April 18, 2010
Jihadism's War on DemocraciesBy Walid Phares
The term "War of Ideas" began appearing in the years following al-Qaeda terror attacks against the United States on 9/11. In the days following the massacres, the mainstream media displayed a stunning lack of determination in identifying where aggression was coming from and why.
In the hours following the bloodshed in Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Washington, where about three thousand -- mostly civilians -- were killed, the main question raised by networks, publications, and commentators was "Why do they hate us?" Incredibly revealing, this slogan told the world and public at home that America did not know who the "they" (i.e., the attackers, whom they represent, and what they wanted) were. It also underlined another stunning revelation: that what mainstream intellectuals understood from 9/11 was that sheer "hate" was the reason for the attacks, and worse, the roots of this so-called hatred were unknown.
Al-Qaeda's onslaught on American soil signaled the start of what was called the "War on Terror." But historical precision tells us that in reality, the jihadi war on the United States and other democracies began several years earlier. The sudden post-Cold War rise of combat Salafists (al-Qaeda and others) against American and Western targets in the 1990s and the actions taken by Khomeinists (Iran and Hezb'allah) since the early 1980s preceded America's campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq two decades later. Popular and media reactions to the 9/11 attacks in the United States revealed a dramatic reality. The public -- to say nothing of the government -- did not know that the jihadists have been at war with America and other democracies for many years before the Twin Towers attacks.
During the summer of 2004, the 9/11 Commission asked the tragic question repeatedly: "How come we were at war for years before the attacks and we did not know it? How come the U.S. government -- multiple administrations -- did not know it, nor did it inform the people and take action?" The Commission's hard question was warranted, as al-Qaeda declared war against the United States, "the infidels, Crusaders and the Jews" at least twice during the 1990s in tandem with terror attacks in 1993, 1998, and 2000.
The other major question that sprung from the Commission's long and painful hearings was "How come Americans and other democracies did not know about the jihadi wars being waged for decades?" These two grand lines of inquiry puzzled many citizens since 2001, as they realized that there was indeed a war waged by jihadists and that for too long, the public and most of its representatives did not realize it was happening.
As a result, two types of literature expanded in the United States, and later in Europe and the West. One set of books, articles, and panels insists that terrorism is waged by segments of Arab Muslim societies frustrated with Western policies in general and U.S. foreign policy in particular (e.g., economic disenfranchisement and in some cases, racism). The second type of literature links the violence performed by the terrorists directly to Islamic theology. The wedge between the two explanations was wide and has grown larger. Both literatures, though, failed to see or explain the jihadi threat as a movement with global strategies, tactics, and rational steps.
In 1979, fourteen years before Professor Samuel Huntington published his famous article (turned into a book in 1996) "The Clash of Civilizations" in Foreign Affairs (1993), I published my first book al taadudiya (Pluralism), with a second volume dedicated to the analysis of the "relationship between Civilizations," focusing in some chapters on the worldwide ramifications of historical jihad. During the 1980s, I published more books and articles projecting the rise of jihadism and arguing that its ideologues were camouflaging its strategic intentions.
Unluckily, perhaps, the body of my work was mainly in Arabic and went unnoticed in the West, as probably was the case with similar intellectual efforts during the Cold War. During the 1990s, this time from the United States, to which I relocated, I published a few pieces and testified to and briefed Congress and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) about the rising and forthcoming threat of jihadi terror. My warnings -- as were those of other intellectuals and journalists in this field -- were ignored. I made most of my arguments and points long before the official start of the "War on Terror," but they did not impact the debate, let alone the decision-making process back then.
