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Precision in the Global War on Terror: Inciting Muslims through the War of Ideas

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur. | April 2008

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SUMMARY

This monograph questions the messages conveyed to Muslims about their religion and extremism in the war of ideas. Why do American strategic messages on this issue play so badly in the region? Why, despite broad Muslim disapproval of extremism as shown in surveys and official utterances by key Muslim leaders, has support for bin Ladin actually increased in Jordan and in Pakistan since some polling suggests bin Ladin?s approval in Jordan suffered a great deal after the hotel bombings?

A reason that the United States is winning so few ?hearts and minds? in the broader Islamic world is confusion and imprecision in American strategic messages. The grand strategy of defining, isolating, and destroying Islamism or radical Islamism may not be possible if America does not proceed more carefully, and listen to what its allies think, know, and feel about their faith.

This monograph will not revisit the origins of Islamist violence. It is instead concerned with conceptual failure that wrongly constructs the War on Terror and discourages Muslims from supporting it. They are unable to identify with the proposed transformative countermeasures because they discern some of their core beliefs and institutions as targets in this endeavor.

INTRODUCTION

Seven years after the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks, many experts believe al-Qa?ida has regained strength and that its copycats or affiliates are more lethal than before. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 asserted that al-Qa?ida is more dangerous now than before 9/11.1 Al-Qa?ida?s emulators continue to threaten Western, Middle Eastern, and European nations, as in the plot foiled in September 2007 in Germany. Bruce Riedel states:

Thanks largely to Washington?s eagerness to go into Iraq rather than hunting down al Qaeda?s leaders, the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq. Its reach has spread throughout the Muslim world and in Europe . . . Osama bin Laden has mounted a successful propaganda campaign. . . . His ideas now attract more followers than ever.2

It is true that various salafi-jihadist organizations are still emerging throughout the Islamic world. Why have heavily resourced responses to the Islamist terrorism that we are calling global jihad not proven extremely effective?

Moving to the tools of ?soft power,? what about the efficacy of Western efforts to bolster Muslims in the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? Why has the United States won so few ?hearts and minds? in the broader Islamic world? Why do American strategic messages on this issue play so badly in the region? Why, despite broad Muslim disapproval of extremism as shown in surveys and official utterances by key Muslim leaders,3 has support for bin Ladin actually increased in Jordan and in Pakistan?4

This monograph will not revisit the origins of Islamist violence. It is instead concerned with a type of conceptual failure that wrongly constructs the GWOT and which discourages Muslims from supporting it. They are unable to identify with the proposed transformative countermeasures because they discern some of their core beliefs and institutions as targets in this endeavor.

Several deeply problematic trends confound the American conceptualizations of the GWOT and the strategic messages crafted to fight that War. These evolve from (1) post-colonial political approaches to Muslims and Muslim majority nations that vary greatly and therefore produce conflicting and confusing impressions and effects; and (2) residual generalized ignorance of and prejudice toward Islam and subregional cultures. Add to this American anger, fear, and anxiety about the deadly events of 9/11, and certain elements that, despite the urgings of cooler heads, hold Muslims and their religion accountable for the misdeeds of their coreligionists, or who find it useful to do so for political reasons.

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

These thoughts on wrong approaches in the war of ideas are by no means comprehensive. I could have included others that circulate in the defense community like the false and misleading idea that Muslims believe in predestination (some may, but it is not a tenet of Islam) and are therefore fatalists, thereby ignoring the entire discourse on human will and responsibility in Islam. In mentioning so many wrong readings of Islam, my recommendations are primarily that we need to revise our way of thinking about Muslims, their ideas, and the movements operative today in their societies. To be more specific:

