Losing the "war of ideas" in europe: what is to be done?


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Jeffrey M. Bale

Director, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program

Monterey Institute of International Studies

I. Introduction

In recent years policymakers, pundits, academicians, and intelligence analysts have all become increasingly concerned about how to conduct and eventually win the supposedly “new,” post-9/11 “War of Ideas,” i.e., the struggle for influence, especially within the Islamic world, between the paradigmatic worldviews and core values associated with the United States and the West, on the one hand, and those of its jihadist enemies and their sympathizers, on the other.1 Almost every knowledgeable observer agrees that such an ideological struggle is an integral component, perhaps even the most important component, of the so-called “Global War on Terrorism,”2 and most commentators have likewise concurred that the U.S. and its allies are not doing nearly enough to ensure that they will ultimately emerge victorious in this struggle to influence the “hearts and minds” of Muslim communities, whether it be occurring in important Muslim-majority countries or in other nations with substantial Muslim minorities. Indeed, many specialists believe that the West is already going down to defeat in this era’s most vital ideological conflict, both within and outside of the confines of the Islamic world. I am sorry to say that I myself share this highly pessimistic view, including with respect to Muslim communities in Europe. Beyond this general consensus, however, there are considerable differences of opinion about how best to conduct or wage this ideological struggle.

In the essay that follows, I intend to proceed by briefly discussing various aspects of U.S. national strategy as they relate specifically to the “War of Ideas,” then highlight some of the problematic policies and attitudes adopted by European elites towards Muslim communities in both their own countries and, under the auspices of the European Union, throughout much of the continent, and conclude by suggesting some new approaches to defending and promoting our values, both at home and in the Islamic world, which requires touching upon the potential merits or demerits of certain Western ideological themes. Note that this essay constitutes nothing more than a preliminary and indeed somewhat impromptu analysis in response to the specific request of the conference sponsors, and that much more time and effort would have been required in order to carry out additional research or even flesh out certain key arguments. Hence, despite being informed by research on various matters that I have been concerned with for several years – the nature of Islamist and jihadist ideologies, the objectives of jihadist terrorist groups with a global agenda, the often subversive activities of diverse Islamist networks operating in Europe, and the astonishingly short-sighted and self-defeating measures that have often been adopted by European elites in response to Islamist agitation, the discussion below should be regarded as being more or less “off the top of my head” (albeit augmented with much “cutting and pasting” of bibliographic references). At times I have intentionally adopted a mildly combative tone, since apart from being something of a contrarian I think it is important to squarely confront certain important but contentious issues which may impinge directly on the future conduct of the ideological struggle against global jihadist networks – it may, after all, be useful heuristically to have a mini-war of ideas about how best to wage the “War of Ideas” – but I hope that I will at least manage to provoke thought instead of ire.

II. The “War of Ideas” in U.S. National Strategy
In a September 20, 2001 address to a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush rightly insisted that the jihadists who sponsored and carried out the 9/11 attacks were “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” and that they were thus comparable to the fascists and other prior totalitarians who were destined to end up “in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”3 One might therefore have been led to assume that a key part of the administration’s strategy for waging the “war on terrorism” would, from the very outset, be focused on countering that new totalitarian ideology. In actual fact, however, there were only scattered, perfunctory references to ideology and the “War of Ideas” in the administration’s February 2003 strategic statement, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. Moreover, the emphasis therein was primarily on winning that war by diminishing the so-called “underlying conditions” that “terrorists seek to exploit” through, e.g., finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so as to “reverse the spread of extremist ideology.”4 However helpful promoting a solution to that conflict would be in dampening the general levels of Muslim frustration and hostility, attitudes that Islamist terrorists do in fact systematically seek to exploit in order to radicalize the Muslim majority and obtain new recruits, the standard arguments about the supposedly objective “underlying causes” of terrorism are seriously problematic.5 In any event, the 2003 strategy statement confined itself to making a few vague references to waging and winning the war of ideas.

