Vice President Joe Biden spoke truth to power at last week’s White House conference on fighting violent extremism when he said that we have no military means with which to wage and win such a struggle of conflicting ideals.

At the same time, President Obama has asked the Congress for war powers with which to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. He wants to use more U.S. military force against a religious movement of Sunni Muslims. This is not the right way to end this conflict.


Military force is a very limited instrument that comes with inherent shortcomings, as we have learned after years of inconclusive fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. I learned this fighting the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.

Military force is designed to seize and hold territory and to kill enemy combatants. If doing that will not bring victory, then reliance on military force to win certain wars is like believing in a false god.

The core of military strategy and tactics is to “find, fix and fight.” But as we saw in Vietnam, and again in Iraq and Afghanistan, if the enemy loses fight after fight but still keeps coming back to the battlefield, it can win through attrition. It won’t wear down our forces, for it can’t win battles, but it can successfully wear down our will to persevere. It can win politically in the long run.

And military use of force has little application against lone-wolf terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston and the Kouachi brothers in Paris. The use of force will not protect us here in Minnesota from Islamic extremism.

Something beyond finding, fixing, fighting and destroying is needed if Islamic extremism is to disappear. Something nonmilitary that can extinguish the root cause of aggressive violence.

That other “something” can only come from beliefs. The killings and the barbarity will stop for good only when the killers no longer believe that they should kill.

A similar loss of faith among Communists caused the collapse of Soviet communism. Its most dedicated partisans finally gave up the fight to impose their ideology after coming to realize that they had been wrong in their core beliefs.

Harvard Prof. Samuel Huntington proposed that the post-Communist world would see clashes among civilizations. On one level I disagree, though he was my teacher. Violence and extremism do not thrive across a civilization but more reflect minority views within a tradition that reach for power in order to bend the world to their way of thinking.

Mao Zedong correctly pointed out that guerrillas are “fish which swim in the sea of the people.” To defeat insurgent violence, you have to separate the fish from the sea, not try to catch them one by one.

The best approach to isolating intolerant minorities is to make them confront the contradictions between their beliefs and the higher values of their traditions. They are defeated when their own people turn against them.

The argument against Leninism and Maoism from inside communism was that, as a matter of scientific analysis, Marx was wrong about human nature. Therefore, no communist utopia here on Earth could ever be established. The struggle to impose communism was pointless.

The parallel argument against Sunni extremism from inside Islam is that no human person can take the place of God in deciding who should live and who should die. Sunni extremism is, in Islamic terms, unacceptable and irreligious idolatry, or “shirk.”

Qur’anic teachings absolutely oppose the Islamic extremism we witness today.

I have been studying Qur’anic guidance for political action for some 10 years now with highly reputed scholars at the International Islamic University in Malaysia. The other month I further tested my application of shirk to Islamic extremists with a Somali taxi driver taking me to the airport. He was a bit surprised to have an obviously non-Muslim turn the conversation to Qur’anic exegesis but readily agreed that the behavior of Islamic terrorists was, in his words, “very shirky.”

The reasons why shirk is so wrong for Muslims are readily apparent in a reading of the Qur’an.

God has all right and power (Qur’an 2:109). To God do all questions go for decision (3:109). His will prevails over ours; we are to hold fast to God, guided to the straight path by him and not by our own desires and pretensions. It is not our place, says the Qur’an, for us to rebel against God’s power and authority. We were not created by him to challenge his judgment. God’s mastery of life, death, the alpha and omega of all things is called his sole prerogative, an aspect of divine oneness and omnipotence (tawhid) over space and time.

The Qur’an teaches all of us the following points: God has no partner in his omnipotence, certainly not any human person; God never gave us a commission to think for him or ever to believe that we are his equal, and we are to put our trust in God, not in our fellow man.

The Qur’an makes it very clear that only God can decide who is good and who is not, for his mercy and compassion have the last word on the last day.

God will resolve differences among men, the Qur’an says in verses 5:4 and 3:26. Therefore God pardons and punishes whom he pleases and does not follow our preferences in his decisionmaking. The duty of us as human individuals is only to warn others. Their actual fate is in the hand of God (88:23-26; 73:11).

The Qur’an records that we are not to take life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law (6:151). If we misinterpret God’s will, the responsibility for wrongdoing falls on us.

We should point out that Islamic extremists have provided no evidence that their acts are actually divinely guided. They have only human reasoning to rely on when they decide to kill.

And using one’s own reasons to take God’s place is to commit shirk and violate Qur’anic teachings.


Stephen B. Young. of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.