Who is More Evil: Al Qaeda or Islamic State; and Which Poses the Greater Threat?

Whether you seek its definition as an adjective or noun, you will find in any reputable dictionary two identifying components of the term evil: morally reprehensible and causing immense harm. The problem is that the first component and, to a lesser extent, the second are both relative terms. Whether an action is morally reprehensible depends on the moral code used to judge the action. And too often, one man’s assessment of damage is another’s evaluation of progress. According to the centuries-old moral code of Western Civilization, the actions of both Al Qaeda and Islamic State are morally reprehensible. Moreover, their deeds have resulted in enormous harm to Americans, Europeans, Christians and other non-Muslim communities in the Middle East, and even to numerous Muslim groups in that troubled region. Ergo, to those of us residing in the West, both are evil organizations.

Now, although it is natural to ask the first question in the title – especially as the answer might inform the answer to the second – it is also a bit silly. It reminds me of a childhood game that I recall playing – namely, who was more evil: Hitler or Stalin? In an attempt at an answer, I and my boyhood friends would compare: the number of people each had killed, how many countries they conquered, and the nature of their butchery – gassing victims in a concentration camp versus purposeful mass starvation in an artificially induced famine. Suffice it to say that both Nazism and Communism were maniacally evil systems that unleashed unimaginable misery upon millions of people.

The same is true of Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Fortunately for mankind, the extent of the misery that their evil deeds have caused has nowhere near the scope of the Nazi or Communist Parties. But it has not been for lack of trying. The barbarism, savagery and cold-blooded ruthlessness exhibited by both organizations is more than enough to qualify them as evil – comparable to the standards, if not the scale of Nazism or Communism. I have no doubt that should either acquire the power that the Nazis or Commies had at their respective zeniths, the carnage would be comparable.

Which brings us to the second question in the title – which of these malevolent organizations poses the greater threat? To whom? I will consider the object of the threat to be the United States. In that case there are four types of threats that we must consider. Here they are in increasing order of severity:

  1. The conquest, domination or subversion of one or more states in the Middle East – or elsewhere – that causes severe damage to the economic or political interests of the US.
  2. Phenomenal growth in strength and adherents such that the organization becomes a force that can project power worldwide.
  3. Serous covert or overt attacks on the US homeland.
  4. A mortal threat to the existence of our country.

I find it very hard to believe that either Al Qaeda or Islamic State will rise in the future anywhere close to level 4 – however, see below. Al Qaeda has already proven that it has achieved level 3, and similarly Islamic State has demonstrated that it has reached level 1. Moreover, given the rapid and sweeping rise of Islamic State, it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that it can reach level 2. If one accepts the threat levels as I have assayed them, then Al Qaeda remains the greater of the two threats. It does not have the safe haven that it had in Afghanistan to plot and prepare attacks on US soil. But it has established substantial cells in many other places – for example, Yemen – and the will and determination of members of Al Qaeda to hit us remain undiminished. They have not succeeded in the last decade because we are better prepared and because we’ve been lucky. We would be fools to assume that they won’t keep trying.

Islamic State seems more concerned with establishing its caliphate than with attacking the US. But they have announced their intention to strike us. If they should succeed in capturing and domineering sufficient territory to (temporarily) satisfy their lust for expansion, they may very well turn their sights on us.

Having answered the title’s questions, let me turn to America’s ambivalent attitude toward evil, to what extent that played a role in our struggles against Nazism and Communism in the last century, and what role it plays today in our confrontation with radical Islam. Our historical attitude can be summarized in the following points:

  • America tends to be slow in recognizing evil intent on the part of hostiles.
  • Even when acknowledged, the US is hesitant to label it as such. We persist in seeking alternate explanations for evil behavior. We question the reality of evil as it conflicts with our reflexively benign interpretations of the nature of mankind.
  • Even when accepted, we are hesitant to act against evil forces. We see their behavior as so contrary to the manner in which we expect humanity to behave that we irrationally expect it will peter out or run its course.
  • Finally, even when we decide to act, we couch our actions in logistic rather than moral terms. Our counterattack becomes just another routine military mission, carried out judiciously and somewhat reluctantly.

All of this was evident in our battles with Nazism and Communism. I would say more so in the latter than the former. It took us more than eight years from the inauguration of Hitler to enjoin the battle against Nazism. And if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, who knows how much longer it would have taken. However, once we decided to fight, we fought ruthlessly and mercilessly to rid the world of fascism. In this case, we completely overcame our inherent reluctance and we smote the evil force with overwhelming firepower.

The delay in engaging Communism was substantially longer. Roughly 30 years passed from the Bolshevik Revolution until the Truman administration initiated the battle. Moreover, the battle was not fully engaged until another 25 years later when Reagan entered the scene. Furthermore, throughout the long struggle, a substantial portion of the country refused to acknowledge the evil nature of the Communist menace and attempted to temper the country’s actions against it. To this day, many refuse to label Communism as evil and question whether we needed to, or actually did, smite it.

Alas, our ambivalence in the face of evil seems to be growing. As I observed earlier, the Islamist menace is as evil as Nazism or Communism. Like them, it aspires to world domination and implementation of a totalitarian system. Furthermore, unlike Nazism or Communism, it does not have a central font from which the evil flows. Instead, lethal branches have spouted spontaneously all over Africa and Asia (Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, the Taliban and dozens more.) Yet the proportion of our population that recognizes this danger appears to be quite limited. From our leaders to our policy makers to the general public, the reluctance to engage this mortal enemy is palpable. In the past, had we not overcome the twin evils of Nazism and Communism, the consequences for us and the free world would have been cataclysmic. The consequences of defeat by this new twenty first century evil force would be just as dire. Will we wake up in time?

Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, writes about politics, culture, education, science and sports at http://ronlipsman.com. Follow him on Twitter @rlipsman

This essay also appeared in Canada Free Press. For a prior related article in this journal, see here.

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