Fortunately, by September 2006, that initial failure to pay sufficient attention to ideological matters seemed to have been rectified, when the Bush administration published an updated version of its earlier strategic policy guidelines. In the very first sentence, it proclaimed that “America is at war with a transnational terrorist movement fueled by a radical ideology of hatred, oppression, and murder.”6 It then characterized the “War on Terror [sic]” as “a different kind of war,” argued that from the outset it had been “both a battle of arms and a battle of ideas,” and concluded that in addition to fighting on the battlefield, the United States must “promote freedom and human dignity as alternatives to the terrorists’ perverse vision of oppression and totalitarian rule.”7

In short, this new strategy was based on two premises. First, that the ideology of the jihadist enemy, which “justifies the use of violence against innocents in the name of religion,” must be confronted.8 This point was emphasized at various junctures throughout the document. Given the assumption that the transnational jihadist movement, although “not monolithic,” was united by “a common vision, a common set of ideas about the nature of the world, and a common goal of ushering in totalitarian rule,” it followed that it was necessary to fight against both the terrorists and their “murderous ideology,” and that in “the long run, winning the War on Terror [sic] means winning the battle of ideas.”9 Why? Because [i]deas can transform the embittered and disillusioned either into murderers willing to kill innocents, or into free peoples living harmoniously in a diverse society.”10 Elsewhere, in one of the most persuasive parts of the document, it was argued that terrorism springs from a combination of “[p]olitical alienation,” “[g]rievances that can be blamed on others,” “[s]ubcultures of conspiracy and misinformation,” and “[a]n ideology that justifies murder,” and that “[d]efeating terrorism in the long run requires that each of these factors be addressed.”11 All of this seems more or less incontestable, since Qa‘idat al-Jihad’s ideology must in fact be effectively countered, neutralized, and discredited it the U.S. ever hopes to reduce the number of potential future recruits into jihadist organizations.

Second, the document argued that the so-called “freedom agenda” was the “best long-term answer” to al-Qa‘ida’s goals due to “the freedom and dignity that comes when human liberty is protected by effective democratic institutions.”12 Later, this theme was reprised: “The long-term solution for winning the War on Terror [sic] is the advancement of freedom and dignity through effective democracy,” where “freedom is indivisible,” since “effective democracies” are the “antidote to the ideology of terrorism today.”13 Indeed, it was argued therein that effective democracy provides the solution to each of the four factors identified above as being crucial in motivating today’s terrorism. In the end, it was asserted that, even though democracies “are not immune to terrorism,” democracy was “the antithesis of terrorist tyranny, which is why the terrorists denounce it and are willing to kill the innocent to stop it.”14 Alas, as will be discussed below, these claims about the intrinsic value and miraculous curative powers of promoting democracy are far more problematic. It was rightly emphasized, however, that while elections “are the most visible sign of a free society and can play a critical role in advancing effective democracy,” these “alone are not enough.”15

Unfortunately, the actual measures taken by the Bush administration to wage this “War of Ideas” have thus far fallen terribly short. In the words of William Rosenau, “the United States has so far failed to conduct anything approaching an effective counterideological campaign against al-Qaida,” and what used to be referred to as “political warfare” is “today not a significant part of the ‘global war on terrorism.’”16 One problem is that the amount of resources devoted to this ideological struggle has been relatively paltry. As many observers have pointed out, the vast Cold War apparatus that had been created to wage a multifaceted ideological struggle against the Soviet Bloc using a variety of overt and covert techniques was largely dismantled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its few remaining components were often carelessly incorporated into other agencies whose agendas were not necessarily compatible with the various approaches to waging such struggles. Despite President Bush’s periodic references to “ideological struggle,” the State Department’s budget for public diplomacy “remains stuck at its pre-9/11 level of $1 billion per year, a mere 0.3 percent of the U.S. defense budget.”17 Indeed, in a 2003 State Department Advisory Commission report, former Ambassador Edward Djerjerian called for “an immediate end to the absurd and dangerous underfunding of public diplomacy in a time of peril.”18

