Ideological Jihadist Victory Confounds Experts

Oct 15th, 2015 | By | Category: Featured

by Andrew Harrod, PhD:

6511189743_f10964c147_b“We are failing, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise,” stated former American special envoy Farah Pandith concerning the “war of ideas” against global Islamic threats at a September 30 Washington, DC, event.  Pandith and her fellow panelists at the McCain Institute presented before a conference hall filled with 50 listeners a depressing picture of this ideological battle over 14 years after the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks.

“The field of Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), Pandith stated while discussing the current umbrella term for ideological anti-jihadism, “has too few people, it is disorganized, and we do not have enough resources.”  By contrast, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other “bad guys are doing this 24/7” with ample media resources for jihadist messaging.  Yet “during the Cold War, we fought an ideological fight” and “put money where our mouth is” in capabilities.

These inadequacies in the American government are longstanding, as Pandith noted that in 2005, “when the Danish cartoon crisis happened, we weren’t ready.”  “No one at the State Department was happy about any conversation having to do with religion” when Pandith in 2007 began seven years as an international envoy to Muslim communities.  America’s “ferocious separation between church and state” is one factor creating a “structural disconnect” in strategy concerning Muslim matters like the “Arab Spring,” noted National Defense University Professor Hassan Abbas.  He “was extremely worried and surprised” when American personnel going to Afghanistan and Iraq “had not received any basic education or any basic briefing on religion.”

Yet ISIS or the Taliban are pursuing “Islamic wars” that are “purely sectarian, embedded in religious theology,” Abbas stated.  These jihadists have “distorted, but in such a skillful fashion,” Islamic doctrines, with ideas “coming from also mainstream Muslim scholarship.”  In contrast, “Muslim wars” involve disputes among Muslims such as Yemeni tribal fighting.

Against jihadist ideologies Abbas advocated “counter-narratives which emerge from religious views” developed by Muslim “mainstream scholars who have a lot of credibility” like Hamza Yusuf.   Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri wrote a Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings although “it’s worrisome” that ul-Qadri left his native Pakistan in order to find support in the United Kingdom.  Pandith also suggested disillusioned former jihadists who “have great impact as a counter-narrative” in “what they saw, how it didn’t marry up to what they believed.”

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Abbas conceded the imperfections of his counter-narrators such as the American convert Yusuf, who controversially “way before 9/11 he had said one sentence about Taliban.”  “Someone will have said something about Hezbollah” or other matters (or helped draft Pakistan’s deadly blasphemy law like ul-Qadri, Abbas failed to mention), but “forget some of the things.  You will never get your ideal self.”  Woolf Institute founding director Edward Kessler contrasted that the Quilliam Foundation’s former British extremists are “very radical voices…seen to attack mainstream Islamic values” with corresponding rejection by British Muslims.

With such counter-narratives, Pandith stated, it “would not be the US government doing it, obviously.”  During her years as an envoy she had followed the maxim that “you can’t talk about Islam” and considered that the “most important role we can be playing is the listening role” among diverse Muslims.  American officials “have no competency, we have no mandate” constitutionally to advocate particular understandings of Islam, stated United States Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey.  Pandith envisioned American facilitation of an “organic…finding the right people on the ground” and “turbocharged” public relations exploitation of unplanned “things that happen organically.”

Echoing Casey’s comments, Woodrow Wilson Center Visiting Scholar Farhat Haq stated during audience questioning that Americans “have lost the game” among Muslims globally the “moment we touch something.”  Irrespective of public relations expenditures, the “United States is not perceived as an impartial player in the Muslim world” and “there are certain charged areas, stay away from gender in a very direct way.”  “Our friends, so to speak” such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have “greater purchase on this counter-narrative,” she stated, although Abbas noted that “some of our partners may be problematic.”

The panelists appeared confident of countering jihadist ideology, given Pandith’s view that this “is not about Islam” and Casey’s dubious conviction that ISIS volunteers are “not deeply literate in their own faith.”  A Lebanese questioner likewise saw “more of a war of psychology, not a war of ideas” among “people that are lost” like her two friends, a Christian and an atheist, who joined ISIS as Muslim converts.  Kessler, meanwhile, criticized European “fearmongering” concerning recent Muslim refugee flows from Syria and elsewhere while calling for greater “faith literacy” among government officials.

Even with more resources the panelists would probably repeat the British experience with CVE, who “have spent hundreds of millions of Pounds on this and they don’t have anything to show for it,” Casey stated.  Concerns about Yusuf extend beyond one sentence and ul-Qadri’s fatwa is abysmally superficial, in contrast to his canonical blasphemy stand, calling into question Abbas’ leeway for “mainstream scholars.”  “Problematic” Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Haq’s “charged areas” also indicate dangers greater than aberrant interpretations.  Pandith left unmentioned why President Barack Obama did not “turbocharge” popular unrest against Islamic governance in Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2013.

These violent and nonviolent threats demand a moral and “faith literacy” that dispenses with past politically correct whitewashing of Islamic concepts like jihad in favor of a nondescript CVE.  Although free countries like the United States lack the legal and religious authority to define Islam, they can forthrightly stand for the Declaration of Independence’s “unalienable Rights” as during the Cold War.  Under these moral “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” conscientious Muslims and non-Muslims could reject theological bases for human rights abuses.  As the violent devotion of various converts to their newfound Islamic faith shows, political Islam has a potent canonical base, making conflicts with free peoples inevitable. Those who are free, however, should have something to say as active participants and not just passive listeners in freedom’s battles.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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