Fact Check

Lady Gaga vs. the Occupation

A moderate suggestion: Palestine isn't the only driver of violent anti-American extremism. But it sure does matter.


In recent weeks, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and others have made headlines by suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increases anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens takes issue with this claim, arguing that cultural Westernization — in the form of Lady Gaga and other imports that scandalize Muslim conservatives — is a more important cause of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world than the Palestinian conflict. Stephens notes that Islamists resented American culture well before the Palestinian issue became prominent. As key evidence, he cites Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb’s rants on American culture following the latter’s stay in the United States in the late 1940s.

Stephens is absolutely right that Islamism as a general phenomenon is partly a reaction to cultural Westernization and modernization. Islamists are indeed defined by their rejection of secularism, and like religious activists from other faiths, they dislike consumerism and sexual promiscuity. However, Stephens is wrong when he asserts that Westernization is a major driver of anti-American terrorism and that what happens in Palestine does not matter for the fight against al Qaeda.

Islamism and anti-American militancy are not the same thing. There are millions of Islamists out there, but only some engage in violence and only a tiny fraction fight America. The available evidence suggests the latter care more about Palestine than Lady Gaga.

By citing Qutb at length, Stephens proves my point and undermines his own. Qutb was indeed disgusted by aspects of American culture, but he neither waged nor advocated violence against the United States. Qutb’s jihad was against the Egyptian regime, not America.

To the extent that Westernization causes militancy, the violence it inspires is nearly always directed at other Muslims, typically against regimes in Arab countries, because these legislate over matters of public morality. Jihadists are idealists, but they are not so utopian as to think they can stop Westernization by attacking America. However, they do think that by installing Islamist local governments, those governments can take measures to limit social liberalization.

Militants who attack the West, such as al Qaeda members, represent a different phenomenon. They argue that the fight against secular Muslim regimes (and by extension Westernization) is less urgent than attacking non-Muslims who kill Muslims and occupy Muslim territory.

How do we know that Palestine is more important than Westernization for the anti-American jihadists? First, al Qaeda’s leaders have spoken more often about Palestine and other political issues (pdf) than about moral corruption. Second, when al Qaeda recruits cite their reasons for joining, they more often mention Palestine, Chechnya, and other political issues (pdf) than they do examples of Westernization. Third, incidents of anti-American violence and vandalism in the Middle East have tended to increase during or shortly after dramatic events in Palestine. Fourth, recruitment to al Qaeda has tended to expand during or shortly after escalation of hostilities in Palestine. Fifth, al Qaeda militants are happy to embrace aspects of Western culture when it suits them — witness the use of videos and music in jihadi propaganda — and they are arguably more pragmatic about matters moral and ritual than many other Islamists.

One could of course argue that declared motivations are not the same as underlying causes and that the correlation between hostilities in Palestine and recruitment to al Qaeda does not imply causation. It is indeed difficult, for methodological reasons, to measure or quantify the precise effect of single issues such as Palestine on anti-American militancy. But the same problem applies to any other hypothesis, including Stephens’s Westernization argument. In any case, to argue that Palestine does not matter at all is an extreme conclusion.

My claim is a moderate one: Palestine matters and should be taken into consideration by counterterrorism strategists. I am not saying that Palestine is the only cause of anti-Western jihadism or even the most important one. However, of all the causes over which Western policymakers have influence, Palestine is probably among the most significant.

I am also not suggesting that active militants will lay down their arms if a peace agreement is signed. What I am saying is that in such an event, recruitment will likely be reduced. The available evidence suggests that images of dead Palestinians facilitate recruitment to anti-American jihadi organizations.

Academics and practitioners who study jihadi radicalization up close have long been debating the role of the Palestinian issue. There is no clear consensus on the extent of its influence on global jihadism, but few if any professionals disagree that it is a factor. By dismissing the issue completely, Bret Stephens and others are putting their heads in the sand.

Thomas Hegghammer is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia. His views do not represent those of his employer or the Norwegian government.