In my later findings, I established that one major reason why the American public was unaware of basic realities in the region and why the U.S. government was not acting to counter the rising threat was a full-fledged campaign waged by the jihadi forces, both financial and militant, to disable American and Western abilities from perceiving, understanding, and eventually countering the expanding menace. In short, what allowed the jihadist campaign to strike surprisingly at Western interest, provoking incoherent debates about the so-called War on Terror, was in fact a "War of Ideas" unleashed by the very ideological forces standing behind the jihadi militant networks and regimes. Not only were the United States and the West targeted by a jihadi war since the 1980s (Khomeinsts) and the 1990s (Salafists), but more importantly, democracies were submitted to a War of Ideas since the 1970s at the hands of a bloc of regimes and ideological circles whose main characteristics were and continue to be sympathizing with jihadist ideologies and practicing authoritarianism domestically.
In 2005 I wrote my first post-9/11 book, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West, outlining what I established as past and future strategies by the global jihadist movements. In 2007, I wrote another book titled The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracies, in which I demonstrated how jihadi forces were able to win their first and second Wars of Ideas against liberal opponents. Last, I followed up with a third book, The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad, suggesting how to defeat their totalitarian ideologies and support democratic forces in the Arab and Muslim world. This chapter is an additional contribution to the discussion as to the conditions for success against radicalization. One major condition for advancement in the confrontation is for the public of liberal democracies to understand the actual equation and the essence of the so-called War of Ideas. Indeed, eight years after 9/11 and after successive attempts by the U.S. government, by most European institutions, and by NGOs on both sides of the Atlantic, the definition of this War of Ideas is still unclear and, in many cases, utterly wrong.
To most architects of the Western War of Ideas waged as of 2004, the issue has been one of public relations and "American image abroad." The U.S. government's various agencies in foreign policy and defense have invested significant time and funds to develop what they deemed "strategic communications" aimed at "swaying the hearts and minds" of Arabs and Muslims. More recent efforts in the United States and Europe focused on what they coined "counter radicalization" efforts. But the essence of both campaigns was still short of determining the actual threat in the War of Ideas: It is the ideology that produces radicalization, and thus, the swaying of opinions.
Therefore, I have been arguing, and continue to do so, that first we need to identify the "ideology" and what constitutes a threat within the components of this ideology. Then we must understand the strategies used by the doctrinaires and followers of this ideology across its various streams and branches before we design the counter-strategies. Historically, the campaigns by jihadi forces to win their own battle inside the Arab and Muslim world before taking it to the West and beyond can be categorized into three "Wars of Ideas."
The First War of Ideas (1950s-1990s)
A historical observation of systematic efforts on behalf of Islamist regimes networked to spread their ideology shows that while their attempts to expand began with their rise in the 1920s, their strategic expansion took place during the latest parts of the Cold War. The Wahhabis, not very influential in their first stages, concentrated on rooting their doctrine inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until oil revenues allowed them to begin the process of ideological export in the mid 1950s. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the late 1920s, also attempted to spread across the region, with little success. The penetration by the Ikhwan of Arab societies was slow and suppressed by authoritarian regimes. Taking advantage of the East-West confrontation for decades, global Salafists (Wahhabis, Ikhwan, and others) focused on expanding Islamist ideology inside the Arab and Muslim world. I term these efforts the first War of Ideas: engaged by the Islamists within their own societies while the West and the Soviets were waging their ideological and propaganda wars against each other. In a sense, the first War of Ideas, launched by the world's jihadists -- first the Salafists and followed later by the Khomeinists -- profited from the capitalist-Marxist clash of ideas to score advances within Muslim societies and assert the oft-chanted slogan "la sharqiya, la gharbiya, umma wahda Islamiya" (No East, No West, one and unique Islamic Umma). It took the Salafists and the Khomeinists the bulk of the twentieth century to organize their movements and rise to influence.
Sheikh Yussuf Qardawi, leading ideologue of the modern jihadist movement and top commentator on Al Jazeera for more than a decade, often asserted that "Islamist awareness" was moving forward and upward after the collapse of the Caliphate, taking advantage of the titanic clashes taking place within the infidel world (kuffar), first during World War II and then during the long Cold War. In his estimate, the spread of the Islamist ideology -- at the expense of its liberal and secular competitors -- was possible partly because the powers on the same side were destroying each other: fascists versus Allies, and then democracies versus communists. Khomeinism had a similar assessment of success. Ideologues such as Sheik Hassan Fadlallah, an ideological mentor of Hezb'allah, often theorized that the Islamist forces were able to surge dramatically in the Muslim and Arab world because of the failure of the West to attract youth and the public to "progressive and liberal ideals."
