Expansionist Islam: The Birth of Cultural Siege Engines

Dan Denning parallels the role gunpowder played in the siege of Constantinople with the role nuclear weapons play in the world politics of today, and discusses the role of Expansionist Islam in the world — especially if it should happen to be backed by Iranian nuclear weapons.

“European elites frequently deprecated gunpowder. By taking the muscle out of killing, powder favored the weak over the strong. It was the weapon of cowards.

“The repeated effort by European elites to blame gunpowder for the decline of chivalry was in part a smoke screen to obscure more profound changes in society that had long been undermining the role of the knight. Their objections were rooted in an understandable desire to maintain their monopoly use of force – gunpowder threatened to make violence too freely available.”

– Jack Kelly, Gunpowder

Substitute nuclear weapons for gunpowder and civilization for chivalry in the quotations above, and all of a sudden you have a modern re-enactment of the same violent dynamic that defined so much of Europe in the 16th century.

John Keegan has said that fortresses with low ramparts on the frontier were the prime force in defining the borders of modern European states. Those fortresses had low brick and earthen ramparts instead of stone walls. But the very creation of those fortresses was a reaction to the destruction of feudal castles by gunpowder and cannon.

Expansionist Islam: The Siege of Constantinople

With the debut of siege guns and cannons, gunpowder and iron and stone balls destroyed the stone walls of older fortifications. The best example is in 1453, when Turkish Sultan Mehmed II began the Siege of Constantinople. He was, by the way, just 21 years old (note that nearly half the male population of Saudi Arabia is under 20).

According to Kelly, Constantinople has survived over 20 sieges. It was considered impregnable, and its double walls dated to the fifth century. Kelly tells us, “The inner wall was 40 feet high. In front was a stretch of cleared ground, then a 25-foot wall fronted by a 15-foot-deep ditch. Properly manned, the walls could withstand virtually any onslaught.”

Mehmed met Urban, a man whom today we’d compare to the father of the Islamic atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan was the Pakistani nuclear scientist at the center of a global black market in nuclear weapons technology. He aided and abetted Libya, North Korea, and Iran in their respective pursuits of nuclear weapons. His special knowledge has put nuclear bomb building know-how in the hands of some aspiring regimes (and two-thirds of President Bush’s “axis of evil”).

At the New Orleans Investment Conference, former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet cited the busting of Khan’s nuclear network as one the greatest and most painstaking achievements during his time at the CIA. History will judge if the network was broken up in time to prevent widespread nuclear proliferation. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

In 1451, Mehmed was approached by a Hungarian-born gunsmith named Urban, the Khan of his time. History is full of ironies, and the fact that a gunsmith named Urban would play such a large role in the evolution of urban warfare is one of them. Becoming a gunsmith in the 15th century meant knowing how to mix gunpowder and being your own metallurgist. Hungary was rich in metal ores, and Urban knew a thing or two about casting cannons.

Urban offered to work for the Byzantine emperor, but the money wasn’t good enough. So he took his offer to Mehmed, who asked him if he could build a gun to knock down the walls of Constantinople.

Urban set to work and produced what today we’d call a “supergun.” It was a giant bombard built in two parts and screwed together. It took him three months. Mehmed mounted the cannon on a fortress overlooking the Bosporus strait and used it to interdict sea traffic in the narrow channel – “shaping the battle space,” you might call it today, or leveraging one of nature’s natural choke points for commerce.

Mehmed was so happy with his first gun that he had Urban cast a second one. The barrel on this gun was 26 feet long and capable of hurling a stone ball more than half a ton in weight. Kelly tells us, “Fifty yoke of oxen could barely move the giant piece. Seven hundred men were assigned to the crew that would operate it. Urban gave a day’s notice before his first test firing so civilians would not panic…The stone flew a mile and buried itself 6 feet into the earth.”

Mehmed began bombarding the Byzantines in Constantinople on April 12, 1453. Even though the ordnance was stone, it was effective in a way that nothing else ever had been. Some of the stone balls had been carved from ancient Greek temples – yet another irony of history.

Soon after May 29, the Turks threw open the Kerkoporta gate, and Constantinople was taken. Mehmed said his afternoon prayers in the Hagia Sophia, which was converted from one of Christianity’s great monuments into a mosque. The geopolitical map of the world had been redrawn, thanks in large part to the advent of gunpowder and the cannon.

