Politics & Policy

You Have to Believe

The battle of ideas.

During the Korean war when the Chinese and North Koreans engaged in the brainwashing experiments on United Nations POWs, one going-in hypothesis was that it would be harder to indoctrinate the better educated Anglo-American soldiers than it would the less-learned soldiers from other countries. But the Communist indoctrinators made a significant discovery. The soldiers who were raised in a Western liberal culture, where education meant being open to new ideas, were much easier to break down. They were more willing to question premises, accept new facts (even invented ones), and draw conclusions based on the alternate frameworks their captors presented them. Yet the Communists found the Turks, for example, impossible to break. They simply refused to engage. The Turkish troops, mostly young men with rural backgrounds and limited formal education, had a very simple and unshakeable worldview: They were Turks, the enemy were [expletives], and that was the end of it. There was more than a little virtue in that degree of certainty.

But conviction can take many forms. I was thinking about that anecdote in the context of the battle of ideas, or as it is being described officially, “Countering the Ideological Support for Terrorism” (CIST–one of those unfortunate government acronyms). Clearly it is important to try to undercut the arguments the terrorists use to justify their cause. But it would be fruitless to engage them in this debate directly. The truly motivated terrorists will be immune to any engagement on the level of ideas. Those who are driven by deep and irrational hatreds, a monomaniacal quest for power, or some form of social-psychological pathology are not likely to be reformed. The prevalence of suicide tactics among the terrorists shows a strong current of irrational or supra-rational individual motivation. I seriously doubt that Mohammed Atta could have been argued out of conducting his portion of the 9/11 attacks. He was a sociopath who found a compelling vehicle in radical Islam to legitimize and externalize his need to destroy. A related example can be found among the cadre of violent youth who provided muscle for the Nazi and Communist parties in Weimar Germany. Though the storm troopers and red-front brigadiers were in theory ideological enemies, they would sometimes switch sides. It was not a matter of changing their minds about the causes they espoused; they simply liked violence and went where the action was. They had no interest at all in the center-right and -left parties that considered beer-hall brawling to be in poor taste. Reaching out to them with ideas would have completely missed the point that they were hooligans first, ideologues second. Likewise with the committed terrorists. Ideology simply enables their pathology.

Another approach is to become engaged in the internal debate in the Muslim world over the nature of the religion, of society, politics, and morality. But there is little we could do to influence that dispute. It has been going on for decades (in its current incarnation) and I doubt there is any new idea we could add to the mix. Besides, the influence of Western culture is an important aspect the systemic changes against which the radicals are rebelling, so any attempt to support or encourage religious moderates (variously defined) will only taint them as tools of the Great Satan. In any case, the terrorists are already some of the harshest critics of the religious order. They frequently complain that many people like to talk about jihad but few have the courage to follow through. In late November as the fight for Fallujah was reaching its climax, al Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mussib Al Zarqawi fired off a scathing indictment of the Iraqi clerics who failed to incite the mobs to support him and his men. “You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy,” he said. But surely it was not in the interests of the Iraqi Imams to voice support for Zarqawi, whose agenda did not mesh with their own. They are in a political phase, positioning themselves to gain advantage in the election (whether they end up participating or not). Interest, not ideology, is what drives the shifting alliances in the world of radical politics. Another good example of interest at work is in Saudi Arabia, where the Grand Mufti was unwilling to denounce terrorism for years until al Qaeda began to attack non-western targets within the kingdom. Now theological arguments against violence are common in the Saudi kingdom. This was not the result of a change of heart, or a breakthrough in Koranic interpretation. It was the stark recognition of the chickens that were coming home to roost.

As we ponder ways to counter the ideological support for terrorism we should start by questioning the degree to which the terrorists enjoy true ideological support at all. Polls have shown that many people in the Muslim world will say they approve of Osama bin Laden’s cause, if not his actions. But one cannot conclude from that an ideological affinity; it is rather a form of appreciation of the man who has chosen to stand up against the global hegemon, admiration for the underdog. It does not automatically translate into mass political support. Osama discovered this in October 2001 when Operation Enduring Freedom began–he called for a rising of the “Muslim street,” but the street was at home watching the war on Al Jazeera and tut-tutting about American Imperialism. This is not the type of commitment that mobilizes the masses; but without mass political action, the terrorists cannot win.

Also bear in mind that hardly anyone wants what the terrorists are selling. Al Qaeda’s vision of the future is a society like the one the Taliban erected in Afghanistan, or Iran suffered at the height of Khomeni’s power. It is a decidedly unpopular form of utopianism, and it is useful to keep reminding people what the practical consequences would be if the terrorists attained power. Some people already know. There is no popular movement to bring back Taliban rule to Afghanistan. In Iran the inheritors of Khomeni’s revolution are fighting a delaying action against a rising tide of freedom being ushered in bya young population who know nothing of the Shah and the Savak but do know there is a world of opportunity being denied them by theocrats whose legitimacy is consequently fading daily.

Bin Laden may have thought that his cause would benefit from the strong current of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. A July 2004 poll by the Arab-American institute showed widespread disapproval for American policies. But the same poll showed higher degrees of approval for American people, products, entertainment, technology, and democracy. When one removes association with the United States from the equation and looks at the influence of the western way of life generally, the drift is even more noticeable. There is no popular movement for a return to the Caliphate, to strict sharia law, or any of the other aspects of bin Laden’s program, but there is an explosion in cell phones, satellite dishes, fast food and reality television. I am convinced that within our lifetimes we will see a strip mall in Mecca. I think at that point we could declare globalization complete.

We cannot convince the terrorists not to be terrorists, or attempt to place a stamp of approval on our preferred religious sects. We have to fight the battle of ideas on ground of our own choosing. Our engagement begins with certainty about what we believe, and its moral correctness. Western liberalism is tolerant, but need not be diffident. We are accepting, but not indiscriminant. We are open-minded, but our minds are not empty. Our beliefs represent a complete and coherent challenge to the terrorist ideology. Everything we idealize (democracy, free markets, individual choice, free expression, gender equality) they despise. Our cherished principles are their worst fears. But we have a competitive advantage–people innately want to be free. Our natural audience is among the emerging middle class, the liberals, the young, those rising progressive groups against which the reactionaries are desperately fighting. We engage best when we state our core belief in freedom simply and without reservation. Our message to them is that they are not alone. They have tapped into a moral core, into a set of universal truths, the ideas on which our country was founded and which any society may adopt–the common, natural, self-evident birthright of all people everywhere for all time. Our mission, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, is to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” We seek not to convince but to inspire. This is not a battle of ideas but of ideals.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.


The Latest