  1. It is time to abandon the assumptions of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, which are funding a well-meant but arrogant and misconceived program for rehabilitation of the Islamic world based on the idea that the West knows best. Policymakers should rethink the wisdom of a U.S. policy that aims to alter a world religion, Islam, so as to produce an ideological current favorable to U.S. interests in territories of the Muslim world. Surely, the intent of this program is geostrategic advantage and not reform of Islam for its own sake. The program could backfire, or simply fail, but as it stands, it is not difficult to understand Muslim resentment against it.
  2. It is time to directly engage ordinary Muslims, their leaders, their clerics, and their intellectuals, and listen to their ideas about the appropriate pursuit of terrorism and the ways that ideological problems like the linkage between jihad and martyrdom can and should be addressed.
  3. It is inappropriate to look to Muslims in diaspora ? in Europe, or the United States?as substitutes or models for Muslims in their own home countries. Diffused Islam or assimilated Muslims are not the answer for the Muslim world.
  4. Likewise, each country must develop its own model of development; about which populations, civil society actors, and governments will necessarily differ. Importing Indonesian or Turkish Islam to Arab states would reverse the historical emulation of the Arab heartland of Islam, but it makes little sense if what is desired is lasting social and ideological change. Further, inter-Muslim activities could be beneficial, and need not threaten the West.
  5. Precision is badly needed. The analysis of actors and groups connected with 9/11 is still inaccurate. If we are to have bona fide counterterrorist and antiterrorist programs, they must be rooted in precision and attention to the context of each and every event, actor, and recommendation.
  6. Where particular issues have been identified, it is important to proceed moderately with antiterrorist measures, and acknowledge issues of sovereignty. Do not resort to simple binarism or destroying institutions that have intrinsic value, as in equating certain madrasahs that produced jihadist fever with all madrasahs.
  7. Acknowledge Islam as a sister religion to Christianity and Judaism instead of extending the ?clash of civilizations? thesis to a ?clash of religions.? This includes the acknowledgment by Muslims that their God is the God of Christians and Jews.
  8. Policymakers should become more knowledgeable about the ?red lines? that have developed in Muslim theology and practice so as not to tar moderating Muslims with the brush of apostasy or confuse ?free speech? with an attack on basic religious principles.
  9. Planners and policymakers should avoid essentialist and reductionist interpretations of key concepts like the Caliphate. In particular, they should not describe an idealized form of political rule as the ultimate danger to the West. They should discard the assumption of a zero-sum world in which Muslim unity spells Western defeat, or Western success rests on the division and disunity of Muslims.
  10. Support democratization in the region but be attentive to indigenous ideas that would bolster democracy and stop treating Islam or Islamic movements as if they are intrinsically antidemocratic.
  11. Observe the rule of law and humanitarian principles, and do not stoop to torture or the illegal scrutiny and observation of citizens and immigrants as if there were no meaning to the term ?the free world.?
  12. Relinquish the term ?Islamofascism.? Instead, endeavor to build alliances with Muslims?and not only with their governments?in the struggle against terrorism. Avoid ?long war? and ?World War IV? contentions.
  13. Endeavor to understand how Muslims observe Islamic law and the idea that Allah is the sole sovereign in their daily life, in the Muslim world and the West, while abiding by laws of the land.
  14. Where Americans have come to control Islamic messages, for instance in prisons in Iraq and in the media in the West (but also to some degree in Iraq), they should beware of missionary zeal or propagandizing as is essential in all broadly addressed strategic communications.
  15. The strategic communications and policy efforts underway that aim to bolster and expand secularism in the Muslim world are at odds with historical and social development in the region. The United States (even along with Europe) cannot undo the Islamic awakening, the growth of Islamist movements and principles, and popular support for them. Work with Islamists instead of engaging them in what surely will be a very long war.
  16. U.S foreign policy in the Middle East and the Islamic world is riddled with contradictions. Even if these could be better rationalized, insofar as American policies are perceived to be unjust, to support neocolonialism, to include detrimental aspects of globalization, and to attack Islamic values while promoting American commercial interests and a longterm U.S. military presence in the region, they will be opposed in the region. Working to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict and supporting more effective (not just stronger) nations built on popular consensus that are engaged in democratization is essential. However, the United States cannot run the show nor even exert credible influence unless its recommendations make sense and promote cooperation between political and ideological rivals in the region.
  17. ENDNOTES

    1. Tom Peter, ?National Intelligence Estimate: Al Qaeda Stronger and a Threat to U.S. Homeland,? Christian Science Monitor, July 19, 2007.

    2.Bruce Riedel, ?Al Qaeda Strikes Back,? Foreign Affairs, May/ June 2007, p. 24.

    3.Numerous responses were collected by Charles Kurtzman, and other collections of responses can be found on his web page, www.unc.edu/~kurzman/terror.htm.

    4.Pew Global Attitudes Project, ?Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics,? July 14, 2005.