European fortress design changed to accommodate the increased firepower. New fortifications had large earthworks and brick walls. These were designed to absorb the kinetic energy of cannon balls and prevent the destruction of the fortress or city wall.

What’s more, in Italy, Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci actually became fortress designers, resurrecting the classical study of math and geometry to create angles of fire for city and fortress defenders that allowed the defender to fire on the cannon of the besieging army.

In modern warfare terms, you could say that the cannon compelled fortress designers to rethink their design strategy. Fortresses became strategic strongholds. The result was a new design that “shaped the battlespace.” That is, it channeled attacking armies into clear lines of enfilading fire.

You can still see these designs in the old French forts, along what would later become the Maginot line (which were built much later than the post-Renaissance forts I’m talking about). The designs usually incorporate the use of a pentagonal fortification, which allowed for multiple lines of crossfire for the defenders (the pentagon is also an excellent geometric shape for office building design).

You see this fort design especially at Fort Douamont in Verdun. The design worked so well that after the French lost the fort early in World War I to a German infiltration, it took them years and 100,000 lives to capture it back.

The fort design also held up astonishingly well under bombardment, which is exactly what it was designed for. It wasn’t until another military sea change – the triumph of maneuver over firepower with the German blitzkrieg – that the old borders of Europe were fatally compromised and redrawn.

Expansionist Islam: Today’s questions

Will the proliferation of nuclear weapons represent another sea change in military affairs?

If so, what effect will it have on the world’s geopolitical map?

Are the cultural and military borders of the world about to be redrawn because of the dispersion of nuclear power into more hands?
Gunpowder helped define the borders of modern Europe because it led to fortresses that could withstand iron balls shot from cannons.

Borders hardened. And within those borders, backed by the tremendous firepower of cannons (and the enormous taxes it took to finance them), modern nation-states began to spring up.

The possession of cannons and fortresses was the difference between surviving as a state or being subsumed into a stronger neighbor.

Today, you have to wonder if the acquisition of nuclear weapons is the equivalent of having large fortresses and cannons with gunpowder. Or in plainer terms, is possession of a nuclear weapon a guarantee of your existence as a nation-state in the 21st century?

Is it the only sure way to prevent yourself from being challenged by an aggressor?

The North Koreans would probably tell you yes. And the Iranians probably think the same thing. And here we arrive at heart of the issue, at a question whose answer no one knows: If nuclear proliferation continues, how will the world’s geopolitical map change?

To answer that, we have to look at how gunpowder and nuclear weapons are different from all other weapons. We’ll call it the study of the asymmetric use of violence for both coercion and defense.

Whether it’s tanks, aircraft carriers, or nuclear weapons, nation-states have acquired expensive weapons in order to guarantee their survival. They have, of course, also used them to prosecute wars of aggression on their neighbors.

But the weapons have always been in the service of the state. After all, few of us individually have the resources to build a weapon that can alter the world’s geopolitical setting. Capital-intensive weapons are beyond the reach of individuals.

But guns are not, and neither, perhaps, are nuclear weapons.

Let’s deal with guns first. It took awhile for the technology of gunpowder and arms-making to evolve to the point that an individual could carry a concealed weapon with lethal power.

But it eventually happened, and in America, at least, it became one of the essential ingredients in preventing the state from overreaching its powers arbitrarily. You are guaranteed the right to bear arms.

In that respect, gun ownership is the last defense against the power of the state, and thus one of the most important rights worth protecting.

At the micro level – if you consider the individual the building block of society – guns and gunpowder secured the individual’s right at least to defend himself from coercive power, whether it was from his neighbor or the state.

It is the asymmetry of self-defense that one man with one gun can resist much larger forces. Not always with success, of course, but always in principle.

Expansionist Islam: But what about nuclear weapons?

Thus far, only states have had the resources to develop them.

And only states have been in possession of them. And states, at least in the Western world, have tended to act in their own interests. That means you have not seen states use nuclear weapons like handguns. The costs, of course, are simply too high.

