration to conceive, much less execute.
For my money, the place to begin thinking about this challenge—about constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives)—is with what sounds like a cliché: Public enemy number one is hatred.
Obviously, hatred has always been a destructive thing, but what the architects of America’s “global war on terror” seem to have taken little account of is the growing lethality of hatred. For technological reasons, it’s easier than it used to be for a relatively small number of people who share a specific hatred to organize, even remotely, and deploy lethal force around the globe. Also for technological reasons, the lethal force available to haters could soon grow by orders of magnitude.
Nonetheless, a series of presidents, Republican and Democratic, have since 9/11 supported, variously, invasions, proxy wars, bombings and drone strikes with little evident regard for the hatred (much of it specifically directed at America) this generated and the dangers this hatred would eventually pose. Like human beings generally, they’ve focused more on short-term than on long-term consequences.
Combating hatred is famously difficult. Also difficult is something that can pave the way for that combat—convincing lots of people who matter that hatred is the main problem. If there’s value to be derived from the recent horrors in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, maybe it’s that they’ve made this job slightly easier.
Robert Wright is editor of The Mindful Resistance Newsletter, where this article originally appeared, and the author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller Why Buddhism Is True. He is Visiting Professor of Science and Spirituality at Union Theological Seminary in New York.