April 17, 2010
The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy
After the strikes of 9/11, a plethora of books dealing with the threat of radical Islam appeared in the West. In The War of Ideas: Jihad Against Democracy, Dr. Walid Phares -- who had been studying Islamism and its impact on international relations decades before 9/11 made it popular -- goes one step further by articulating the struggle from democracy's point of view. That is, not only does he delineate the general threat that radical Islam and jihad pose to the non-Muslim world, but he does so through a distinctly democratic paradigm, showing what, specifically, is at stake.
The result is eye-opening. The conflict between the West and radical Islam -- or as Phares more accurately shows, the conflict between democracy and theocracy -- is wide and far-ranging, and hardly limited to a few, finite grievances (whether Israel, oil, or unflattering cartoons of Muhammad): "Between the mosaic of democracies and the panoply of Jihadism, the disagreement is philosophical, historical, and doctrinal: it is about how the world has functioned for centuries and how it should evolve" (p.3).
True to its title, The War of Ideas juxtaposes the antithetical, and ultimately existential, ideas that fuel the current conflict, particularly by expounding the many irreconcilable positions between democracy and radical Islam and how the latter has declared war on fundamental pillars of the former, including pluralism, gender equality, freedom of speech, and religion. As Phares puts it, "In this book, my goal is limited to the warfare of minds" (p.xxi) -- that is, the notions that precede, and then fuel, the warfare of bodies, and which must be grasped by the citizenry of any democracy.
That is not to say that Phares' book is abstract; insightful historical and contemporary lessons permeate it. For example, he shows how radical Islam is not so much an aberration as it is the latest manifestation of totalitarianism. As with communists and fascists, Islamists firmly believe that they alone hold the truth, that they are endowed with a universal mission, and that their mission culminates in the destruction of "rule of the people" -- democracy -- wherever and whenever it appears. Whereas Nazism offered a thousand-year Reich under the "master race" and Marxism offered an aristocracy of labor, Islamism offers God's rule on earth -- and will stop at nothing to achieve it.
Phares also offers several applicable analogies between the Islamists and the totalitarians of the 20th century. These amount to harbingers that should serve as useful reminders of not only how Islamists exploit democracy to their advantage, but what they have in store, and the only way they can be confronted:
The "democratic" installment of Nazis and Fascists in Europe, and the transformation of Germany and Italy into armed and expansionist regimes, led to the horrors of World War II. Islamist electoral victories, without reform in their ideological agendas, will ineluctably lead to the establishment of exclusionist Islamist states, unleashing jihadi war in the region. The electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine isn't the issue; its jihadi agenda is" (p.191).
Meanwhile, as the latest anti-democratic forces plot and plan in accordance to ideologies they are willing to die for, Phares shows how the West has undergone a "lobotomy" in regards to the war of ideas: "[T]he collective international mind [lost] the ability to learn what was really happening in the Arab and Muslim world and to form a correct vision of history, facts, objectives, and the real attitudes of these radical forces" (p.153).
This epistemological undermining is the result of numerous phenomena -- most notorious among them the fact that Middle East studies, thanks in no small part to the Wahabbi lobby and its petro-dollars, have been producing generations of scholars, and subsequent policymakers, who not only are blind to the Islamist threat, but who naïvely (or nefariously) perpetuate it.
Similarly, Phares appreciates the dramatic role that the Qatari-based Arabic satellite station Al Jazeera plays: "Al Jazeera has influenced the Arab world and its diaspora to devastating effect, and much to the advantage of the jihadi bloc ... The region is at the mercy of al Jazeera and its ideological bias; al Jazeera has won several rounds over the shy attempts by the United States to readjust the image" (p.184). As a fellow Arabic-speaker who frequently monitors Al Jazeera, I can concur with these observations.
In the end, The War of Ideas leaves us with two denouements. First, the status quo:
All it takes for the jihadists to make progress is to continue to implant their ideology in the minds of the younger waves of followers. And all it takes for the supporters of the radicals within the international society (and particularly in Western democracies) is to prevent the public, especially youth, from understanding this equation (p.xx).
The alternative is an American awakening, where
Americans and democracies around the world ... ask questions about jihad, Jihadism, the caliphate, kufr, dar el harb, dar el Islam, and other crucial matters. They might suddenly understand that an ideology is growing inside the Muslim world, one that was previously misexplained within the West, and as a result there would be a crack in the wall. Someone would have to respond to bin Laden's speeches. "What is he talking about?" Americans would ask. "You've told us in the classrooms and in the newsrooms that jihad is a spiritual business" (p.173).
While the verdict is still out as to which scenario will come to fruition, Phares' War of Ideas is the sort of book that, if read and absorbed, can help bring about the second, more hopeful scenario: an American awakening.