May 27, 2008

Talking Islam 1: Why Bret Stephens Acted the Fool, and Why Heather Wilhelm Needs a Neuron Infusion

Hatched by Dafydd

The Department of Homeland Security is finally doing something right on the urgent task of confronting the terrorist ideology; but some conservatives, quagmired in their "clash of civilizations" nightmare, are unprepared even to listen. Alas, Bret Stephens, writing on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, plays to this crowd (perhaps inadvertently) by mocking a DHS internal memo as "Newspeak" for recommending the language to use to avoid driving mainstream Moslems into the terrorist ideology and instead give them good reason to come over to the side of civilization.

(On Real Clear Politics, Heather Wilhelm dutifully follows suit, parroting Stephens' hilarity with a one-sentence dismissal of the memo -- without, evidently, bothering to read the memo herself or form her own opinion; consider this a rather left-handed hat tip.)

Our government does a lot of stupid, self-destructive things in the long war -- for example, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were once stalwart against negotiating or even meeting with Palestinian representatives (whether Hamas or Fatah) until and unless they both recognized the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and also renounced terrorism... and actually stopped committing terrorist acts. Both Bush and Rice declared this a necessary first step in the "Road Map to Peace."

But now, they appear to have abandoned that precondition and are willing to invite to a Middle East peace conference countries and powers that not only refuse to recognize Israel but actively engage in terrorism against it.

However, that fact that the "invisible foot" of government frequently trips up our best laid plans should not blind us to cases where they really are trying to do the right thing -- and doing a fairly good job of it. I believe this is the case with the DHS memo; we need to see more action (and more sustained effort) in fighting the ideological as well as the military battles.

Stephens' column annoyed me precisely because it may strangle this vital effort in its cradle. Let me explain why that would be so defeatist...

I've been reading Douglas Feith's magnificent but very dense tome War and Decision; one of the most frustrating -- infuriating! -- sections details the attempts by Feith and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to get the State Department to move off of its collective posterior... and actually craft an ideological counterinsurgency (my term) to fight against the ideology of violence, murder, torture, and bombing promulgated by al-Qaeda, Iran, and other terrorist actors... an ideology that strongly attracts and least stable and most disaffected of Moslems around the world, losers who believe they have been marginalized by the tyrannical and unresponsive governments that still characterize the ummah.

State insisted that this fell into their jurisdiction, not the Pentagon's; but then they refused to engage or do anything other than issue a couple of press releases. Engaging the terrorist ideology head-on is vital to the war against global caliphism: Without our own futurist, international front of modernity, individualism, and freedom, how can we hope to confront and overpower the terrorists' reactionary ideology?

They preach bloody human sacrifice, eternal war, brutal repression of the individual, and destruction of every vestige of civilization and the modern world beyond what Mohammed himself knew. Without our own ideological counterinsurgency, we're left with nothing but brute physical force. (Certainly Gen. David Petraeus considers the ideological war of ideas to be as important to the Iraqi counterinsurgency as the military forces added during the "surge;" I assume he knows what he's talking about.)

Feith and Rumsfeld were ultimately thwarted in their attempts to get an ideological counterinsurgency up and running; but now, at least, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the DHS has actually begun the long overdue process: They issued an internal memo -- instantly leaked to the press by disgruntled leftists -- suggesting the language the USG (United States government) should use (and terms to avoid) in speaking about the war. It's actually not a bad first effort... despite Stephens' hooting and braying.

The first page of the memo explains why diction -- word choice -- is so important to winning the ideological war against those seeking to impose a worldwide caliphate:

[T]he terminology should also be strategic -- it should avoid helping the terrorists by inflating the religious bases and glamorous appeal of their ideology....

If senior government officials carefully select strategic terminology, the government's public statements will encourage vigilance without unintentionally undermining security objectives. That is, the terminology we use must be accurate with respect to the very real threat we face. At the same time, our terminology must be properly calibrated to diminish the recruitment efforts of extremists who argue that the West is at war with Islam.

