A War of Ideas: Terrorism and Ideology

For those of us who have ever felt a serious lack of hackneyed and discredited ideas in our political culture, James K. Glassman has done us all a service by writing this article in Politico. Glassman was a former chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors in the George W. Bush administration and is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. With his recent article, he follows an illustrious pedigree on the right that has expressed effusive praise for Obama’s war efforts against The Terrorists.

Specifically, Glassman congratulates Obama for finally appreciating the importance of “ideas” in the War on Terror (as demonstrated by the recent Counter Violent Extremism Summit) and volunteers his own expertise to help the Obama administration formulate a strategy. After all, a “war of ideas” is not like other wars, you see. It relies less on blunt force and more on delicate diplomatic manoeuvring. Fortunately, Glassman is willing to guide us through it.

There are five crucial components to “strategic public diplomacy,” as Glassman calls it, that will help “defeat ISIL, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations threatening the United States and the rest of the world.” The United States must undermine “[t]he most powerful narrative in Muslim communities” suggesting that the U.S. is “out to destroy Islam.” It must help cultivate a counter-narrative within Islam with the capacity to inspire “alienated young people” and help them find some meaning in their lives. Extremist ideas must be countered, perhaps with “a journal, a website, a platform for conferences, a network of scholars, a robust social media presence—dominated by Muslim scholars and probably headquartered in Europe.” Images of the “heroic resistance” of ordinary people against terrorist organizations must be disseminated far and wide. Lastly, the Obama administration must proselytize its own values: “notions of tolerance, pluralism, free expression, self-determination, and democracy.”

There is a kind of superfluous appeal to Glassman’s “strategic public diplomacy” and to the “war of ideas” generally, which is partly why I think this strategy (if it can be called that) continues to re-emerge. Who, after all, would want to oppose a government-led challenge to Islamist ideology and the spread of liberalism? The problem, I think, is that this approach either wilfully deflects attention away from how ideology works or doesn’t understand it.

The question we need to ask is why a militant Islamist ideology would appeal to anyone in the first place. Muslims in the United States and Europe have become considerably disenfranchised since 9/11 and are victims to routine racist violence which is itself a counterpart to government violence against Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. It is not too difficult to imagine why an ideology providing an explanation for these quotidian experiences and imperial geopolitics, framing these events in a particular religious gloss, and suggesting a way out of one’s impotence and toward political agency would be appealing. The ideology is powerful because it is capable of making some sense of people’s experience of the world.

This is what is lacking in Glassman’s “strategic public diplomacy.” It will be an uphill battle to convince Muslims that the United States is not “out to destroy Islam” while bombs are raining down Muslims. Ideas of free expression, pluralism, and democracy will be a hard sell to a population that is continually denied these rights. The “war of ideas” approach is oblivious to the social world that ideas must have some relation to. The U.S. government plays a primary role in bolstering the militant Islamist ideology through its policies. As such it is singularly incapable of winning any such “war of ideas.”