But this global ideology of Islamism-jihadism, emerging between the two postwar giants, had its own rivalries and difficulties. Sunni-backed Salafism and Shia-rooted Khomeinism were at odds on doctrinal, theological, and political levels. Wahabbis and Ikhwan framed Iran's Islamism as "unorthodox." The mullahs in turn accused the Sunni Islamists of reinstating the oppressive Muawiya Caliphate at the expense of the Shia. Jihadism's two branches did not rise to merge; that is a firm finding. But both trees developed common grounds, even though not in coordination: the culture of jihadism against all infidels, liberal and progressive Muslims, the West, Communism, Israel, India, Russia, as well as against any polytheist Asian and African cultures. Global jihadism had more in common against the rest of humanity than the jihadists had differences within their own ranks.
Hence the ideological efforts by the Wahhabis, Ikhwan, Deobandis (branches of Salafism), and the Khomeinists converged into the creation of the vastest pool of indoctrinated jihadists in modern times. The radicalization within Muslim societies and its Diaspora that the international society began to discover and worry about as of 9/11 began decades ago at the hands of a long-range, patient, and relentless double-network of Islamist-jihadists, backed by significant financial resources made available by oil revenues. The first War of Ideas was essentially ideological and educational. The jihadist networks concentrated most of their efforts on widening the pool of indoctrinated youth via madrassas, mosques, Hawzas, orphanages, hospitals, state propaganda, and religious policies, in addition to political movements.
The forces of radicalization differed in their strategies on confrontation with the foe. The Salafists designated Communism as their main enemy, relegating Western capitalism to the position of future enemy. Hence Wahhabis and Ikhwan escalated the fight against the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes and parties, culminating in the clash in Afghanistan after 1979. For that purpose, the Salafi web accepted a tactical alliance with the United States and the West to achieve the immediate goal. This attitude was explained -- wrongly by Western apologists -- as a real long-term alliance with the Islamists against the Marxists.
The price of such an interpretation was for America and its allies to abandon liberals, human rights activists, and minorities to the advantage of the Islamists. This abandonment was the first strategic failure of the United States to predict the future: Scrambling after 9/11 to find moderates was really too late after decades of laissez-faire. However, there was another reason for this abandonment of democratic forces in the region. Indeed, the 1973 oil shock sent a strong message to Western industrialized democracies: hands off domestic affairs of the region's regimes, which also translated to forbidding the free world from assisting liberal causes under authoritarian regimes, as was the case with the Kurds, Berbers, Southern Sudanese, dissidents, Arab democrats, and so on. For their part, the Iranian jihadists condemned both "infidel powers" equally. Ayatollah Khomeini blasted the USSR and the United States simultaneously as "Satan," but his regime and its ally Hezb'allah targeted America intensely. The slogan al mawt li amreeka (Death to America) was shouted twenty-two years before the planes of al-Qaeda blasted the Twin Towers. In short, Western concessions to the Islamists during the Cold War allowed the latter to expand their ideology geometrically and irreversibly.