DHS amplifies this message on pp. 7-8:

Bin Laden and his followers will succeed if they convince large numbers of people that America and the West are at war with Islam, and that a "clash of civilizations" is inherent. Therefore, USG officials should continually emphasize a simple and straightforward truth:

Muslims have been, and will continue to be part of the fabric of our country. Senior officials must make clear that there is no "clash of civilizations;" there is no "us versus them." We must emphasize that Muslims are not "outsiders" looking in, but are an integral part of America and the West.

Too many conservatives have fallen in love with the romantic idea of a "clash of civilizations," and they passionately believe that we are "at war with Islam." Of course, we aren't and shouldn't be: The majority of Moslems are at least open to modernity, liberty, and democracy, depending on how they are presented... that is, assuming they are not restricted only to those who renounce religiosity -- a requirement never demanded of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or Hindus, who are allowed to be democratic, modern, yet also religious.

I have seen numerous hard-core, absolutist culture warriors roll their eyes in disgust at such "liberal" thinking. The very idea that not every Moslem wants to murder us all!

I do not believe Bret Stephens is among that group; but his cynicism about everything coming out of DHS makes him an unwitting tool of such absolutist conservatives... they use his column to buttress their own loser-philosophy.

They see themselves as hard-headed, reality-based grownups; anyone who believes that Islam and the West can coexist they accuse of being an infantile fantasist. But if they are correct, then we are already lost: If we literally are at war with a billion fanatics, each of whom is just one cartoon away from strapping on a suicide vest and heading off to the local Galleria, then we cannot possibly win such a war without changing the West so drastically, it would no longer be a liberal, democratic zone of the globe. We should have to become a military dictatorship ourselves to have a chance.

Fortunately, there isn't the slightest bit of evidence that this is true. Every Moslem-majority country has an element, exerting greater or lesser control, of global caliphists who are absolutely our enemies; I'll go farther... this is true in every country that has a substantial Moslem minority. But the existence of an insurgent fifth column within every Islamic enclave does not mean that each such enclave constitutes an insurgency.

That would be "liberal thinking" -- or more precisely, liberal fascist thinking... the idea that each individual is utterly defined by his group identity. That's the thinking behind liberal-fascist ideas from "affirmative action" and "hate-speech" codes to the round-up and incarceration of tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent in American concentration camps during World War II. How is liberal racist and classist dogma any different from saying that "all Arabs" or "all Moslems" are enemies of (and incapable of understanding) Western values such as democracy and freedom of conscience?

The overarching purpose of this DHS memo is to give the USG the language to avoid driving fence-sitting or even mainstream Moslems into the arms of militant Islamism, and instead to drive them towards modernity, democracy, and individualism:

Starting from the premise that words do indeed matter, three foundational assumptions inform this paper:

(1) We should not demonize all Muslims or Islam;

(2) Because the terrorists themselves use theology and religious terms to justify both their means and ends, the terms we use must be accurate and descriptive; and

(3) Our words should be strategic; we must be conscious of history, culture, and context. In an era where a statement can cross continents in a manner of seconds, it is essential that officials consider how terms translate, and how they will resonate with a variety of audiences.

So what, specifically, does the memo suggest? Here are a few of the recommendations:

  • They urge USG spokesmen to use "caution" in using terms like jihadist, Islamic terrorist, holy warrior, and even Islamist; the former terms because they "give the terrorists the legitimacy they seek" -- they're not really "holy warriors," for God's sake -- and the last, Islamism/Islamist, because, while it's certainly accurate, "it may not be strategic for USG officials to use the term because the general public, including overseas audiences, may not appreciate the academic distinction between Islamism and Islam."

This is not a slam against Moslems; even many Americans who do not study this stuff night and day get those terms mixed up and may not know they mean different things. Yet these suggestions of words to avoid produces much snorting and pawing by Stephens in his WSJ piece:

In "1984," George Orwell famously created Newspeak, "the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year." How things haven't changed. The Homeland Security memo begins by declaring that "Words matter," whereupon it proceeds to suggest that some words matter so much it's best not to use them at all. Instead, the memo proposes a "strategic terminology" to dictate the utterances of public officials regarding the so-called Global Struggle.

