Do terrorist atrocities in the West, such as the attacks of September 11, 2001 and those in Bali, Madrid, Beslan, and London, help radical Islam achieve its goal of gaining power?
No, they are counterproductive. That's because radical Islam has two distinct wings - one violent and illegal, the other lawful and political - and they exist in tension with each other. The lawful strategy has proven itself effective, but the violent approach gets in its way.
The violent wing is foremost represented by the world's no. 1 fugitive, Osama bin Laden. The popular and powerful prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, represents the lawful wing. Even as "Al Qaeda has more state adversaries than nearly any force in history," as Daniel C. Twining observes, political imams like Yusuf al-Qaradawi instruct huge audiences on Al-Jazeera television and visit with the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. As Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr skulks around Iraq, looking for a role, Ayatollah Sistani dominates the country's political life.
Yes, terrorism kills enemies, instills fear, and disrupts the economy. Yes, it boosts morale and recruits non-Muslims to Islam and Muslims to Islamism. It creates an opportunity for Islamists to fight for their favorite causes, such as the elimination of Israel or the disengagement of coalition forces from Iraq. It provides, as Mark Steyn notes, intelligence information on the enemy. And yes, it prompts politically correct talk about Islam being a "religion of peace," with Muslims portrayed as victims.
But for two main reasons, terrorism does radical Islam more harm than good.
First, it alarms and galvanizes Westerners. For example, the July 7 bombings took place during the G8 summit in Scotland, where world leaders were focused on global warming, aid to Africa, and macro-economic issues. In a London minute, the politicians then redirected their attention toward counterterrorism. Thus did the terrorists stiffen, as Mona Charen points out, "whatever small residue of resolve remains in flaccid Western civilization."
More broadly, Mr. Twining notes, "Al Qaeda's rise has produced the kind of great power entente not seen since the Concert of Europe took shape in 1815." (Even the Madrid bombings, an apparent exception, led to a marked strengthening of counterterrorism measures by Spain and other European countries.)
Second, terrorism obstructs the quiet work of political Islamism. In tranquil times, organizations like the Muslim Council of Britain and the Council on American-Islamic Relations effectively go about their business, promoting their agenda to make Islam "dominant" and imposing dhimmitude (whereby non-Muslims accept Islamic superiority and Muslim privilege). Westerners generally respond like slowly boiled frogs are supposed to, not noticing a thing.
Thus does the Muslim Council of Britain delight in a knighthood from the queen, enthusiastic support from Prime Minister Blair, influence within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and £250,000 in taxpayer money from the Department of Trade and Industry.
Across the Atlantic, CAIR insinuates itself into an array of important North American institutions, including the FBI, NASA, and Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. It has won endorsements from high-ranking politicians, both Republican (Florida's governor, Jeb Bush) and Democrat (the House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi). It has organized a meeting of Muslims with Canada's prime minister Paul Martin. It has gotten a Hollywood studio to change a feature film plot and a television network to run a public service announcement. It has goaded a radio station to fire a talk-show host.
Terrorism impedes these advances, stimulating hostility to Islam and Muslims. It brings Islamic organizations under unwanted scrutiny by the media, the government, and law enforcement. CAIR and MCB then have to fight rearguard battles. The July 7 bombings dramatically (if temporarily) disrupted the progress of "Londonistan," Britain's decline into multicultural lassitude and counterterrorist ineptitude.
Some Islamists recognize this problem. One British writer admonished fellow Muslims on a Web site: "Don't you know that Islam is growing in Europe??? What the heck are you doing mingling things up???" Likewise, a Muslim watch repairer in London observed, "We don't need to fight. We are taking over!" Soumayya Ghannoushi of the University of London bitterly points out that Al-Qaeda's major achievements consist of shedding innocent blood and "fanning the flames of hostility to Islam and Muslims."
Things are not as they seem. Terrorism hurts radical Islam and helps its opponents. The violence and victims' agony make this hard to see, but without education by murder, the lawful Islamist movement would make greater gains.
Aug. 29, 2007 update: For a complementary analysis, where I retreat somewhat from the conclusions reached here and find that "that violence can also strengthen lawful Islamism," see "Piggybacking on Terror in Britain."
Jan. 9, 2015 update: I reiterated the thesis presented here almost a decade later at "How Terrorism Harms Radical Islam." Of the two arguments forwarded in 2005, I focus there only on the first one, galvanizing Westerners, and not the obstruction of lawful Islamism, about which I am no longer so sure.