However, America’s failure in this context has not been due solely to the relative lack of resources that the government has expended after 9/11. It is also a result of the misguided media strategies initiated by the Bush administration to conduct this vital ideological struggle. Essentially, the general approach adopted so far has been characterized by the launching of blatant public relations campaigns, devised primarily by American advertising agencies, which are designed to improve America’s rapidly deteriorating image abroad, above all in the Islamic world.19 Apart from the absurd belief that P.R. campaigns can somehow succeed in winning over Muslim “hearts and minds” at a time when American foreign policies are bitterly resented throughout most of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the management and content of these campaigns have both left much to be desired. One example of poor planning was the “Shared Values” media campaign, in which a select group of “happy” Muslim Americans recorded statements for TV commercials that were designed to be broadcast throughout the Islamic world; yet in the end, many major Arab television networks (such as al-Jazira) refused to air them. Moreover, to some observers even the contents of the “Shared Values” campaigns were misguided inasmuch as they were designed primarily to demonstrate American tolerance. As Robert Reilly has emphasized, “[t]he fact that Islam is tolerated here is not a particularly persuasive message to Muslims who think that Islam is true”; furthermore, “a demonstration of tolerance is not a convincing message to those who do not think tolerance is a virtue, but a sign of moral decline.”20 He is also highly critical of the MTV-style approach to public diplomacy, in which Arab and American pop music are broadcast to the Muslim world on stations such as Radio Sawa and Radio Farda in a manner that, unlike at the Voice of America during the Cold War, has been largely divorced from “news, editorials, and features” that provide information which can serve to illustrate “the character of the American people in such a way that the underlying principles of American life are revealed.” He then bitterly concludes that on these stations the “war of ideas has been demoted to the battle of the bands.”21

The general failure of the Bush administration’s efforts to wage a “war of ideas” need not be further detailed. What is important here is that most experts agree that the U.S. is losing this crucial ideological struggle, since our country’s image may have reached its nadir throughout the Muslim world. This is not to say that many individual Muslims are not still attracted to fundamental American values (as they are enunciated in our founding documents like the Declaration of Independence) or to other aspects of free Western societies, but even those who are must be painfully aware of the vast gulf that exists between our professed concerns for freedom and human rights and the more sordid aspects of our actual politics and behavior – arrests and detentions without trial, “renditions,” the abuse and torture of some detainees, the inadvertent causing of “collateral damage” in the course of military operations, etc. – however necessary these actions may sometimes be. When high-minded U.S. rhetoric is so often at variance with our actions, widespread accusations of hypocrisy and imperialism are probably inevitable.
II. Muslims and Islamists in Europe
The current situation with respect to the “war for the minds” of Muslim communities in Europe is particularly worrisome and dangerous. It is one thing for the U.S. and its Western and Muslim allies to lose the “War of Ideas” in relatively distant Muslim-majority countries, which is bad enough, but another thing altogether to fail to successfully integrate and thereby alienate the potential loyalty of significant numbers of second- and third-generation Muslim citizens within Western countries. Whatever the evolving views of the “silent majority” of European Muslims may be, something that cannot always be readily determined on the basis of survey research, there is no doubt that younger generations of Muslims with European citizenship are increasingly disaffected from the societies within which they live. This disaffection in turn offers a vast and diverse array of Islamist networks, including jihadist groups, a golden opportunity to further radicalize and thence mobilize Western-born Muslims in support of their extremist agendas.

There is by now a vast social science and journalistic literature in numerous languages on the historical development and current status of Muslim communities in various European countries.22 Although much of it, sadly, is biased if not politically engagé insofar as it falsely pins the blame for Muslim disaffection exclusively on Western attitudes and behavior, one can make at least one general proposition that virtually everyone can agree upon: European societies have done a very bad job integrating Muslim immigrants, be it socially, culturally, or economically. This should not come as a great surprise, given that most of the Muslim immigrants who flowed into Europe in the decades after World War II were originally encouraged to come there in order to compensate for war-related labor shortages in the host countries and, in the process, perform various semi-skilled and unskilled jobs that many Europeans preferred not to do.23 Initially, it was intended that these economic émigrés would come to Europe, work there for several years, save money, and then return home to their families and countries of origin. For that very reason, European elites made minimal efforts to assimilate those émigrés into their respective host societies, either socially or culturally. However, at certain junctures, most European governments eventually decided to allow these immigrant workers to bring their families from the homeland to join them, a policy that virtually insured that they would never return home. The predictable consequence of this decision was a dramatic increase in the number of non-European residents, who as usual tended to congregate with their co-nationals and co-religionists in the poorer, less desirable neighborhoods in and around major European cities or in towns within various industrial belts, where they were increasingly ghettoized. The sudden influx of new family members, coupled with the ongoing arrival of new groups of economic immigrants and asylum seekers – mainly South Asians in Britain, North Africans in Spain and France, and Turks in Germany and the Scandinavian countries – inevitably led to intensifying socio-cultural clashes with native Europeans. In short, in Europe as elsewhere, newly-arrived and poorly-assimilated immigrants generally remained socially and culturally segregated, often voluntarily so, from the surrounding host societies.