The Second War of Ideas (1990-2001)
With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the rapid democratization of central and Eastern Europe, the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the crumbling of the last militarist regimes in Latin America, and the signal sent by the Tiananmen Square protest, the earthquake produced by the explosion of democratic revolutions at the end of the Cold War shifted priorities for the global jihadist web. On the one hand, the examples of huge marches in the streets of downtown areas formerly ruled by secret police were too menacing for sister regimes in the Arab and Muslim world. Khomeinists, Wahhabis, Baathists, and other dictators in the region felt compelled to preempt potential democratic copycats in their own midst, costing power and wealth of the ruling elites. On the other hand, the Islamist networks, particularly those turned violent jihadists during the war in Afghanistan, realized their calling to replace the discredited authoritarian establishment in the Arab Muslim world. Hence a convergence of strategic interests came to life between traditional Islamists in power and surging Jihadists across the region. The new direction of the global web targeted the West and its liberal democracies, but each stream had a different interest. The Wahhabis and other Islamists in power in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Sudan, and other countries; the Iranian regime; and the vast network of Muslim Brotherhoods with branches within Europe and North America poured sizeable funds, diplomatic influence, media, and cadres into the most powerful battle of ideas in modern history. Their aim was to block the rise of awareness in the West regarding the necessity of backing the spread of democracy in the Greater Middle East and beyond. The main thrust of the second War of Ideas took place mostly in Europe's western democracies, the United States, Canada, and other democracies. It was embodied by an immense investment of hundreds of millions of petro-dollars in the educational, media, and intellectual institutions in the West specializing in foreign policy, national security, and other related academic fields. The goal was to delay the rise of a consciousness vis-à-vis the rise of jihadi ideologies and the severe problem of human rights in the region. After the West intervened on three continents to "back democracy," towards the end of the Cold War, many of the Muslim world's regimes feared a similar repeat in their countries. The best strategy employed by the elites was to take refuge under "religious legitimacy," and the best defense of this legitimacy was to create a barrage within the West obstructing any criticism of jihadism and its derivatives.
Accordingly, the chain of financial and lobbying moves in most influential liberal democracies was very successful. The petrodollar regimes, forming a consortium closer to cultural imperialism, targeted departments of Middle East studies, international relations, history, and other political entities on American, European, and other Western campuses, seizing control of setting the curriculum, determining the issues to research and teach, and in many cases, selecting the instructors and scholars. Oil funding practically eliminated the study of human rights, democratization, minorities, feminism, and jihadist ideologies from Western academia. Graduates of corrupted Middle East studies and its related fields populated the ranks of the foreign service, mainstream media, and teaching.
The 1990s witnessed the eradication of Western capacity to produce independent knowledge of the region's multiple dramas and threats. The Second War of Ideas, mostly via soft power, subverted national security expertise in America and other democracies and took out its ability of lending support to civil societies south and east of the Mediterranean.
While NATO intervened twice in Yugoslavia and the United States exclusively in Panama and Haiti, and East Timor was miraculously saved, the oppressed peoples of Southern Sudan and Lebanon, as well as ethnic communities in jeopardy such as the oppressed people in Darfur, the Kurds, the Berbers of North Africa, and many more were left to their fates. Women were abandoned to gender apartheid in Afghanistan and Iran, and students and intellectuals were facing suppression across the region with little interest from Western capitals.
The reason behind this general abandonment of the underdogs in the Arab and Muslim world was none other than the victories scored by authoritarian petro-powers in America and Europe. Since the only "Middle East conflict" recognized by the international public debate was the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, all other "tragedies" were dismissed as interference in the region's affairs. Equally lethal to international investigation into the region's ideological debate was the more dangerous dismissal by petro-lobbying of the nature of jihadism. The latter was framed as a spiritual enterprise, a theological question, and in the best conditions, a mere reaction to U.S. policy and past European colonialism. The Western public was deprived of a scientific and even basic understanding of the jihadi doctrines, movements, and aims. The most efficient success of the second War of Ideas was to take out Western abilities to see the strategic expansion of the ideology at the root of many terrorist movements and regimes.
Any investigation of either the mass human rights abuse of the peoples inside the realm of the "Muslim world" or the nature of jihadism was met by a campaign of demonization and guilt-imposition via concepts such as "Islamophobia," "Zionism," or "legacy of colonialism." The push by the petro-regimes and their supporters during the 1990s was the shield under which pools of radicalization continued to grow in the East and through which public opinion was neutralized in the West.
However, there were other even more lethal consequences of the second War of Ideas. The more radical jihadists, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other Salafists, and Hezb'allah found the most fertile grounds in their own recruitment not only in the region, but also within the West. The short ten years separating the end of the Cold war from the War on Terror were very dense in ideological warfare waged by the global jihadist web.