But Stephens completely misses the point. The memo does not argue that we shouldn't use such words out of an Orwellian desire to make the concepts themselves disappear, as if by magic.

It argues that government officials shouldn't use them for the same reason that we shouldn't call our military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan a "crusade" -- because it may frighten potential Moslem allies into thinking that we plan to take away their countries and force-convert them all to Christianity. Even suspecting such a thing would stampede many Moslems otherwise disposed towards us and against the terrorists into allying with the bad guys, for the same reason we allied with the Soviet Union during World War II: self preservation.

  • They warn government officials away from using the term "moderate Moslem," because many Moslems imagine that means a Moslem who doesn't really believe in Islam.

    A better term to use for a Moslem who does not support extremism, militancy, and violence against the innocent is to call him a mainstream Moslem, or an ordinary or traditional Moslem: That allows him to be very religious but still locates him within the larger Moslem community that does not sacrifice women and children to Moloch. (That's my analogy; the DHS paper doesn't use the terms "human sacrifice" or "Moloch," more's the pity.)

  • Similarly, they warn we should be careful using Arabic terms unless we really understand what they mean -- not just the literal text but the subtextual meaning as well.

    For example, al-Qaeda adherents are "Salafists;" they believe that Islam was perfect in the days of the prophet Mohammed and the two generations that followed, and that should be the model for Islam even today. But that doesn't mean that all Salafists are al-Qaeda supporters. So if we verbally attacked "Salafism," we would be condemning tens of millions of non-violent Moslems in order to get at the tens of thousands of violent Salafists among them. It's a terrible blunder, a stupid strategy that will lead to defeat, like attacking "Catholic priests" for being pederasts, when we really mean to attack just those priests who engaged in such horrific sins (and anyone who shielded them from exposure).

  • Nevertheless, the memo does suggest some Arabic terms that cannot be misunderstood. For example, they recommend understanding the concept of takfir: Moslems who declare other Moslems to be apostates or unbelievers ("kafiri"), making it legitimate (to takfiri) to blow them up or torture them to death. The term is universally used in Arabic as a purely negative concept: Nobody says, "Takfir and proud of it, man!"
  • Just as nobody says "I'm a cultist." Militant Islamism is a death cult, and that's a perfectly proper word to use against it: It's accurate -- they have very cult-like recruiting and retention techniques (lies, propaganda, isolation, physical coercion) -- and calling terrorists "death cultists" cannot possibly help them recruit new suicide bombers.

At a conference convened two years ago in Amman, Jordan, by King Abdullah, 200 leading Islamic scholars from 50 countries unanimously issued a fatwah condemning takfir; so it's not even controversial: Takfir is bad, and takfiri are despised:

Strictly speaking, takfirism most accurately describes terrorism by Muslims against other Muslims. But it may be strategic to employ the term in a wider context given that (1) many of the leaders of al-Qaeda are known to have adopted a takfiri ideology, and (2) part of the USG's anti-terrorism strategy should be to emphasize that the majority of the victims of modern terrorism are Muslim. There may also be a useful nexus to cult terminology; regarding takfiri indoctrination. French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard states: "Takfir is like a sect: Once you're in, you never get out. The Takfir rely on brainwashing and an extreme regime of discipline to weed out the weak links and ensure loyalty and obedience from those taken as members." Thus the phrase "takfiri dearh cult" may have some relevance.

Again, I don't think Stephens advocates a war of Islam vs. the West; he wrote a very penetrating article about Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Moslem organization in the world with more than 40 million members... and which is unabashedly pro-West, pro-modernity, and even (yes, really) pro-Israel. I read and posted about it at the time: We Found the "Moslem Methodists!"