Had European governments acted decisively to assimilate, or at least to acculturate and integrate, the growing number of immigrants who had by now become permanent residents (if not always officially citizens), it might still have been possible to alleviate culture shock, ongoing socio-cultural strife, and the mutual resentments that inevitably resulted. Instead, however, during the 1960s and 1970s bien-pensant European political elites, apparently feeling increasingly and perhaps even pathologically (as opposed to justifiably) guilty on a collective level about their respective nations’ embarrassing histories of colonialism and/or (in the cases of Germany and Italy) fascism, rushed headlong to embrace various well-intentioned but debilitating anti-Western ideological doctrines such as “Third Worldism” and “multiculturalism.” In practice, this has led to those elites’ systematic exaggeration of the supposed “evils” or “crimes” of the West and the wholesale denigration of certain key Western traditions and values – effectively a form of self-flagellation – coupled with the misplaced romanticization of real or imagined features of non-Western cultures and societies, no matter how regressive their customs and values might in fact be.24

In the context of immigrants, Muslim or otherwise, this soon led “self-hating” European elites to ascribe all of the problems associated with immigrant communities – underemployment and unemployment, disproportionately high rates of crime and welfare fraud, cliquishness and xenophobia, high birth rates – to the failures and flaws of the host society, above all to the socio-economic discrimination that in part served to keep Muslims in poverty, which was blamed first on racism and later on “Islamophobia,” and to view all members of immigrant groups – as per the dogma of multiculturalism – as mere representatives of their respective communities rather than as individuals with their own independent minds and distinctive personal interests. This in turn led to the ever-increasing distribution of political, social, and economic rewards by European states, be they in the form of financial benefits, privileges in hiring, or acceding to the demands of self-appointed community spokesmen, primarily on the basis of membership in various communities that were officially designated as “oppressed.” Originally, individuals from Muslim communities had been identified primarily as members of ethnic minority groups (e.g., as Arabs or Turks) who were victims of racism, but as time has gone on there has been a shift towards viewing them as representatives of the Muslim religious community who are now victims of “Islamophobia.”25 In short, the misguided policies adopted by European governments to accommodate immigrants have often had the detrimental effect of encouraging European Muslims to view themselves as Muslims first and European citizens second, instead of vice versa, which in turn has only increased their pre-existing tendencies towards self-segregation and the perception of themselves as “victims.”

Not surprisingly, these self-defeating tendencies were welcomed, exploited instrumentally, and intentionally exacerbated by a host of Islamist organizations that had been established in Europe for awhile but had never ceased viewing “infidel” Western societies as inherently and irredeemably “corrupt,” “decadent,” “un-Islamic,” and “satanic.” Among these organizations the most important by far was the Muslim Brotherhood, which began to implant itself in Europe in the 1950s in the wake of Nasir’s crackdown on the group in Egypt. Unlike other Islamist groups, the Brotherhood not only set up a variety of “front groups” for students, youths, women, and “educational” and “charitable” purposes, but also eventually managed to create an elaborate financial network that included banks and other entities.26 Moreover, from the outset the Brotherhood began devising long-term plans to colonize and eventually achieve hegemony over Muslim civil society inside Europe, and ultimately to Islamize the hated Western host societies, and today the group’s unofficial “spiritual leader,” Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, exerts a powerful influence on the thinking of impressionable and devout Muslims alike.27 Indeed, despite the deceptive efforts of Tariq Ramadhan (who has often been falsely characterized by Western intellectuals as a “moderate” or even a “liberal,” which is only true in relation to others who are far more extreme) to portray the Brotherhood as a moderate reformist organization, it is in fact a very radical organization with an intrinsically anti-Western agenda.28 Another international Islamist group is Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party), which was originally founded in Jordan in the 1950s but is nowadays headquartered in London and has branches throughout Europe. Although this cult-like group claims to be non-violent, its ultimate agenda is even more radical: to re-establish the Caliphate and thence complete the Islamization of the dar al-harb (the “Realm of War,” i.e., those portions of the world not ruled in accordance with the shari‘a) through a combination of da‘wa (missionary work) and armed jihad.29 Two other important groups are the Turkish Islamist organizations Avrupa Milli Görüş Teşkilatları (National Vision Organizations of Europe), an offshoot of the series of Islamist political parties in Turkey headed by Necmettin Erbakan that constituted the forerunners of today’s ostensibly more moderate and now ruling Adalet va Kalkınma Partisi (AKP: Justice and Development Party), and the recently-banned Islami Cemaatler Birliği (League of Islamic Associations), also known as Hilafet Devleti (Caliphate State), of Cemaleddin and Metin Kaplan.30 One can also find an extensive array of Mawdudist organizations operating in Europe, primarily in Britain given Mawdudi’s particularly strong influence among South Asian Muslims. Over time, the Mawdudists have also adopted an increasingly adversarial attitude towards their “infidel” host societies.31 Finally, there is an enormous international Islamic fundamentalist organization known as the Tabligh-i Jama‘at (Association for the Propagation of the [Islamic] Faith), which has ensconced itself in various European countries and has been successfully encouraging and supervising the “re-Islamization” of many resident Muslims.32 All of these Sunni movements and organizations effectively function as Islamist (or, in the case of the Tabligh, as an activist fundamentalist) “Trojan horses” operating within Western societies, and have long played a pernicious role in fueling the alienation of Muslims living in the West.33

