Winning the War of Ideas for Islamic Hearts and Minds

The "war of ideas is the primary arena of conflict," stated Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Stephen Ulph at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on September 6, 2013.  Ulph spoke as part of an all-star expert lineup discussing the international struggle against militant Islam during a daylong briefing by the Westminster Institute (WI) entitled "al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood:  A New American Strategy."  Presenting many insightful panels with experts such as Ulph already featured in WI's 2012 book Fighting the Ideological War:  Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism, copies of which were freely available at the briefing, the event was mandatory for anyone who wishes to engage effectively in this conflict.

Fellow event participant and book contributor Patrick Sookhdeo opened the proceedings with an address in which he argued that "in no way" are the United States and her allies "involved in any way in a war against Islam" as a faith per se.  Yet within this faith "we must address ideas" of aggressive and authoritarian agendas; otherwise, a "serious handicap" will result.  "The strength of al-Qaeda is not in its leaders, but in its ideology," Sookhdeo observed.   WI Executive Director and Fighting the Ideological War editor Katharine Gorka concurred that al-Qaeda's Islamic beliefs, not any given location with a street address, were the terrorists' "center of gravity."  This is the "one thing that the enemy must have to continue operations."   

One-time Egyptian Muslim extremist and Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Senior Fellow Tawfik Hamid accordingly criticized what he perceived as a "military confrontation with an ideology" in the years since September 11, 2001.  Hamid argued in "Brainistan" that the confrontation with militant Islam must take place at the "mental level."  Political warfare scholar J. Michael Waller, meanwhile, found it curious that American policymakers had failed to understand the "mobilization power of ideology," even though this was necessary for winning American elections.

Katharine's husband and fellow book contributor Sebastian Gorka agreed, quoting current al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri that over half of his group's struggle is in the "battlefield of the media."  For the self-described "baby of the Cold War" Sebastian, whose parents fled Communist Hungary, the past struggle against Communism informed his current strategy against Islamism.  A "fundamentally ideological victory" marked the end of a "fundamentally ideological war" without one shot fired during the Berlin Wall's fall on November 9, 1989, despite preceding years of arms races.

Yet Sebastian elaborated that Islamism's ideological threat came not so much from highly visible terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, but rather from broad social movements like the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  All Islamists, though, had the "same strategic goal," Sebastian observed, with arguments between them being merely "about timing and tactics."  Thus, Sebastian rejected the view of some that the MB's "political" Islamists could somehow counter "violent" Islamists like al-Qaeda.

Sebastian analogized al-Qaeda and MB to the isolated Focoist attacks of Communist revolutionary Che Guevara and Mao Zedong's "people's war" in China, respectively.  Despite Che's radical chic youth hero popularity today on t-shirts, his guerilla war theories were "rubbish," and Bolivian security forces killed this "loser" at the age of 39 in 1967.  Mao, by contrast, died as China's ruler in bed at age 79 after his societally comprehensive "counterstate" took power.  MB groups around the world had an "indirect ... soft approach" reflecting Mao's vision of long-term infiltration of society as a whole, something al-Qaeda and similar groups "are starting to understand." 

Cold War public diplomacy veteran Robert Reilly, another Fighting the Ideological War contributor, drew as well from the past in order to confront Islamism.  Reilly advised, "Don't get into a war of ideas unless you understand those ideas" and "unless you have an idea."  Echoing Katharine's "center of gravity" comments, Reilly in particular noted that a failure to debate Islamic religious ideas gave al-Qaeda, in the words of one commentator, a "theological safe haven." 

The ineffectiveness of various public diplomacy efforts experienced by Reilly at the Department of Defense after September 11, 2001, however, was sometimes "personally too painful to relate."  The American government, for example, launched the Arabic-language Radio Sawa, yet Reilly dismissed its programming as largely "youth pop music" with "lyrics so offensive they had to be changed."  The "war of ideas cannot be fought by the battle of the bands," Reilly criticized.  In particular, Saudi Arabia's king has indicated that he does not listen to Radio Sawa, a damning indictment for any American attempt to influence Arab policymakers.

