My good friend Heather S. Gregg of the Naval Postgraduate School has an article in the latest Terrorism and Political Violence entitled “Fighting the Jihad of the Pen: Countering Revolutionary Islam’s Ideology.” I commend it to you. In it, she maintains that: “The United States has at least two strategies it can pursue in fighting revolutionary Islam’s ideas: helping to magnify the divisions and inconsistencies within revolutionary Islam and helping to create the space and culture of debating ideas.”
While recognizing the futility of the United States engaging in theological debate with Muslims, she does note a number of ways in which the United States is already doing the first, most importantly through the work of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. I might add that al Qaida is already doing an excellent job of magnifying its own inconsistencies and divisions. Its atrocities and its heated rejoinders to the various “revisions” published by former jihadists are all quite helpful in this regard.
The second part, “creating the space and culture of debating ideas” is the tricky bit. Heather writes: “Creating a marketplace of ideas requires at least two different components. First, a marketplace of ideas demands an intellectual culture of questioning and debate…. Second, a marketplace of ideas requires a forum in which ideas can be discussed and debated.”
This forum can be either physical or virtual: newspapers, blogs, etc. In fact, it seems to me that ideally “the” forum includes both physical and virtual spaces. The more the merrier and, more to the point, the proliferation of fora encourages debates. Imagine the lack of energy at the Daily Kos if there would be no the right-wing blogosphere.
This leads to perhaps the most telling part of the article. Heather warns that:
“These two components of a marketplace of ideas—civic space and a culture of debate—are both necessary conditions for ideas to develop and prosper. Creating civic space alone is not sufficient for change; it could provide the forum for extremist groups to spread their ideology and propagate. Only can these groups be checked if there is also an intellectual culture in which all ideas are regarded as suspect and worthy of debate, and that truths—if they exist at all—are not fixed in time but must be constantly reevaluated, as well as the leaders that generate them.”
So, encouraging democracy and civil society is not enough. The United States must find ways to encourage, or at least not impede, the development of questioning, critical societies.
Perhaps we could carpet bomb Muslim countries with postmodernist literature. That was not Gregg’s suggestion, by the way.
In any event, kinetic action–killing people and breaking things–is absolutely necessary in the struggle against Islamist terrorism but it’s a holding action. Ideas such as Heather’s may not point their way toward the kind of action that makes good movies or lead to medals for valor, but ideas such as hers do point the way toward victory. I look forward to the day when the last Islamist terrorist is on his deathbed knowing that everyone else in the world thinks his ideology is stupid if they think anything about it at all. To me that would be even more satisfying than shooting the guy.
Check out Heather’s article. It’s worth a read.