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s and 1980s the growing influence of Islamism in the wider Islamic world also began to make itself felt within Muslim communities in Europe. This was primarily the result of the psychological impact of a series of dramatic political events taking place outside Europe, specifically the successful 1979 Iranian Revolution headed by the Ayatullah Khumayni, the valiant struggle of the Afghan mujahidin against the invading Soviet forces throughout the 1980s, and the first Palestinian uprising (intifada) against Israeli “occupation,” all of which served to inspire many Muslims and cause them to identify with the larger Islamic umma and its struggles. Subsequent external developments, such as the first Gulf War in 1990-1, Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo in the early to mid-1990s, and the Russian invasion of Chechnya, continued to fan the sense of pan-Islamic solidarity and fuel the frustration and anger of Muslims, including many who lived in the West. At the same time, Muslims who felt more and more alienated from the Western host societies in which they were born or resided increasingly began, typically under the influence of Islamist agitators, to mobilize on a communal basis and protest against what they perceived to be “anti-Islamic” activities or policies in Europe, such as the publication of Salman Rushdie’s satirical book, The Satanic Verses, and the measures taken in France to ban the wearing of headscarves in public schools.34 Indeed, as Anthony McRoy and others have noted, the growing militancy of European Muslims was often initially precipitated by these “offensive” domestic developments, then further augmented by anger over the real or imagined mistreatment of their co-religionists in places like the Balkans, Chechnya, Kashmir, “Eastern Turkestan,” and the Philippines – not the other way around.35

It was in the midst of this increasingly tense social, political, and psychological atmosphere that groups of influential Arab radicals, including veterans of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets (the so-called “Afghan Arabs”), itinerant imams and shaykhs, and even wanted members of Islamist terrorist organizations, began arriving in Europe in ever larger numbers, above all in Britain, where they settled primarily in the London area. Taking advantage of the extraordinarily liberal and indeed lax British political asylum laws – and a secret “Covenant of Security” brokered with elements of the security services – many of these anti-Western extremists immediately began collecting generous social service benefits from the government even as they busily formed jihadist support networks and aggressively disseminated their militant “jihadist Salafist” ideology to native British and continental European Muslims through various old and new communications media.36 The influence and cachet of these new arrivals was buttressed by many factors, including their command of Arabic and European languages, their apparently deeper knowledge of Islam, their reputation as brave mujahidin, and their personal charisma. In effect, several of these émigrés poured gasoline on the tinderbox of European Muslim disaffection and tried to light the fuse. Unfortunately, given the unwillingness of “multiculturalist” European governments and elites to vigorously defend core Western values, and their persistent and often fawning adoption of conciliatory, apologetic, and even appeasing attitudes in the face of the Islamist threat – a stance that has only served to embolden the Islamists, caused them to view the West as irremediably weak, and encouraged them to make more and more unreasonable and uncompromising demands – these extremists largely succeeded in radicalizing significant numbers of Muslims living in Europe.37 Even more astonishingly, several European states have even hastened to appoint leaders from Islamist front groups, especially (but not exclusively) those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, as the official representatives of, and their privileged interlocutors with, the Muslim community, an extraordinarily short-sighted strategy that has left genuine moderates in the lurch and allowed Islamist agitators to frame “Muslim” political issues in such a way as to further their own subversive agendas.

