How to Fight Terrorism

How to Fight Terrorism

Mini Teaser: Radical Islam is its own worst enemy. It will marginalize itself unless the United States overreacts.

by Author(s): Daniel Byman

A Practical Guide to Winning the War on Terrorism offers a range of useful thoughts on public diplomacy that, if heeded, can help provide such direction. The various authors who address how to change public diplomacy, fortunately, do not agree. As a result, we receive a rich variety of descriptions as to the proper tasks of public diplomacy, the appropriate means of pursuing it, and its probable limits. Taken together, the essays portray the complexity of the problems and the daunting barriers that need to be overcome.

The public diplomacy problem is not new. As Martin Kramer argues in his chapter, "Every non-Muslim authority that has projected power into the Middle East has faced the problem of winning Muslim hearts and minds." Kramer recommends a steady campaign of professing respect for Islam backed up with visible displays of that respect, and lining up Muslims "with the best Islamic pedigree" to endorse your cause.

Such a seemingly simple campaign is exceptionally difficult. Most Muslim scholars with the most credible pedigrees are indeed lined up, but against Washington. As Kramer notes, friendly Muslim governments are not likely to help the United States become more popular, so the stable of loyal regime clerics is not available. Most outsider clerics, while enjoying far more credibility, tend to be even more hostile to the United States.

An even bigger problem of public diplomacy is the difficulty of harmonizing messages at home and abroad in order to properly display respect. As William Rugh contends, "Washington officials speaking publicly are thinking about an American audience rather than a foreign one." Unfortunately, as Daoud Kuttab and Ellen Laipson contend, the global media market and the consistency of leaks make it impossible to speak out of both sides of our mouths. The result is that statements meant for domestic audiences are played up everywhere overseas: Vice President Cheney, for example, condoned Israel's assassination of Palestinian officials in a television interview--a justified position, but one that plays poorly in the Muslim world. Twenty years ago, few Muslims in pro-U.S. countries would have seen Cheney make such a statement, for their state-run media would not have shown it. With satellite television, they can watch the vice president in real time. The statements of U.S. evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, who offered the invocation at Bush's first inauguration and later decried Islam as a "wicked" religion, received considerable attention as well. This makes it difficult for U.S. officials stationed abroad to simultaneously push the idea that the United States respects Islam.

The problem plays both ways. Some authors call for the United States to befriend moderate Muslim clerics, a seemingly obvious suggestion. Many clerics who have "street cred" with jihadist sympathizers openly endorse anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and the unequal status of women. Any U.S. leader who befriends such figures would be fair game for domestic criticism.

But the U.S. problem is deeper than public diplomacy. It is inextricably linked to U.S. policy as well. Most jihadists oppose what most Americans see as legitimate policies. The United States is a staunch supporter of Israel (Howard Dean was criticized by fellow Democrats for calling for the United States to be more evenhanded) and backs autocratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere. All these stances are in the U.S. national interest; but pity the poor flak who tries to sell them in the Muslim world.

As a result of these problems, public diplomacy as traditionally conceived may be doomed. Laipson declares it an anachronism that "is probably doing more harm than good." At the margins, however, there remains room. As Garfinkle notes, the United States neither installed Arab autocrats nor is responsible for their continued rule. Similarly, the United States seeks a Palestinian state, albeit under conditions that are improbable. Simply engaging in the debate and trying to correct the most egregious misperceptions would increase goodwill, though not to a level that would make the United States widely admired.

But Are We Winning After All?

The public diplomacy picture painted above is gloomy and seems in keeping with the general pessimism people have with regard to the struggle against terrorism. It is common wisdom that Bin Laden and his followers are on the crest of a massive wave that is sweeping through the Middle East, smashing against the shores of Europe, and even reaching the United States.

Yet a distinction must be made between the violence of radical Islam and its intrinsic appeal and coherence. Writing in 1960, Daniel Bell published The End of Ideology and declared that Western liberal democracy had triumphed over communism. To be sure, this was a contention that seemed bizarre during the subsequent Cuban missile standoff, the Vietnam debacle and other crises. When the Berlin Wall came crashing down, however, Bell was vindicated. Communism had indeed lost its energy and, in hindsight, it seems clear that this process had begun decades before.

