(The following is a close look at the thesis of Major Stephen Coughlin, prepared by LB with comments by RL)
The fact that Coughlin is being fired for pressing his approach to Islam — take Islam seriously in its own terms — illustrates what’s wrong with Western policy circles, even those whose primary role is our defense.
Major Stephen Coughlin is one of the Pentagon’s premier experts on Islamic law and Islamism. In March, he will become the Pentagon’s former expert. Reports coming from the Pentagon in the past month have indicated that after submitting his Master’s thesis, Coughlin was fired from the Joint Staff after he fell into the bad graces of Hasham Islam, a key aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. Islam and England have been aggressively reaching out to American Muslim groups, including the Islamic Society of North America, a group many critics call a front for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. During a meeting several weeks ago, Islam confronted Coughlin and called him “a Christian zealot with a pen.” The Pentagon decided that Coughlin was too controversial, and terminated his contract, effective this March.
The episode highlights intellectual weakness in the nation’s defense policy establishment and the influence of demopaths like Heshem Islam who is also a zealot with a pen who favors autobiographical fantasy. The Pentagon has apparently decided on an outlook that dictates that mainstream Islam stands for peace, that the Jihadi zealots represent a hi-jacking of the “true” religion, and will not countenance any evidence to the contrary. It also illustrates the way in which this “politically correct” approach acts as a form of cultural disarmament.
Coughlin’s recent 333 page Master’s thesis for the National Defense Intelligence College, entitled “To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad“, is well researched, well argued and fairly straightforward. That his recommendations are being sidelined makes one pessimistic about the direction of the intellectual underpinnings of U.S. defense policy.
Coughlin calls for a dispassionate analysis of the Jihadi threat. He argues that our enemies base their statements and actions in Islamic law, and use Islamic legal language, therefore our only way to seriously understand their motives and intentions is to listen to what they are saying and analyze it in the context of Islamic law.
According to Coughlin, it is irrelevant if Islam stands for peace or not. Even if most Muslims do not share the specifically Jihadist reading of Islam, Jihadi positions are grounded in mainstream Islamic law, and their language is rooted exclusively in Islamic terms. Coughlin calls the dominant contemporary intellectual approach the Current Approach what we at the Augean Stable call the PCP. The “Current Approach,” he argues, is useless because it refuses to acknowledge the doctrinal basis of the terrorists’ actions. Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the danger of ignoring our enemies’ declared intentions on The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq at the National Defense University on December 1, 2005:
Likewise, the nature of today’s jihadist enemies can only be understood within the context of their declared strategic doctrine to dominate the world. Just as we ignored Mein Kampf ” to our great detriment” prior to World War II, so we are on the verge of suffering a similar fate today.
Of course, that is a comparison that, according to the rules of political correctness, cannot be made. And not being able to make it is part of our cultural disarmament. We are not permitted to even imagine that we might have an enemy as ruthless and imperialist as the Nazis. Just as it would be an insult to all Germans to call them Nazis, so it would be an insult to all Muslims to call them Jihadis. But what if a similar dynamic was at work whereby a small but dynamic minority began to gain inordinate influence over the larger majority? Could we not talk about it? And should honest Muslims, like honest Germans, be throttling such a discussion because it offends them? Whose side are they on? That of decency, or Islam “right or wrong”?
Coughlin starts with fundamental questions that, if answered honestly, should lead to an accurate understanding of the threat.
Why have we failed to do a doctrine-based threat assessment?
What is the doctrinal basis of the jihadi threat?
How can we come to understand the jihadi threat?
The efforts to define the doctrinal basis to the Jihadi threats were hampered in the first days after 9/11 by President Bush’s adamant assertions that Islam is a religion of peace, and the extraordinary assertion (for an outsider) those who commit violence in the name of Islam misread their religious texts and law.
Following the catastrophic events of 9-11 when 19 Muslim men attacked U.S. targets for reasons associated with jihad in furtherance of Islamic goals, President George Bush made broad statements that held Islam harmless:
The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.
While there is little doubt the President made these comments to allay fears in the Muslim community while staring-down thoughts of vigilante justice in some circles, his statements exerted a chilling effect on those tasked to define the enemy’s doctrine by effectively placing a policy bar on the unconstrained analysis of Islamic doctrine as a basis for this threat.
There is a faulty assumption of an underlying cause for terrorism that has pervaded the thinking on the Jihadi threat. That assumption is that poverty and despair lead to terrorism, even when the facts stand against that conclusion.
As recently as 15 May 2007, from the same utterance in which he acknowledged that “it is true that terrorist leaders seem more often than not to come from middle-class backgrounds,” U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson counterfactually asserted that “most people would find it hard to argue against the idea that [the underlying cause of] terrorist violence arises, sociologically speaking, out of poverty, despair, hopelessness and resentment.”
The logic behind insisting on poverty as the source of terrorism is, like so much of PCP, a desire to have a solution we can implement: we [think we] know how to deal with poverty and getting rid of that is a good liberal goal, so kill two birds with one stone. But even some economists — who have every professional motivation to adopt this position — disagree.
And yet, the defense community apparently still does not understand the enemy’s motivation (transgressing against Sun Tzu’s cardinal rule, “Know Thy Enemy”), which comes entirely from Islamic doctrine. Before we can understand the enemy and predict his intentions, the U.S. planners must have a solid grasp of what the terrorists themselves say motivates them.
More than five years into the War on Terror (WOT) against a threat that defines itself in Islamic terms, the national security community does not understand the most basic Islamic doctrines that the enemy self-identifies as being its primary motivating factor.
In 2006, Republican congressional intelligence leaders could not explain any difference between Sunni and Shia in response to a reporter’s questions. When Democrats took over later that year, the situation was no better. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, Democratic Chairman of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence (and senior member of the Armed Services Committee), told the same reporter that al-Qaeda was predominantly Shia.
The “Current Approach” is characterized by two contradictory assertions, often made by the same individual- “Islam is a religion of peace” and “No one can say what Islam really stands for. There are a thousand ways to interpret Islam”. The intelligence establishment has a harmful practice of outsourcing crucial intelligence to experts who support the current approach and demand that the recipients of their expertise follow suit. Ironically, it’s as if the “Islamic experts” who adhere to the “Current Approach” get to inform the intelligence community on a “need to know basis.” Except that here, what we don’t know will hurt us.