On Thursday, President Bush delivered a strong speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, in which he set forth the parameters of the battle of ideas between the defenders of democracy and the Islamic radicals who seek to erect a global theocracy. It was a detailed, unequivocal explication of the nature of the threat and civilization’s necessary response. The enemy we face is not a single global terrorist organization, nor even a complex diffused network, but bands of violent extremists all pursuing a common ideal, and fighting a common foe. The ideal is a totalitarian theocracy based on an extremist interpretation of Islamic law, sharia. Their foe is the concept of human freedom, and those societies that represent freedom’s promise.
The ideal world that the radical Islamists seek to construct seems fantastic to people accustomed to the benefits of freedom. Why would anyone want to live that way, in a society without choice, without dissent, without art, music or literature? In which women are chattel, prayers compulsory, and theocratic dogma the only law? The idea seems so otherworldly, so inhumane and regressive, that some are tempted not to believe it. Surely, they argue, this is for internal consumption in their movement. Surely, this is only to motivate their extremist followers. A society that backward and bizarre cannot be the true objective of their movement. But do not doubt it; al Qaeda’s vision has been consistent for over a decade. The Taliban put these same ideas into practice in Afghanistan. Hamas has a similar plan for Gaza.
We second-guess the radical program at our peril; it would not be the first time that evil hid in plain sight. Hannah Arendt wrote that the Nazis were as frank as they were mendacious; they stated their objectives clearly years before taking power, and anyone who was surprised by the Holocaust had not been paying attention. Likewise Khmer Rouge military leader Khieu Samphan’s 1959 doctoral thesis identified the urban bourgeoisie as a parasite class that had to be removed to the countryside. When Pol Pot took power 16 years later, the thesis formed the blueprint for the killing fields. There is no reason to believe that the radical Islamists once in power anywhere would not seek to erect their utopia as expeditiously and comprehensively as possible.
The war of ideas is conducted properly on offense, and the president sought to take on the Islamists on their own turf. He quoted the Koran, that “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]… it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind” (5:32). He cited the declaration if an Imam in the UAE that whoever perpetrated the London bombings “is not a Muslim, nor a religious person.” And there are many other arguments, decrees, fatwas, and Koranic interpretations that cast doubt on the legitimacy of their struggle. The enemy has consistently used U.S. media reports and our own statements to charge hypocrisy when our actions do not live up to our ideals. It is incumbent on us to engage the radicals in the same way, to harness the energies of their opponents in the region, to show how they read holy documents out of context to justify their outrages, how they take cover behind convoluted phrases to try to defend the indefensible. It is also worth emphasizing, as the president did, that the terrorists are essentially cowards, hiding behind masks, killing the innocent and the unarmed, and when captured pleading for their rights, the very rights they seek to deny every free citizen in the world.
The price of failure in a war of ideas is high. The president compared the current struggle to the Cold War. Others have made the analogy to the 19th-century fight against slavery. One might also look at the assault on the concept of democracy in the 1930s, from both the Communist and fascist utopians. In none of these examples was peace simply declared because one idea seemed a lot better than another. The slavery issue was settled by the most destructive clash in our nation’s history. The failure adequately to defend democracy after the First World War resulted in the 20th century’s second horrific conflict. And the residue of the Second World War played itself out in the Cold War, which saw its own share of bloodshed, in Korea, Vietnam, and many other lesser contests. The premature declaration of victory after the resolution of the Cold War, and the failure to recognize the radical Islamist threat as it emerged in its wake, led to the conflict in which we are currently engaged.
We are fighting a war against terrorism because unconventional conflict is the best the enemy can do right now. However, the terrorists do not wish to remain terrorists. They seek to conquer lands, to consolidate forces, to build armies, and carry the fight to us in ways that now seem well beyond their reach. The extremists have a vision, and they are not content to live with their limitations. This is what is at stake in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the greater Middle East. The failure now to defend the concept of democracy, to rally the people of the world to the banner of freedom and the potentials of the human spirit, will establish the conditions for a much more terrible conflict in the near future. It is a battle we can win; we just periodically have to be reminded that not everyone in the world holds the same truths to be self-evident.