The surge in Iraq appears to be working, largely because U.S. forces have taken advantage of divisions among the insurgents and allied with some in order to destroy other Islamist factions.
This is a pretty tough tactic to stomach, because many of our newfound Iraqi “allies” have American blood on their hands. But it just might mark a turning point in the war. By fighting all radical factions, we inadvertently united them against us – not a good idea when some of their most mortal enemies are one another. By working with some Iraqi insurgent groups to wipe out al Qaeda, we will be better positioned to turn our guns against other enemies in due course.
A similar analogy is true in the war of ideas. We can take a blanket approach, as some are doing, by adopting the al Qaeda/Wahhabi narrative and its absolutist definition of terms. We can see enemies in all who believe in jihad, regardless of how they interpret the idea. Or we can be more judicious about which battles we pick. In so doing, we can enlist support, tactical though it may be, from certain of our adversaries.
Uniting our enemies against us is a loser strategy. During World War II, we held our noses and allied with mortal enemy Stalin to defeat Hitler. Then we signed an easy peace with the Germans and dealt with the Soviets in due course. And in resisting and repulsing the USSR, we allied with a rogue’s gallery of tyrants, socialists, Islamists, kleptocrats and assorted nut-jobs – even with other communists. Circumstances often offered us few alternatives.
So it’s natural that we seek fissures within the highly factionalized world of Islam to find tactical allies in the global terrorist battlespace.
That’s why some of us have looked across a broad spectrum of Islamic thought to find pressure points to divide those with the will to kill us from those without, and to marginalize the most extremist elements and help them self-destruct. With help from Arabic linguists and Muslim scholars of various persuasions, we set forth a glossary of Islamic terms of relevance to the war against terrorists.
Does it make sense for us to keep calling the terrorists “holy warriors,” as some do every time they call them mujahideen? Or to imply that their death squad activity is somehow praiseworthy when we call terror an act of jihad holy war? Especially when there are many interpretations of jihad within Islam?
We found terminology that properly implies that our enemies are sadistic sociopaths who must be killed – even terms in Islamic law that can morally obligate faithful Muslims to hunt them down. We found that a broad cross-section of Muslim thought, from modern and western-oriented all the way to some with at least one foot in the extremist camp, agrees on many of these important terms, and not with the terrorists’ definitions.
Yet some observers like Walid Phares attack the idea of semantic warfare. Recently Phares departed from his normally reasoned debate to imply ulterior motives. In a July column, he tried to de-legitimize the ideological warfare work of Jim Guirard. Phares hinted that Guirard was influence-peddling for hidden clients by inaccurately calling him a “lobbyist” and brushing off his essays and memos as “lobbying pieces.” Though he never did say just who was supposedly paying. Those of us who share Guirard’s approach, Phares says, are doing nothing more than pushing a “lobbyist-concocted theory.”
That’s a cheap shot, and a false one at that. Guirard, a former Fulbright scholar, is not a lobbyist. Though he used to be, six or seven years ago, as OpenSources.org reports from the public record. Even then, Guirard lobbied for a Louisiana company on issues relating to the U.S. Army – nothing, as Phares appears to imply, relating to Wahhabis or the Muslim Brotherhood. Guirard has been wordsmithing for decades. Twenty years ago he was waging semantic battles against “liberation theology.” Today he’s doing the same against Islamism.
Phares says that we proponents of using language against the enemy are “representing the views of classical Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Certainly Wahhabi elements and the Muslim Brotherhood are circulating all sorts of disinformation. Lies and other forms of deception are part of the cultural DNA of the Middle East, and are demonstrably part of the ideological war against the United States. But Phares does not substantiate his allegation. He should either back up his claims or retract them.
He does have a good point, though: It is dangerous to view the Muslim Brotherhood, whose “jihadist” strategy stresses power through infiltration, co-optation and subversion more than through violence, as the “good guy” against Islamist terrorism. Ditto for the subversive ideological exports of the House of Saud.
Political, economic and cultural subversion may constitute a far greater strategic danger to the United States and the free world than the fanatical terrorism of al Qaeda. And this is where the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood have been investing heavily, even among American conservatives. However, as with al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents, it is important for us as citizens to understand the narrative, find pressure points within the languages and cultures, and use them to divide the enemy.
But we won’t approach that understanding if people in our own American camp snipe with sloppy reporting and phony innuendo. Let’s try fighting the war of ideas by reclaiming key concepts from the terrorists and splitting their ideological support base. After a year of serious effort, we can review the results and become smarter defenders of freedom.
J. Michael Waller is the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Professor of International Communication at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. His latest book is Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War (2007).