But the latter has morphed into three large creatures, two of Salafi nature and one Khomeinist. The classical Salafi mainstream continued to include the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Deobandis. Their strategy was to resume the thrust of the first War of Ideas into the post-Soviet era. Their efforts doubled inside the Muslim world, creating more media networks such as Al Jazeera and expanding the madrassas, and also accelerated throughout the West by widening the funding of Middle East studies and backing the apologist lobbies.
The essence of this group's war plan was to delay Western awareness of the ideological threat while seizing the political culture in the regions as a permanent fact. However, the classical Salafists had no intention of clashing openly and violently with liberal democracies, but on taking it from the inside, or at least paralyzing its counter-action for a long as needed until the war was won by ideological penetration.
But the second generation of Salafists, led by the rise of al-Qaeda, broke away from the stealth war managed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis. Bin Laden and his ilk shattered the camouflage by issuing two major declarations of jihad in 1996 and 1998 and by disseminating the corresponding fatwas throughout the radicalized pools. Al-Qaeda's priority in the 1990s and beyond was to recruit for the military war and engage in it, not to expand jihadism silently among followers within the West. Hence 9/11 the changed the equation.
The Third War of Ideas (2001-2009)
By striking hard and at the heart of American society, al-Qaeda shattered the "silent strategies" of the classical Salafists. The U.S. public rose to question the nonexistence of a threat and thus demanded to know who the "enemy" was and what it wanted. Hence the debate about the existence of a foe was wide open in America, which led to a debate about what to do about it.
The Western War of Ideas began as a result of the shock of 9/11, but that war was not really won in eight years. Across the Atlantic, the jihadists shook off European public opinion by striking in Madrid and London and rising in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. The third War of Ideas was in fact triggered by sensational jihadi actions in the West, prompting two schools to clash.
Gradually, more citizens were convinced that there was a threat coming from the Arab and Muslim worlds -- a threat that they did not know enough about, but they realized that there was a debate about its nature. Some literature focused mostly on the idea of the Islamic religion attempting to link violence to theology. Other research determined that the issue had more to do with ideology rather than strict religion. That is the debate inside the West.
But the most dramatic dynamics of this third War of Ideas was the explosion of dissidence inside the Arab and Muslim world. Gradually since 2001 and increasingly since the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, counter-jihadi forces and pro-democracy voices have expanded. Profiting from Western debates, seizing opportunities on the battlefield to organize their own democratic agenda, and maximizing the use of alternative media such as internet chat rooms and blogging, Arab, Middle-Eastern, and Muslim dissidents and human rights activists shattered their side of the wall by bringing the story of oppression to the international arena. Former slaves from Sudan, ex-political prisoners, reformists, opposition leaders, exiles, and other figures from democracy activism in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the region entered the discussion on the battle of ideas. The issue was not reduced to the idea of being "extremist" in the Arab and Muslim worlds; it became about either being active in the struggle for democracy or being against it. Unlike its two predecessors, the Third War of Ideas widened in multiple directions:
First, by means of a campaign by the classical jihadi powers (backed by oil-producing regimes) to suppress two narratives in the West -- one, that jihadism is behind terrorism, and two, that democratic dissidence in the Middle East is the response to radicalization. Wahhabi and Khomeinist funding and influence have been fiercely attempting to counter the rise of consciousness about these two issues in liberal democracies. One of the main tools used by classical jihadi lobbyists is the charge of so-called "Islamophobia." Any investigation of Islamism -- even as an ideology -- is being met by attacks accusing the counter-jihadists and the pro-democracy dissidents as anti-Islamic.
Second, a campaign by the international jihadists, al Qaeda, and their nebulous allies to further mobilize the body of militants into terror. This campaign runs parallel to the classical jihadi efforts to block the debate about jihadism. Hence, the combat jihadis are profiting from the shield provided by their competitors. In this third War of Ideas, al-Qaeda and Hezb'allah recruit and radicalize using a lethal ideology, while the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Iranian Khomeinists secure the protection of this ideology.