Nuclear weapons give states legitimacy. And to the extent that more states get them, you can probably expect to see a lot less meddling in the affairs of other states. The diplomatic world suddenly becomes more like Texas, where you don’t try to mug a passerby on the street because you know he’s probably packing heat.

This is one very Western way of thinking about nuclear proliferation. Essentially, it doesn’t signal the beginning of a nuclear holocaust. But it DOES signal the beginning of a new world order, where no one single state (read: the United States) can mold the world in its vision, because other states have a deterrent against regime change.

In some ways, this should come as an enormous relief to Americans. Now, rather than giving in to the temptation to reorganize the institutions of failed states, we have an out: “We can’t do anything, because we’re not willing to risk nuclear attack.”

There are only two real objections to using the above logic as the premise for a non-interventionary American policy. The first is that the states that are pursuing nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous to American interests (free trade, low oil prices, liberty) and will be even more dangerous when they get them.

Now it could be that these states – Iran and North Korea, for example – simply want to be left alone and are pursuing the bomb for that reason. A genuine transnational progressive defender for human rights might justly ask the question of whether we SHOULD leave alone regimes that were not elected by their citizens and that throw thousands of their citizens into virtual death camps or enforce strict theocratic morality codes at the penalty of death.

In other words, should we care if the North Korean regime acquires a nuclear weapon in order to preserve the power it has to starve its people into a medieval submission?

And should we care if a minority of older Shiite clerics in Tehran create an unpopular theocracy that tyrannizes anyone who believes in liberal values – and guarantees its right to do so by building a bomb that will keep the Americans at bay, to the west in Iraq and to the east in Afghanistan?

Are states that pursue the bomb to protect nonelected regimes and secure the right to put the jackboot of authority on the backs of the necks of their citizens to be left alone because they pose no real threat to American interests?

Taking the question out of moral terms, let’s put in practical terms. If you can live with a tyrannical, autocratic, or theocratic fascist state in principle, as long as it’s not yours, the next question you have to answer is whether these states are expansionist. If they’re not, then the only real struggle left is with your conscience. And that is our lot in life every day, whether we know about all the various evils in the world or not.

But if, say, a nuclear Iran is an expansionist Iran and acts like a belligerent state bent on the destruction of Israel, what, then, should America’s response be?

A cynic or a realist or a skeptic might ask what the difference is between an expansionist Iran and an expansionist America. It would be a good question.

An essentialist would tell you he’s not capable of knowing the difference and it’s not his business. It’s God’s business, and the minute we think differently is the minute we’ve made an enormous mistake.

But let’s be willing to make a mistake of commission for a second and ask the question: What is the difference between an expansionist America (freedom on the march) and an expansionist Islam (death to America)?

It depends on whom you ask, of course.

Expansionist Islam: Expansionist America

The idealist in America says that for all its faults, America advances the liberal order that’s been at the heart of the West since the so-called Enlightenment. This order – at least in word, if not always in deed – defends individual liberty, freedom of worship, and representative democracy. It defends freedom of association and the right to self-defense and promotes the growth of wealth and private property.

The pessimist or realist says that no real liberal order can be expansionist and call itself legitimate. The defense of such an expansion is just an apology for the growing power of a state.

A Henry Clay might try to say that liberal orders do need defending so liberties at home can remain liberties, but that one doesn’t defend them by going on the attack.

Whatever opinion you have of the American liberal order – whether it’s really liberal, how it ought to be defended, whether it ought to be expanded – you can at least say that there is still lively and open debate about what it ought to be.

Sure, there are those who worry about Bush the dictator, the crushing of dissent in America, and the end of the press as an institution to hold the government accountable.

But there is an awful lot of free speech being let loose for a country that is rumored to be careening into fascism.

History will tell the tale. But for now, America’s political discussions are held in the political realm, not in street fights between red precincts and blue precincts or border wars between red states and blue states (for now, anyway).

Is expansionist Islam qualitatively different than the Western liberal order? Well, perhaps I’ve begged the question by calling Islam expansionist. Or perhaps I’ve taken the ravings of Osama bin Laden too seriously. The real question is whether Iran will aim to spread its version of Islam in the Middle East…and if so, how would it be any different, better, or worse than American attempts to do the same thing?