Reilly's experience with the American regime change in Iraq was also disappointing.  In a Middle East dominated by state-owned media, satellite phone possession was a capital offense under Saddam Hussein.  Amidst this intellectually arid environment, initial air attacks against Hussein's regime in 2003 destroyed the Iraqi Information Ministry, and "there went the broadcasting infrastructure" for any post-Hussein American initiatives, Reilly lamented.  Into the media void came Arabic-language television from Iran.  American forces also gave no thought to any "Iraqi Federalist Papers Project" discussing concepts of free government in an Iraqi context.  Yet a wildly popular Iraqi television show called Light or Overcoming the Legacy of Evil exposing Hussein's crimes cost only $1.2 million to produce.

Reilly similarly noted that NATO forces in Afghanistan took no efforts to expose Taliban atrocities to the Afghan people.  General David Petraeus considered this "nuts" upon taking command in Afghanistan, given his similar policies in Iraq.  Another information warfare gap appeared in an Afghan poll ten years after September 11, 2001, showing that 93% of respondents had never heard of al-Qaeda's attacks that day.  When shown pictures of these attacks, however, 59% of respondents deemed the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan justified.

The Islam scholar and former Mitt Romney presidential campaign adviser Walid Phares assessed that Americans through their government "are not waging the war of ideas" and "if we are, we are waging it on the side of those who are opposing us."  American Middle East policy is "influenced by those we should bring down in the Middle East" such that Phares sees a "Hamas version" of events in official proclamations.  "There is no kidding about it," Phares said in reference to a "Muslim Brotherhood operation in Washington."  

Referencing her in parts controversial book American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character, with its thesis of a "de facto occupation" in America by Soviet espionage during the 1930s and 1940s, Diana West seconded Phares.  Compared to this "flunked ... first experience with subversion," West saw America "doing worse today" with respect to the MB.  Citing audience member Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy, Sebastian complained that if "the Egyptian people can reject the Brotherhood there, why can't we reject the Brotherhood here?"

Phares identified the "mothership" of this MB "crisis of penetration" in academia.  There were a "series of impacts" from the "impact of the classroom" in a "compromised Middle Eastern studies world."  "From the classroom," for example, "you go to the newsroom" such that news organizations like the New York Times referred to Osama bin Laden as a "Saudi dissident."  Phares considered the "courtroom" and the "war room" of government as well, where jihadists and salafists appear as Islamic "revivalists" who "will be our partners."

Such language whitewashing any problems in Islam due to MB political pressure was a major concern.  While the 9/11 Commission Report was an "uncommon document" of government veracity, Sebastian now had to submit all of his slides used at government facilities to a "nameless censorship board" for a non-appealable review.  Sebastian noted a thought from one of his students' writings: "if your enemy can control what you can say about him, you have already lost the war."  Sebastian compared present official terminology about various aspects of Islam to calling Lenin a "misguided democrat" instead of a Communist.

Mental honesty would be necessary for any Islamic reform movement, something that demanded "intellectual restructuring," in Ulph's words.  Sookhdeo as well assessed that Muslims seeking to embrace a pluralistic society required a "massive reinterpretation" of Islam.  Discussing efforts to reinterpret violent Koran verses such as the Sword Verse 9:5, Hamid confessed that "there is a problem in early Islam" with "a lot of violence."  Thus Hamid would support only a "multi-stage democracy" in countries like Egypt, with elections being the final step in democratic development.  Katherine likewise saw in America a "profound process of discernment" because ultimately, "we don't know whether Islam is compatible" in fact with a free society.

Discerning and defeating militant Islam, though, entailed that Western countries like America have their own faith.  Discussing the "transcendental" nature of jihadist ideology, Sebastian warned that "if you don't believe in God, you will never understand the enemy."  Sookhdeo, meanwhile, demanded that, having "lost its ideological base," America "rediscover an identity" in "Judeo-Christian" faith-based freedom and virtue.  Only an America "sure of itself" could successfully demand allegiance to liberty's principles from Muslims.

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