Islamist agitation and propaganda were more easily able to influence alienated second- and third-generation Muslim citizens precisely because they already felt psychologically “betwixt and between” – culturally and physically removed from their parents’ countries of origin, repelled by their parents’ traditionalism and passivity, and yet often unable (even if they genuinely desired this) to become fully integrated into the European societies in which they resided. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that many of them began to suffer an acute “identity crisis.” It was at this critical juncture that the Islamists and jihadists stepped into the breach and filled the psychological vacuum, first by providing disillusioned, anomic, and often secularized but culturally conflicted European Muslims with a new identity as “born again” members of the worldwide umma, and then by inculcating them with a new sense of purpose by convincing them to defend Islam actively at a time when the dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam) was allegedly under attack by its “infidel” enemies led by Western powers. This new sense of identity might be largely “virtual,” i.e., created and reinforced anonymously through cyberspace, or more tangible, i.e., strengthened through the forging of social bonds with groups of like-minded co-religionists in nearby mosques, Qur’anic study centers, or soccer fields.38 These troubling trends and developments were all proceeding apace long before the 9/11 attacks or the launching of the U.S. “war on terrorism,” and even longer before the highly controversial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, although they have since been greatly intensified by angry reactions to the foreign and military policies adopted by the Bush administration. As per usual, then, those who were more or less profoundly alienated from the social and political status quo once again proved to be much more susceptible to the siren song of ideological radicalism that was being peddled by extremist groups that would normally have been consigned to the political fringes. Hence it is not surprising that surveys of the attitudes of European Muslims have increasingly revealed dangerous levels of hostility to Western values and societies, nor that jihadist cells have formed and carried out terrorist attacks in major European cities, a danger that only seems likely to grow in the near future.39

III. “What Is To Be Done” to Win the War of Ideas (in Europe and Elsewhere)?
What, if anything, can America do to win the “War of Ideas” against Islamist extremism? Even this way of formulating the question is problematic. First, it implies that the U.S. itself is primarily responsible for carrying out this difficult, long term task, which seemingly ignores the obvious fact that the real struggle for the “soul of Islam” must be waged and won by anti-Islamist Muslims if the Islamic world is ever to emerge from its torpor, adapt successfully to the “really-existing” modern world, resolve its seemingly intractable political, social, economic, and cultural problems, and once again become an important center of, and contributor to, the world’s civilization, as it had been for centuries during the medieval and early modern periods. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, there is in fact a fundamental clash between the Enlightenment values underlying modern Western civilization and the values that are currently animating much of the Islamic world, but the real struggle is – and will remain – between Muslims who want to transform and adapt their societies to the modern world and the Islamists who, despite their willingness to borrow modern organizational techniques, certain revolutionary ideas, and advanced technologies from the West, essentially look to the past and are seeking to restore the imagined pristine purity of the foundational period that they regard as Islam’s “golden age,” the era of Muhammad and his companions and their immediate successors, the “pious forefathers” (al-salaf al-salih) of the faith. Like other political reactionaries and religious fundamentalists, the Islamists’ struggle is an intrinsically futile one that will ultimately fail, and Islamism is one day destined to be consigned to the proverbial “dustbin of history.” In the meantime, unfortunately, the Islamists will seriously impede broader Muslim efforts to cope effectively with a multitude of problems besetting Islamic societies, as well as to adapt successfully to the fast-changing challenges posed by contemporary life. Moreover, Islamism’s violent jihadist wing is likely to be capable of causing serious physical harm and psychological damage to its proclaimed enemies – be they “infidels,” “heretics,” or “apostate” Muslims – for the foreseeable future.

Second, given the astonishingly low current standing of America and its Western allies in the Islamic world, there is little or nothing we can do in the short term to convince the majority of Muslims that we mean them well. All of the U.S.-sponsored public relations, political warfare, propaganda, and influence operations in the world, no matter how well these initiatives may be crafted (which itself presents very severe challenges), cannot begin to compensate for our current pursuit of foreign and military policies that are often foolish, counterproductive, and widely hated (and not only by Muslims, but also by other denizens of the Third World, our old enemies and current rivals in Russia and China, and even the majority of citizens in most European countries with which we have long had close, fraternal relationships). The sad truth is that actions always speak louder than words, at least in the long run. As such, no amount of smooth, slick talk can manage to convince those who are consistently appalled and angered by our actions that we are their friends: only a modification of our misguided policies and periodic reprehensible behavior can do so. By adopting problematic foreign policies that most Muslims hate – invading Islamic territories militarily, uncritically supporting Israel, backing corrupt, authoritarian Muslim regimes – we have drastically weakened the influence of genuinely moderate, pro-Western, secularized intellectuals throughout the Islamic world, to the point where their influence on Muslim public opinion is practically nil. Moreover, we have become so “radioactive” that any individual or group that we publicly support will instantly lose all of their credibility and ability to influence their fellow Muslims.