I don’t know enough about Islam to say. But I think it’s safe to say Maureen Dowd would not be writing for The New York Times if the mullahs were running America. There wouldn’t be a free press. And women would be behind the veil.

Michael Moore might get work, the same way Leni Riefenstahl found work and the same way the folks at Al-Jazeera stay busy: cranking out the propaganda. It is unclear whether the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International would have a role in the Greater Middle East, Iran-style. That is, would they be critics from outside the borders, or would they be rotting in theocratic jail cells, waiting to be shot in the back of the head or hung publicly from a soccer goal for asserting their right to liberty?

You can argue whether the American liberal order in its ideal looks anything like a real liberal order. But you would have to be a liar to call the Iranian order a liberal or free order. And I suspect the mullahs would proudly call it neither.

You’d be well within your rights, as we fortunately are in the West, to say you don’t care what happens in Iran or the rest of the Middle East. You could say it is not our place to remake their political order and that political orders take hundreds of years and complicated, organic institutions to work. And you could say, as I mentioned earlier, that revolutions are the work of men and not of God. A modest Christian is not the revolutionary type.

But only a complete amoralist or relativist would say there’s no difference between an illiberal order and a liberal one. Is it judgmental? Surely it is. But surely it’s not difficult to say that allowing divorce is better than stoning women for adultery.

The West is full of many moral evils. That’s because men often do things with their freedom you and I may not like. But the law is not designed or empowered to enforce moral judgments about what people do with their freedom, with the exception of the moral injunctions that are the same in nearly all cultures: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, etc.

And so, rather clumsily, I come to the point again:

Is the creation of illiberal orders based on theocratic law an expansionist threat to America?

Are we genuinely threatened by nuclear regimes that are politically illegitimate and that govern by terrorizing their populations?
These things may morally offend us. But do we have any compelling reason to do anything about it, to enforce regime change in Tehran and prevent the Islamic republic from going nuclear?

Your answer to that question reveals whether or not you believe George Tenet.

Tenet, along with the Bush administration, is convinced that a nuclear and theocratic Iran would become a discount wholesaler of nuclear devices to the same kind of terrorists that attacked us on Sept. 11. He believes, in essence, that Iran will distribute nuclear handguns for use on American streets.

It’s a belief that says this kind of radical Islam IS at war with the West, whether we have chosen it or not. The bin Laden justification of the war changes from day to day. One day, it’s Americans in Saudi Arabia. The next (after the Americans had left Saudi Arabia), it’s Americans in Lebanon in 1982.

And always, it’s Americans supporting Israel…

One wonders whether we would be free of the terrorist menace if the United States simply abandoned the Jewish state to the destruction wished upon it by Iran.

It’s an ugly thing to say. But let’s put it out in the open light of discussion. That, after all, is one of our great privileges in the West.

Expansionist Islam: Is Israel the next Sudetenland?

So maybe Israel is the next Sudetenland or Poland. Maybe if we just give the Islamofacists their spiritual Lebensraum, the problem – along with the Department of Homeland Security – will simply go away. Goodbye Ariel Sharon and the nuisance of terrorism; happy days are here again!

It could happen that way, right? Who knows?

On the other hand, here’s what I suspect: Illiberal orders must always find an external target towards which to direct their frustration at not becoming wealthier and more technologically advanced.

Decadent America will always be the enemy of cultural conservatives (Islamic, Christian, or the reactionary and atheistic European left) because dynamic cultures, in addition to making it possible for Michael Moore and Britney Spears to flourish, produce more ideas, lead to more opportunity, and reward more free thinking than static, autocratic cultures.

Liberal orders and dynamic cultures (not governed by autocratic power and religious diktat) destroy older traditions, let many people fall through the cracks, and spit in the eyes of social and religious planners who think they know what we all ought to be doing with our lives. They are a threat to stability, tradition, and established authority – which is why the European and American left now find themselves drifting toward common cause with the avowed enemies of the liberal order. How’s that for historic irony?

In other words, we could sell out Israel tomorrow and all we’d have accomplished is putting ourselves at the top of the mullahs’ Most Wanted list. What else are you going to do with millions of angry young men who have no job prospects and a dearth of young women? At what else can you direct their anger to keep it from being directed at you?

