We have a problem—not a problem from hell, but one that claims to come from heaven. That problem is sometimes called radical, or fundamentalist, Islam, and the self-styled Islamic State is just its latest iteration. But no one really understands it.
In the summer of 2014, Major General Michael Nagata, the commander of U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East, admitted as much when talking about the Islamic State, or ISIS. “We do not understand the movement,” he said. “And until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” Although Nagata’s words are striking for their candor, there is nothing new about the state of affairs they describe. For years, U.S. policymakers have failed to grasp the nature of the threat posed by militant Islam and have almost entirely failed to mount an effective counteroffensive against it on the battlefield that matters most: the battlefield of ideas.
In the war of ideas, words matter. Last September, U.S. President Barack Obama insisted that the Islamic State “is not Islamic,” and later that month, he told the UN General Assembly that “Islam teaches peace.” In November, Obama condemned the beheading of the American aid worker Peter Kassig as “evil” but refused to use the term “radical Islam” to describe the ideology of his killers. The phrase is no longer heard in White House press briefings. The approved term is “violent extremism.”
The decision not to call violence committed in the name of Islam by its true name—jihad—is a strange one. It would be as if Western leaders during the Cold War had gone around calling communism an ideology of peace or condemning the Baader Meinhof Gang, a West German militant group, for not being true Marxists. It is time to drop the euphemisms and verbal contortions. A battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.
How did the United States end up with a strategy based on Orwellian Newspeak? In the wake of 9/11, senior Bush administration officials sounded emphatic. “This is a battle for minds,” declared the Pentagon’s no. 2, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. But behind the scenes, there was a full-blown struggle going on about how to approach the subject of Islam. According to Joseph Bosco, who worked on strategic communications and Muslim outreach in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2004, although some American officials defined Islam as inherently peaceful, others argued that, like Christianity, it had to go through a reformation. Eventually, an uneasy compromise was reached. “We bridged the divide by saying that most contemporary Muslims practice their faith peacefully and tolerantly, but a small, radical minority aspires to return to Islam’s harsh seventh century origins,” Bosco wrote in The National Interest.
The Muslim world is in the early stages of a religious reformation.
Administration officials could not even agree on the target of their efforts. Was it global terrorism or Islamic extremism? Or was it the alleged root causes—poverty, Saudi funding, past errors of U.S. foreign policy, or something else altogether? There were “agonizing” meetings on the subject, one participant told U.S. News & World Report. “We couldn’t clarify what path to take, so it was dropped.”
It did not help that the issue cut across traditional bureaucratic demarcations. Officers from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command argued for the integration of public diplomacy, press relations, and covert operations. State Department officials saw this as yet another attempt by the Pentagon to annex their turf. Veterans of the campaign trail warned against going negative on a religion—any religion—ahead of the 2004 election. For all these reasons, by the middle of that year, the Bush administration had next to no strategy. Government Accountability Office investigators told Congress that those responsible for public diplomacy at the State Department had no guidance. “Everybody who knows how to do this has been screaming,” one insider told U.S. News. But outside Foggy Bottom, no one could hear them scream.
Administration officials eventually settled on the “Muslim World Outreach” strategy, which relied partly on humanitarian projects carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development and partly on Arabic-language media outlets funded by the U.S. government, such as Alhurra (a plain vanilla TV news channel) and Radio Sawa (a 24-hour pop music station that targets younger listeners). In effect, “Muslim World Outreach” meant not touching Islam at all. Karen Hughes, who was undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005 to 2007, has said that she “became convinced that our nation should avoid the language of religion in our discussion of terrorist acts.”
Here, if in few other respects, there has been striking continuity from Bush to Obama. From 2009 to 2011, Judith McHale served in the same position that Hughes had. “This effort is not about a ‘war of ideas,’ or winning the hearts and minds of huge numbers of people,” McHale said in 2012. “It’s about using digital platforms to reach that small but dangerous group of people around the world who are considering turning to terrorism and persuading them to instead turn in a different direction.” The whole concept of “violent extremism” implies that the United States is fine with people being extremists, so long as they do not resort to violence. Yet this line of reasoning fails to understand the crucial link between those who preach jihad and those who then carry it out. It also fails to understand that at a pivotal moment, the United States has opted out of a debate about Islam’s future.