Third, Western governments have been deploying efforts to de-radicalize the jihadists "after" they have been indoctrinated, which presents tremendous difficulties. The results have been meager and rarely successful, for short of responding to the ideological claims and delegitimizing them, Western efforts are useless and costly.
Fourth, counter-jihadist NGOs and intellectuals in the West are attempting to awaken their own societies regarding the mounting threat. They hope to provoke a mass awareness of the menace, which would lead to strategic measures. But the community of experts, commentators, and activists is divided as to the arguments and strategies. While some narrow their focus to theological debates, others concentrate on discrete issues. No global strategies in the War of Ideas have been duly set up.
Finally, democratic dissidents have continued to be active, but as for the counter-jihadi community, it is very divided and often focused on particular local causes.
The State of the War of Ideas (2009- )
Under the Bush administration, the War of Ideas witnessed mutations and changes. While discourse at the level of the president, his main spokespersons, and congressional leaders from both parties regarding jihadism and democracy were moving in the direction of encouraging pluralism and isolating radicalism, the trickling down within the bureaucracy was not followed through on.
While directives from the top levels aimed at encouraging an intellectual confrontation with the jihadist ideology and backing of the pro-democracy forces, the body of experts tasked with the mission acted against the aforementioned goals, leading to the collapse of U.S.-backed efforts. Most projects, including media production, funded by the American taxpayer were deflected from their original aim by pressure groups sympathetic to either Salafi or Khomeinist lobbies.
Eight years after 9/11, government expertise in the domain of strategic communications was unable to define the ideology behind the threat and in many cases framed it as a socioeconomical or political reaction to U.S. policy, not a sui generis doctrinal construct. The Bush administration's push to wage a campaign against the radicals was not followed by its own bureaucracy. Across the layers of the executive branch and agencies, including defense, intelligence, homeland security, and diplomacy, a compromised expertise halted the process of support to democracy forces, blocked public intellectual awareness of the jihadi threat, and moved to partner with Islamist movements at the expense of Muslim democrats.
But the Bush administration's declarations in support of democracy in the region encouraged many NGOs, dissidents, and democracy activists to become bolder and engage in their own struggle on the front lines against terror and extremism. Even if the Third War of Ideas from 2001 to 2009 did not produce strategic successes due to the influence of the oil-producing regimes and their influence inside the West, the most successful results were ironically achieved by non-supported segments of Middle East societies. In Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution took advantage of Franco-American pressure to engage in a democracy uprising. In Iran, the Green Movement, against all expectations in Western chanceries, showed tremendous popular representation, particularly among youth and women in 2009. In Sudan, the Darfur human rights activists pushed for the cause of genocide to be heard. Iraq's democratic parties, although coming second after the traditional parties in elections (in the 2010 elections they actually scored the highest numbers), rose again. In Afghanistan, women made strident advances in political integration. Minorities across the region became louder in their quest for cultural rights as the Berbers, Kurds, Assyrian-Chaldeans, and liberals at large from the Peninsula to the Maghreb organized. The War of Ideas waged by the U.S. government was stymied by the combined efforts of international jihadi lobbies and hostile bureaucratic circles within the administration. But oddly, the "freed" civil society forces in the region moved up and consolidated their gains.
In response to the rise of democratic and human rights elements in the Greater Middle East, jihadists and militant Islamists in the region and the Diaspora reverted to deterrence against liberal democracies to preempt the most dangerous menace against terror ideologies: an alliance between progressive forces in international society and liberal forces in the Muslim world. Hence a multi-pronged strategy was developed by regimes affiliated with the OIC and OPEC (mainly Iran, the Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhoods, Qatar, Syria, Sudan, etc.) to block realization of the alliance between the West and democrats in the Muslim world. The gist of this campaign is to deter the United States and its allies from backing the liberal forces in the region under the charge of "unilateral intervention in the affairs of other countries" while simultaneously blocking the democracy forces in the Muslim world from reaching out to the international community under the accusation of "serving the interests of imperialism and colonialism." The ultimate objective of the authoritarian and jihadi forces was to preemptively break the alliance between the free world and the suppressed civil societies in the region.