Better to send them off to jihad in Amsterdam, Paris, London, and Chicago. Already, in the Netherlands, we see signs of a more urbane kind of Fallujah. A Jewish father of four and outspoken critic of human rights abuses, shot in the head on the way home. Theo Van Gogh, ritualistically murdered. Expect more of the same.

And here’s the fear: Instead of guns and knives, we also have to worry about bombs and radioactive fallout.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British sent their surplus young men, criminals, and entrepreneurs off to the corners of the world. They took the British Navy and British institutions with them. As a result, you got India, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and of course, America.

What will be the impact of an expansionist Islam backed by an Iranian bomb and eager to export its teeming masses of angry young men? Take a look at Europe now, and you begin to see what’s in store.

The alternative to this future, if it’s possible, is to do what the Bush doctrine advocates: Turn the restiveness of the decayed illiberal regimes of the region back on itself so it’s not directed at us any longer. The illusion of stability – doing nothing but paying Egypt and Jordan billions a year – is nothing but coddling. It only costs you time; it doesn’t gain you security. The risk of getting something worse is outweighed by getting more of the same.

This is the strategic gamble, of course. That by parking a couple of nascent would-be liberal democracies in the heart of the region, the Bush doctrine is essentially one of ideological containment. Force the illegitimate regimes of the region to collapse on themselves by showing their populations what a liberal order looks like.

If it’s next door in Baghdad, and it’s led by Iraqis, it’s much harder to spin it as a Zionist-Yankee conspiracy to humiliate the Arab world. Don’t let the regimes direct hatred outward, goes the theory. But instead, force the anger in on itself at its root, which is not the oppressive West, but the oppressive regimes in Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus, and Tehran.

Or to put it in organic terms, prevent inflammation (all disease is inflammation) by smothering the reaction. Early gunpowder mixes failed because the fine powder was so densely packed it didn’t allow for the fire to spread and release the oxygen in the mix. The chain reaction could not expand and collapsed on itself.

Similarly, as John Boyd penned in his 1976 essay “Destruction and Creation,” the character or nature of a system cannot be determined unless one goes outside of it. Without outside sustenance, all systems collapse on themselves, as will militant Islam if it is denied the ability to blame the Arab world’s failure on America. A free Iraq in the middle of it all puts the lie to Islam as victim of the West.

The West finds plenty of oxygen for its explosive creativity, first and foremost by recognizing that creativity comes from individual freedom. This is why the West so relentlessly reinvents itself and why Marx was so wrong about capitalism falling in on itself.

The free market constantly invites in new outside influences to reinvigorate itself. It is dynamic and organic, allowing people and ideas to mix in ways that no authority could ever imagine or plan for.

Cut off the inputs that sustain a thing, and you kill it. It slowly collapses on itself.

You starve tumors; you don’t feed them. The Bush strategy aims to isolate Islamic fascism, cut off its cultural oxygen, and kill it from within.

At least, I think this must be the goal of the Bush strategy in the Middle East: to snuff out the oxygen that keeps anti-Americanism burning. No, not by selling out Israel, but by directing the destructive cultural energy of the region in on itself.

Eliminating Iran’s ability to project nuclear power is one way of containing the expansion of Islamofascism. But will it generate more oxygen to feed the fires of anti-Westernism? Or will it tip the margins in favor of the large majority of Iranians who don’t support the regime and are waiting for the West to signal this?

I’ll say this: Condi Rice is a lot more likely than Colin Powell (or Richard Armitage, who actually called the Iranian government democratic in testimony before Congress) to come out and say that the administration doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian mullahs. That would certainly direct a lot of energy on the Iranian regime. As it is, the regime is leading Europe, willingly it seems, by the nose.

Either way, the days are racing by. There is a lot of historical context and import to what’s happening in Iran. But we don’t have much time to think about it. Either the West will do something, or it won’t.

This decade and this year – perhaps these next six months – will be the most important times of the 21st century. They will shape it every bit as much as the use of gunpowder and cannons shaped the face of Europe. Only this time, it’s not stone and iron balls smashing city gates that will change the strategic picture. It is the threat of mushroom clouds smashing entire cities.

Dan Denning,
Contributing Editor, Whiskey and Gunpowder
November 28, 2004

P.S. Thanks for reading…this will be an interesting journey. I’m glad you’re with me.