Losing the war of ideas to radical Islam

Imagine two lines on a graph — one zigs and zags, another rises rapidly. They could represent two current unsettling world currents. The first would chart U.S. efforts to eradicate Islamic terrorists, on Afghanistan and Iraq battlefields but also a wider intellectual war against political Islam from Casablanca to Zamboanga. The second would trace a rising tide of embittered frustration leading to seduction of young Muslims — not excluding their progeny in the West — by fanatics, and, ultimately terrorists.
The mid-January rioting in Tunisia [just over 10 million, the size of California] which overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s only second chief executive ruling since 1987, dramatizes the contest. Seen in the mid-50s at independence as one of the more progressive ex-colonial countries, and although maintaining a 5 percent domestic growth rate and higher rates of literacy than most Muslim states, the regime sank into a swamp of political repression and corruption.

With more than half its population under 30, increasingly unemployed youth want more. It remains to be seen who will come out on top in Tunis. But across North Africa — from Egypt to Morocco – underground religious Muslim opposition festers. Alas! in Tunisia, as elsewhere, the Iranian mullahs’ total corruption and Saudi Arabian hypocritical lifestyle notwithstanding, the Islamicists’ appeal is growing. It promises puritanical reform and return to a nonexistent paradisiacal past under a Muslim caliphate [theocracy] as an alternative to bad copies of Western government.

Meanwhile, whether Vice President Joe Biden returns from his Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq survey — and cheerleading — with new solutions, there’s increasing skepticism of Gen. David Petraeus’ Afghanistan strategy. And with mounting U.S. domestic problems, it will be hard to keep building on the sacrifice of young lives and more than $1 trillion already spent since 9/11 on the worldwide war against terrorism.

The argument over how to win asymmetrical wars against fanatical opponents is raging again. The danger in COIN [counter-insurgency warfare] expounded by Gen. Petraeus is an old American intellectual heresy, scientism. The 19th century philosopher [founder of modern psychology] William James warned against overintellectualizing. Dr. James’ counsel applies to guerrilla warfare. For in the nature of things, insurgencies are particularistic. There’s little commonality among the Moros [whom Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing brutally crushed] in the southern Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in the 1960s, the Tupamaros on the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s, or Al Qaida in Afghanistan in 2011. These movements built on specific local conditions. Any formula for combating insurgencies must do likewise. Yes, vacuous “counterinsurgency” generalizations can be formulated: the army should not steal the peasants’ chickens. But learning the ins and outs of Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier Hatfields and McCoys is essential — taking time and patience, not handbooks trying to apply the scientific method to social issues.

For war is not only cruel and brutal but probably the most inefficient human activity since the first caveman hit the second caveman over the head with a club. The weapons are increasingly more sophisticated. But the human animus remains the same. For every sophisticated multidisciplined approach to villagers caught between intimidation by both sides, there have been exponents of brute force. [A cynical old Vietnam War saying: “Grab their ____, and their hearts and minds will come.”] That’s the rationale, perhaps, for U.S. drone attacks on terrorist leaders in Pakistan with grim fallout of civilian casualties, providing a political football for local politicians who hypocritically supply intelligence for the kills.

Almost 10 years ago — one wonders if current “politically correct” discussion of Islam would tolerate it now — a UN commission led by noted [if mostly exiled] Arab intellectuals searched for causes of Araby’s backwardness. Initiated before the 9/11 attacks, they predicted 280 million people in the 22 Arab countries would grow to as many as 459 million by 2020 but emphasized their isolation. Arab translations in the last thousand years, it noted, were only what Spain translates in just one year. Yet there are Arab bestsellers, often obscurantist screeds on the Koran, the word of Allah that no critic is permitted to challenge.

Emigrants from burgeoning North Africa [along with South Asians, Muslim and Hindu, West Indians and Africans] have drifted willy-nilly into Western Europe searching for livelihood in these last decades of its enormous prosperity. But daily incidents from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium and even Scandinavia, demonstrate that counter intuitively, the second and third generations have failed to assimilate. Most European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel now admit “multiculturalism” — leaving migrants to fend for themselves in their own ghettoes off welfare state handouts — has not succeeded. But the gap of willful ignorance now is too often replaced by misplaced tolerance of premodern horrors — discrimination against women, “honor killings”, child marriage, etc., etc. Defensiveness about European traditions and posturing to understand “basic issues” is condescending and as useless as the former disregard.

Somehow, some way, American and Western information and propaganda must find a way to bridge that gap or face new explosions when the two lines on our fictitious graph collide.

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