Inside the Arab and Muslim Diaspora in the West, the jihadists -- both Salafists and Khomeinists -- have been winning the battle of political socialization, simply because governments have been seeking the expert advice of an academia sympathetic to the Islamists. Both in Europe and in North America, jihadophiles do not exceed twelve percent of the communities, but they "control the microphone" and relationships with authorities. Hence the representation of the silent majority is hijacked by the radicals. While the counter-jihadists, progressives, liberals, and human rights activists reach around fifteen percent, their outreach to the majority is limited because of the failed policies of Western governments, themselves relying heavily on an expertise compromised by the jihadi financial power.
With the Obama administration taking over, chances for going either direction are equal. The first African-American president should be inclined to assist minorities in jeopardy worldwide, and particularly in the Arab world. In principle, an Obama presidency cannot avoid coming to the rescue of Darfur, Mauritania's slaves, and Algeria's Berbers, as well as assist the Kurds, the Lebanese, women, students, and other suppressed segments of Middle-Eastern societies. But the Obama administration's engagement in dialogue with the Iranian and Syrian regimes and potentially with the Taliban and other jihadists can have significant consequences on the state of democracy forces in the region.
In addition, the adoption of a lexicon by the U.S. and European bureaucracies calling for a ban on the use of terms indicting the jihadists will also strengthen the influence of the radicals instead of curbing their appeal. The next few years will better show in which direction the U.S. government and the West will go in terms of the War of Ideas. Most evidence indicates that the authorities will withdraw from this ideological confrontation, leaving the arena to the jihadi lobbies. But there is evidence that democracy forces in the region, even if abandoned by the West, will continue to struggle in their own War of Ideas against the jihadists and authoritarians.
If the U.S. government (both the administration and Congress) change course from engagement with the authoritarian regimes to engagement with civil societies, and if other liberal democracies come together in shaping a joint strategy of confronting radicals by allying themselves with the democrats in the Greater Middle East, I will make the following policy recommendations to win the third War of Ideas.
First, identify the counter-jihadi and liberal activists and intellectuals within the Muslim, Arab, and Middle-Eastern communities in the West and empower them so that they can present an alternative to their communities in the battle of ideas, and let the debate take place naturally. If given equal opportunities, the democratic forces will win these debates.
Second, identify the progressive, liberal, and democratic forces, as well as human rights activists, in the Muslim and Arab world and across the Greater Middle East, and extend enough help to enable them to engage in their own battle of arguments and ideas. The most powerful response to radicalization is democratization -- not in terms of political progress only (election and vote), but also in terms of political culture. When individuals choose democratic political culture, they opt for pluralism and the respect of human rights as recognized universally. And when they do so, they reject Salafism and Khomeinism and the latter's interpretation of conflicts and international relations.
Third, engage in mass public education and information within civil societies in the West and throughout liberal democracies about the threat of jihadism as an ideology and the challenge faced by the region's democrats. Without a full understanding of the confrontation by the public in the United States, Europe, and other democracies, no international support can be sustained to win the War of Ideas.
Fourth, address the ideological roots of terror as a prelude to addressing its political grounds. One needs to remove jihadi terrorism from the equation to allow Palestinians and Israelis to reach peace, the Lebanese to reach security, and the Iranians, Syrians, Sudanese, and other societies achieve social peace.
But above all, regardless of where government policies will head and the choices to be made by leaders and politicians in the years to come, it is crucial to continue the debate and develop platforms for an ongoing discussion of the problem. The ideologically rooted threat cannot be dismissed as a side-effect of politics as usual. It has and will continue to have a profound and dramatic effect on human history. The goal of any War of Ideas must be to advance freedom and equality as solid for stability and peace.
Professor Walid Phares is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an advisor to the Counter Terrorism Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the author of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracies.