Extremism: Scrap “Battle of Ideas” Talk

Notably absent from the presidential primary campaign is serious discussion of how to implement an effective long-term strategy for protecting the United States from future terrorist acts. Many political leaders in the past have embraced winning “the battle of ideas” against Muslim extremists as the most important component of any strategy, yet this ubiquitous catchphrase stems from an erroneous and counterproductive framework for understanding extremists like Osama bin Laden.

The framework assumes that groups like al Qaeda possess a coherent and compelling interpretation of Islam that the United States must counter to prevent Muslims from adopting it. This flawed understanding should be replaced with a more nuanced approach based on the true nature of the terrorist threat.

The “battle of ideas” approach is counterproductive for two important reasons: first, it encourages the concept of a Manichean struggle raging between two equally powerful and opposing world views, in effect legitimizing the extremists’ understanding of the struggle, and second, it overstates the extent to which bin Laden’s world view constitutes a viable theological alternative for the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. These zealous religious views are not only alien to most Muslims living today, but have also earned a place on the fringe of the history of Islamic intellectual thought.

For an effective strategy, the United States needs to take three important steps.

The first is decoupling Islam and terrorism. The 9/11 commission report states that “the enemy is not just ‘terrorism’… it is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.” While it is true that America faces a significant threat from people who identify themselves as Muslims and dress their grievances in religious terms, this does not mean that such people are perpetrators of “Islamist terrorism.” The phrase implies that Islam sanctions terrorism and that Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts. “Terrorism in the name of Islam” is more accurate.

The second step requires recognition that most grievances expressed by extremists such as bin Laden are secular and political in nature. They are angry about what they perceive as the exploitation of Muslims at the hands of the United States. They enjoy sympathy from Muslims who perceive the United States, and the West in general, as perpetuators of an unjust global political-economic system. As many have already noted, the attacks of 9/11 targeted American FINANCIAL and military complexes and not Western religious symbols. Though the United States should not accept at face value the legitimacy of al Qaeda grievances, we cannot effectively prevent terrorist acts from taking place without a better understanding of their ultimately profane roots.

The third step involves ensuring the United States actively works for the promotion of human dignity. U.S. policymakers should make a concerted effort to understand the circumstances of the countries of the Muslim world that cause a sense of deprivation and humiliation among their populations, as these factors contribute to sympathy for al Qaeda’s political aims. Washington conventional wisdom maintains that Muslims need to believe in an alternative vision for their economic and political future, though the vast majority of Muslims need no convincing that economic prosperity and political freedom are good things. Muslims share the same vision held by humanity everywhere – a secure future for their children and a life defined by dignity and liberty. Thus, policy makers should approach Muslims as partners on the path toward bettering livelihoods in Muslim societies.

If the United States continues to be implicated in the social, political and economic underdevelopment of much of the Muslim world, al Qaeda will continue to gain followers who are blind to everything but the perceived destructive effects of U.S. hegemony. In the end, focusing on winning the “battle of ideas” obscures our view of what must be done to prevent future terrorist attacks. The United States should recognize the true nature of the terrorist threat, identify its root causes, and partner with Muslims to eliminate them.