But I sure wish Stephens could have thought a second time before firing off today's ill-advised and remarkably unhelpful column. We actually need to get on the same page here: Without a strong ideological component to the war against the takfiri death cults, we are not going to win. The DHS memo is at least a very good first step... and it's unfortunate that some folks are so stuck in the mode of knocking anything DHS or State does that they cannot even notice when they do something right for a change.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 27, 2008, at the time of 7:52 PM

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» Talking Islam 2: A Bad Meme Infects the Conservative Meme Pool from Big Lizards
In our previous post about Bret Stephens' ham-fisted misinterpretation of a memo from the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security -- which urges the U.S. government to change the lexicon by which it... [Read More]

Tracked on June 1, 2008 4:46 AM

» Talking Islam 3: the "Jihad" Watchdog from Big Lizards
Frequent commenter Wtanksleyjr challenged me to respond to this blogpost by Robert Spencer. Spencer attacks the DHS memo that urges the U.S. government to change the lexicon by which it refers to militant Islamists and terrorists -- though he mistakenl... [Read More]

Tracked on June 3, 2008 8:38 PM

» Talking Islam 3.5: Response to Thomas Joscelyn (and Wolf Howling) from Big Lizards
The proprietor of Wolf Howling ("GW") left a cryptic comment on Big Lizards wondering whether I would like to respond to his post... in which he critiques both a Big Lizards post and (wait for it) the response to that... [Read More]

Tracked on June 4, 2008 5:57 PM


The following hissed in response by: Davod

Al Qaeda has just issued another communique. How do you propose the interpreters and analysts write about the contents.

The above hissed in response by: Davod [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 28, 2008 5:48 AM

The following hissed in response by: Davod


This is similar to the latest foolishness in the UK where any Jihadist terrorist attack is listed as an anti-Islamic attack. We have moved back in time to 1984.

The above hissed in response by: Davod [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 28, 2008 6:04 AM

The following hissed in response by: Geoman

I've always believed that we need to use every weapon (military, economic, social) at our disposal. Killing an enemy is never as effective as discrediting him. Then killing him.

I do have one minor bone of contention.

For Islam to fit in with western culture, it has to allow people to both join and leave with impunity. Otherwise it has no place in the public square.

The above hissed in response by: Geoman [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 28, 2008 9:14 AM

The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr

I respectfully disagree -- in general. Your statements are prudent and reasonable as part of a large-scale propaganda plan; it's reasonable to make a large-scale effort to teach Moslems that Jihad doesn't mean what all their authorities now say it does.

Outside of the context of that effort, though, it's just plain stupid to be teaching our own people that 'jihad' has a primary meaning of 'inner struggle'. To most Moslems it's not a black and white issue; it's contextual, and when Jihad is brought up in a kaffir context, it implies _physical_ and legal struggle to establish and enforce sharia law.

Takfiri is a terrible name for our opponents. We're not fighting against takfiri. In fact, we are actively trying to get more Moslems to commit takfir -- but takfir doesn't mean "killing", it means "declaring non-Muslim". We want Moslems to be unafraid to denounce as non-Muslim those who violate ethical norms. Excommunication would be a wonderful thing -- particularly if the majority agreed, thus making KILLING a poor response to excommunication.

Once again, your ideas would be great as part of a large-scale propaganda campaign, but that isn't happening. Instead it's a mere memo which will be used only to train our people in wrong ideas about the problem, and will occasionally be cited by Islamic apologists "proving" that everyone knows Islam is peaceful.

"The majority of Moslems are at least open to modernity, liberty, and democracy, depending on how they are presented."

This is purely fictional.

The majority of Moslems say that 9/11 was at least partially justified; perhaps more importantly, the majority believe (in line with uncontested interpretation of their scriptures) that all governments should be placed in their exclusive power, all people made subject to them, all other religions suppressed, and only other "people of the book" allowed to nominally keep their religion (at cost of a special tax, plus constant social tokens of low status, plus complete a disallowal of discussing doctrines contrary to Islam).

The above hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 28, 2008 10:30 AM

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