Tips for understanding the mind war

muslimFor journalists — or anyone for that matter — looking to understand the conflict in the Middle East between the West and the Islamic fundamentalism, take a look at this book review in Sunday’s Washington Post titled “The War for Muslim Minds,” and then consider picking up one or more of these books.

The review by the RAND Corporation’s Bruce Hoffman encompasses three recent books on the minds of Muslims. The heaviest of the three, Fawaz A. Gerges’s The Far Enemy, moves along the theory on “why Jihad went global.” Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Wrestling Islam From the Extremists deals with the more well-known theory that Islam has been hijacked by highly charismatic characters, while Fred Halliday’s 100 Myths About the Middle East seems to be a quick guide worthy of a Christmast-time airplane ride (it’s also only about $10). I should note that I have not read any of these books, but that is no the point of this post.

While masterfully quoting Sun Tzu, Hoffman underscores the point I’ve been trying to make about journalists, only pointing towards the United States’ counterterrorism strategy:

Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America’s counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a “kill or capture” approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America’s targets — be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq — have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces — not toward understanding the enemy we now face.

This is a monumental failing because al Qaeda’s ability to continue this struggle is predicated on its capacity to attract new recruits and replenish its resources. The success of U.S. strategy will therefore ultimately depend on Washington’s ability to counter al Qaeda’s ideological appeal — and thereby break the cycle of recruitment and regeneration. To do so, we first need to better understand the origins of the al Qaeda movement, the animosity and arguments that underpin it and indeed the region of the world from which its struggle emanated and upon which its gaze still hungrily rests. Each of the three books reviewed here provides a good start in this essential, though lamentably belated, process.

“In my conversations with former jihadis, one of the critical lessons I have learned is that personalities, not ideas or organizations, are the drivers behind the movement,” writes Gerges in his book, implicitly removing the importance of religion in this international conflict.

Why is this important to the average journalist? Most of us are not in the Middle East covering elections and suicide bombings.

Here’s why: the Post also on Sunday carried an article title “Muslim Leader Forges Interfaith Accord” by Fredrick Kunkle of a “popular Imam,” Yahya Hendi, who is supposedly boosting Islam throughout Maryland and beyond.

It’s a fairly straightforward middle-of-the-local-section religion story except for the fact that he’s a cologne-splashing Imam who is convinced that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are more similar than different. Fair enough character, but any reporter digging past the same-day feature story written by Kunkle must pitch some serious questions at Hendi who believes he is the Arabic version of John the Baptist. And to do that one must have at least a primer in what Muslims today believe and it is about as far away from monolithic as you can get.

Then there is the international story of Muslims flocking to the polls in Iraq and the convening of Afghanistan’s first parliament in more than 30 years. What story is more important these days?

These historical moments will receive their due treatment in lengthy magazine pieces followed by thick books, but for the journalist grinding out daily news stories on these dramatic events — whether for the metro section or from the Green Zone — a background in the minds of the Muslims will be crucial for accurately understanding the story.

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  • Roger Bennett

    I have entertained the idea for a few years that a really, really courageous journalist might want to complare the “as far away from monolithic as you can get” of Islam to the thousands or tens of thousands of Protestant denominations, who claim some mystical unity but cannot, for instance, agree on such matters as whether God efficaciously saves the elect and only the elect or whether He instead sincerely offers salvation to all and decrees reprobation for nobody. Could the cacopony of each religion arise from the difficulty of getting a univocal message from a large text, such as the Bible or the Koran, without an “authoritative” interpretive tradition?

  • Jan Bear

    Could it be that the administration and the Pentagon are held back from the kind of analysis of Islam that you advocate by the inevitable protests of Moslems — moderate or radical — that they are being unfairly targeted?

    In other words, if it’s a “scandal” that the Pentagon buys space for its news in Iraqi papers, how much more so if it begins to “infiltrate” and “analyze” the faith of Islam?

    That may not be an excuse, but in this hostile environment, it has to be a concern.

  • John Cox

    I don’t get this post.

    On the one hand, you seem to be quoting Hoffman with approval when he says, in effect, the U.S. doesn’t really understand the ideological underpinnings of al Qaeda; but then you quote Gerges saying that ideology actually is not as important as personalities in al Qaeda.

    You say Gerges’s comment implicitly removes the importance of religion in this conflict. But that’s only true if “religion” and “ideology” mean the same thing. And they obviously do not.

    Without having read Hoffman’s full review, or anything else by him, I find the excerpt you quote rather conventional. I grant the importance of “knowing your enemy.” It’s at least as important as knowing your friends.

    But what does “knowing” or “understanding” mean in the context of terrorism? Is Hoffman suggesting that some kind of therapeutic understanding of what motivates the suicide bombers will actually help us in…what? Dissuading them? Providing them with less aggressive “outlets” for their rage? Identifying the most likely young men willing to blow themselves up with civilians?

    It seems to me perfectly likely, even logical, that religion and personality, or ideology and personality, combine very neatly: the personality of the terror leader literally incarnates the model commended by religion and articulated by ideology.

    If that’s the case, then the allegedly shortsided U.S. of “killing or capturing” the personalities in question is exactly on target.

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  • John Cox

    With regard to Herb Ely’s post, the “understanding” that those various groups held was highly varied, in its content and its quality. Just one bit of evidence on that is the firestorm of criticism that greeted Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.”

    Another is the persistent illusion held by a wide range of people that Stalin was forced to negotiate and take into account Politburo “factions”, an illusion he did everything to foster.

    Conversely, we have the most recent Arab statements, including those coming from Iran, that the Holocaust is a myth and that Israel (or Israelis) should be moved to Europe where they belong.

    The Islamofacists seem to be pretty clear and pretty consistent about what they believe. That’s my “perspective.”

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