In “Winning the War of Ideas” in the New York Sun, July 23 (thanks to Ethelred), James K. Glassman, the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, says many positive things. He points out that our primary task is not to make foreigners love the United States — which has been the focus of many of our “ideological” initiatives up to now. Instead, he says that “our priority is not to promote our brand but to help destroy theirs.”
Great! Does that mean that he will confront the Sharia imperative and Islamic supremacism, and try to make the millions of Muslims who implicitly accept Western values make that acceptance explicit? No. He doesn’t seem to have any idea of the stealth jihad at all — that is, he doesn’t seem to have any idea that jihadists might be trying to advance their agenda by means other than violent attacks. Glassman demonstrates this lack of awareness by praising Lawrence Wright’s article about how Muslims are turning away from Al-Qaeda, which I discussed in detail here. Glassman seems to have no comprehension at all of the significance of one telling phrase in the Wright article: “jihad did not have to be restricted to an armed approach.”
This does not bode well for his attempts to “destroy” the enemy’s ideology: if he doesn’t even understand it, how can he possibly expect to destroy it? For he cannot even name that ideology (which is no surprise these days), and declares: “We also should not shrink from confidently opposing poisonous ideas “” even if they are rooted in a twisted interpretation of religious doctrine.” That the jihadists are proceeding according to a “twisted interpretation” of Islam, rather than according to core and mainstream principles of the religion, is of course an iron and never-to-be-questioned dogma at State, but it rests upon the word of Muslim Brotherhood-linked “experts,” and ignores the copious teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as of all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, about warfare against and the subjugation of infidels.
Not an auspicious beginning for a war of ideas: Glassman only dimly understands the ideas he is fighting, and can’t even call them by name.
[...] In the war of ideas, our core task is not how to fix foreigners’ perceptions of the United States. Those perceptions are important “” we want foreign publics to trust and respect us. But America’s image is not at the center of the war of ideas.
Instead, we need to recognize that there is a complex, multi-sided battle going on in Muslim societies for power. This is a battle in which we cannot be a bystander. Instead, the battle within many Muslim societies for power affects America directly and was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people seven years ago. In this battle, our main role is to support constructive alternatives to violent extremism.
Our priority is not to promote our brand but to help destroy theirs. We do that by showing foreign populations that the ideology and actions of the violent extremists are not in the best interests of those populations.
It is the fact that the battle is going on within Muslim society that makes our role so complicated and that requires that we ourselves not do much of the fighting. The most credible voices in this war of ideas are Muslim.
So here is our ultimate goal: A world in which the use of violence to achieve political, religious, or social objectives is no longer considered acceptable; efforts to radicalize and recruit new members are no longer successful; and the perpetrators of violent extremism are condemned and isolated.
How do we achieve such a world? Three ways:
First, by confronting the ideology that justifies and enables the violence. We try to remove the fake veneer on the reputation of extremists and allow publics to see the shame and hostility of life in terrorism. That is what worked in Al Anbar province in Iraq, as well as in Jordan and Morocco. Support for suicide bombing throughout the Muslim world has dropped sharply. The proportion of Jordanians with “a lot of confidence in Osama bin Laden” has fallen to 20% in 2007 from 56% in 2003.
This is an effort that requires credible Muslim voices to work effectively “” especially voices of those, like Fadl, born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, and known as Dr. Fadil, whose story was told recently by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker. Fadl helped build the Al Qaeda ideology and now repudiates it for its wanton violence.
We also should not shrink from confidently opposing poisonous ideas “” even if they are rooted in a twisted interpretation of religious doctrine.
Second, we achieve our desired goal by offering, often in cooperation with the private sector and using the best technology including Web 2.0 social networking techniques, a full range of productive alternatives to violent extremism.
The shorthand for this policy is diversion “” powerful and lasting diversion, the channeling of potential recruits away from violence with the attractions of culture, literature, music, technology, sports, education, and entrepreneurship, in addition to politics and religion.
While winning hearts and minds would be an admirable feat, the war of ideas adopts the more immediate and realistic goal of diverting impressionable segments of the population from the recruitment process. The war of ideas is really a battle of alternative visions, and our goal is to divert recruits from the violent extremist vision.
Going beyond diversion, we seek to build counter-movements by empowering groups and individuals opposed to violent extremism “” movements (using both electronic and physical means) that bring people together “” including believers in democratic Islam “” with similar, constructive interests, such as mothers opposed to violence, built on the Mothers Against Drunk Driving model.
Our role is as a facilitator of choice. We help build networks and movements “” put tools in the hands of young people to make their own choices, rather than dictating those choices. In the words of the National Security Strategy: “Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen.”
We have already done a major reorganization “” both at State and the interagency “” to help in the overall effort. The five focal points of our programs are: Muslim society, especially involving young people, at the grassroots; Middle East elites, who involve themselves in ideology and religious doctrine; foreign fighters, who have poured into Iraq and Afghanistan; Iran; and private sector expertise.
There are signs that the war of ideas, even in its nascent stages, is working. But no serious person involved in this battle thinks it is close to being won. The flow of new recruits has not stopped. Our work is ahead of us.
In the end, the mission of 21st century public diplomacy is to tell the world of a good and compassionate nation and at the same time to engage in the most important ideological contest of our time. This engagement must, by its nature, involve non-Americans that we nurture, support, and encourage
The will, as I said, now exists. As for strategy: I think that we have it right. This is a contest that we have now engaged vigorously “” a contest we will win.
Good luck with that.