Third, in the context of our increasingly globalized world, with its plethora of communications links and digital technologies, even the provision of covert support to secular, democratic, or moderate individuals and groups within the Islamic world is probably unlikely to work in the long run, or perhaps even in the short run. Why? Because it is virtually certain that such covert support, whatever form it takes, will be revealed at some point, and when it is those who we have sponsored will be instantly discredited. Here one should be mindful of the often harmful impact of revelations, even decades later, about the intelligence community’s covert support for a vast array of organizations during the Cold War (harmful both to the reputation of the USG itself and to that of the people and organizations receiving our support). These operations ranged from perfectly reasonable and indeed laudable schemes such as funding the Congress of Cultural Freedom and other liberal or social democratic anti-communist groups, to arguably necessary but potentially more worrisome ventures like setting up paramilitary stay/behind networks in Europe (which were all too often staffed with right-wing extremists) to resist a potential Soviet invasion, to politically dubious and morally corrosive actions like the provision of training to Latin American military personnel who then (with or without our knowledge and tacit or active support) organized “death squads” and carried out brutal campaigns of state terrorism in their respective countries. Even today, investigative journalists and academicians are churning out exposés concerning these secret activities, however necessary and justifiable many of them may have seemed to be at the height of the Cold War.40 Now imagine how much more damaging it would be today if select groups of liberal, morally decent pluralists in the Islamic world that we secretly supported were suddenly exposed and labeled as “stooges” or “lackeys” of the “Great Satan.” Not only would they be forever tarred with the brush of being “collaborators,” but their lives would immediately be placed at risk, since the jihadists and perhaps even other anti-American insurgents might well specifically target them for violence.

Fourth, Americans tend to lack sufficient knowledge of world history, foreign cultures, and foreign languages to be able to understand the intellectual worldviews, moral values, social structures and customs, and behavioral complexities associated with other cultures, especially those that are non-Western. Indeed, if surveys can be trusted, most Americans are abysmally ignorant of the most basic facts of history and geography, even those concerning their own country, and all too many display little or no interest in other regions of the world. Sadly, this astonishing level of ignorance is not confined to those who live and work outside the Beltway, as, e.g., the repeated inability of high-ranking government officials (and even presidential candidates) to distinguish between Sunni and Shi‘i Islam makes painfully clear. Worse still, even those who have received specialized training in academia often appear surprisingly ill-prepared to understand the complex processes taking place in the Islamic world, including the nature of Islamism itself, because they have been indoctrinated with, and effectively blinded by, a variety of faddish intellectual perspectives, trendy but questionable methodological approaches, and partisan political agendas, not to mention imbued with “Islamist-ophilia” and some very peculiar notions about the inherent rationality of people.41 Among the many signs of the wishful thinking so prevalent among influential members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), e.g., were the views a) that states in the Middle East are in the process of “withering away” in the face of an increasingly robust Muslim civil society; b) that Islamism is a “democratic” movement and impulse “from below” (rather than a totalitarian and intrinsically anti-democratic extremist ideology comparable to, though radically different in its content from, Marxism-Leninism and fascism); and c) that the threat of “Islamic terrorism” (placed in quotes, no less) has been greatly exaggerated if not intentionally hyped.42 This toxic combination of widespread public ignorance and the hegemony of fashionable orthodoxies in academia virtually ensures that any “influence operations” we attempt to launch to win over Muslims and turn them against the Islamists and jihadists will be doomed to failure.

In sum, despite its vast resources and the urgent need to counter jihadist and Islamist propaganda, the U.S. is in many ways singularly ill-equipped to wage a successful “War of Ideas” at this particular juncture. The continued failure to recognize these built-in limitations can only lead to the commission of further mistakes, mistakes which may well ending up working to the advantage of the enemy.

Nevertheless, despite my general pessimism, I will offer a few tentative suggestions below that might at least help to point the way forward:


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