Two leading scholars of political Islam, Olivier Roy (The Failure of Political Islam, 1994) and Gilles Kepel (Jihad: The Train of Political Islam, 2000) made similar arguments in the last decade. They contend that political Islam has lost its intellectual fervor and has demonstrated itself to be a failure wherever it has held power. September 11 made such an argument seem naive, but the closer look that Takeyh and Gvosdev provide suggests otherwise.

Perhaps the best way to understand this point of view is by looking at the world through the eyes of jihadists sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. Takeyh and Gvosdev track the rise and fall of Islamist movements in Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Afghanistan and former Yugoslavia, and conclude that, while Islamists in these countries had a substantial following and at times even gained power, in general they have done quite poorly as political movements. As the authors note, "it is increasingly clear that radical political Islam cannot seize control of modern or modernizing states within the Islamic heartland and construct an effective alternative model of governance."

Algeria represents one of the most dramatic Islamist failures. In 1992, Algerian military leaders seized power to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front from gaining power through legitimate elections. Mass demonstrations at home and condemnation abroad followed, suggesting that the military regime was tottering. However, militants in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), many of whom had spent time in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union, condemned the Front for both its naive hopes with regard to taking power and because it saw democracy as illegitimate. The GIA quickly turned to violence, targeting regime members, intellectuals and other perceived enemies. Fighters linked to the GIA were involved in truly unspeakable atrocities including, among others, the murders of children and pregnant women, actions that made even many hardcore jihadist ideologues blanch. Over 100,000 Algerian deaths later, the Islamist cause became widely discredited. The corrupt and noxious regime in Algiers has gained legitimacy by default because most Algerians, including many moderate Islamists, came to see the GIA and affiliated groups as hopeless barbarians.

Ironically, the Islamists in power may be America's best hope for discrediting the movement. As Graham Fuller observed in The Future of Political Islam (2003), "nothing can make Islamism seem unappealing faster than an unsuccessful stint in power." The Islamist regime in Sudan, which was sidelined by military leaders, and the Taliban's Afghanistan both are instances in which Islamists grabbed power in the name of Islam, only to find themselves and their cause discredited by their actions once in power.

Iran represents a case in which a once triumphant Islamist regime's ideology is now in retreat. Ayatollah Khomeini swept to power in 1979 on a wave of popular fervor. Although he was no democrat, his regime had widespread popular support because of his charisma, his ability to tap into nationalism and his religious credentials. Khomeini's death in 1989 and the subsequent elevation of the intellectually third-rate Ayatollah Khamenei as his replacement marked the triumph of politics over legitimacy for the clerical regime. When combined with economic mismanagement and the dark legacy of fruitless Iranian sacrifices in the eight-year war with Iraq, the regime's ideology steadily became tarnished. In 1997, Mohamed Khatami won popular elections in part by calling for more pluralism, more privacy and more respect for the rule of law, all of which challenged the existing order. In 2004, conservatives appeared ascendant again, but this was a political, not an ideological, victory. Increasingly, the legacy of the revolution is hollow, with serious Iranian religious scholars recognizing that clerical rule has hurt the state and, more importantly from their point of view, has hurt Islam even more. Even true believers among Iran's conservatives recognize that they must revamp their ideology. Today, political Islam has a lower repute in Iran than it has had for forty years, while the United States is far more popular than it is in any of the Arab countries whose regimes are allied with Washington.

In many ways, the profound failure of radical Islam as a political movement is what makes it so deadly as a source of terrorism. Radical Islamists have difficulty aspiring to use the political system for peaceful change because many know the limits of their popularity. Indeed, the political process is likely to reveal divisions within the movement and may separate the firebrands from the wide variety of Islamists who do not endorse violence. Embracing violence enables radicals to remain pure and avoid the failure that might come with peaceful political participation.

Essay Types: Book Review