Before We Cure Others of Their False Beliefs, We Must First Cure Our Own

It is an honor to participate in this discussion with Ali Soufan. I am grateful to him for his contribution, and I concur with much of what he has to say. As usual, he spells out the nature the challenge posed by Salafi jihadism clearly and without emotion.

Where we part ways is on the mechanisms for addressing the problems that he identifies, and our relative faith (or, in my case, lack thereof) in the U.S. government’s capacity for doing so. I also doubt my fellow Americans’ ability to evince the empathy of which Soufan speaks.

First, the areas of agreement. When it comes to the war on terrorism, we need to try something new. What we’re doing isn’t working. Al Qaeda and its progeny have evolved from “a close-knit hierarchy of around 400 extremists,” Soufan observes, to a “string of terrorist franchises [that] boast tens of thousands of members.” This small and weak band of zealots has grown through masterful propaganda, especially their ability to peddle “the view that the West is engaged in a ‘war against Islam.’” Many Americans, Soufan notes, have been taken in by this al Qaeda’s narrative – and have even fueled it.

Soufan is hardly the first to doubt that American bombs and bullets are the key to defeating the Salafi-Jihadist narrative. In one of his many famous “snowflake” memos, George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – hardly a dove – pondered whether the United States was creating more terrorists than it was killing or capturing.

The evidence is in. My colleagues Erik Goepner and Trevor Thrall note the grim counterinsurgent math in a recent Cato blog post:

32,200 = the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began

60,000 = the number of bad guys the United States has killed since 2015 [the number allegedly killed since 9/11 must obviously be much higher]

109,000 = the number that fight today.

“32,200 - (at least) 60,000 = 109,000” means that Rumsfeld was right to question the utility of military tools in the so-called war on terrorism.

Alas, so far U.S. officials aren’t learning the right lessons from such data. President Donald Trump has expanded the conflicts that he inherited and has now set the American people on course for an open-ended war in Syria that could pit U.S. troops against both Arab Muslims and European Christian Russians.

I part ways with Soufan on the practicality of shaping a new narrative of truth to “drown out the false one the terrorists sell.” Ideally, this new narrative would be tailored to individual communities. The U.S. government will struggle mightily here.

And Soufan concedes this point. “People are likely to dismiss messages they see as coming from the West,” he writes, “or from a local government with a reputation for mendacity.”

This echoes the findings of the 9/11 commission from well over a decade ago. The panel of Americans tasked with uncovering the truth behind the 9/11 attacks, and recommending steps to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future, called on the United States to “encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity,” within Muslim communities around the world, but admitted that “our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers.”

That report appeared as U.S. troops were becoming mired in a costly war of choice in Iraq, sold, in part, on the false claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime was somehow behind the 9/11 attacks. That war killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and created millions of refugees. Thousands more U.S. troops were in Afghanistan, fighting the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. military personnel remain there over 16 years later, and it would be foolish to argue that the long-suffering Afghans are any closer to peace and security. Last year, the UN concluded that civilian deaths in the war have reached an all-time high.

The U.S. government’s capacity for promoting messages of non-violence and respect for democratic norms is much diminished after more than 16 years of war, fought mostly in Muslim-majority countries, and whose victims are mostly Muslim. Soufan understands this problem. He wisely calls for an “end to regional conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.” He also urges U.S. policymakers to “confront countries in the region whose actions help fuel extremist narrative,” especially Saudi Arabia.

The key to Soufan’s alternative approach is the use of credible voices within Muslim societies, including clerics and Islamic scholars, as well as community elders, to refute the extremists’ narrative. Even repentant former terrorists can be useful messengers in the fight against violence.

But I believe that Soufan’s focus on creating a counter-narrative in the Muslim world is misplaced. The jihadists claim that the West and Islam are locked in a bitter duel to the death. Refuting this false notion must begin in the West, including right here in the United States.

Building such narratives is hard. Public education campaigns confront deep-seated ignorance and are routinely thwarted by misinformation. President Trump’s rhetoric and policies suggest that he sees all Muslims as potential terrorists, and that their animus toward all Americans (and, loosely, the Western world) is an enduring feature of their religion. As he sees it, empathy cannot reverse such animus.

Many Americans agree. Although public attitudes toward Muslims have warmed slightly in recent years, the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of all Americans, and 70 percent of Republicans, believe that Islam is “more likely than other religions to encourage violence.”

Meanwhile, a poll in 2015 found that a majority of Republican primary voters, and two out of every three Trump primary voters, believed that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Similar majorities believed that Obama was not an American citizen  and therefore held office for eight years illegally.

The litany of other things that people believe to be true, and aren’t, is far too long for this essay. Entire books have been written on the subject (e.g. here and here). But simply acknowledging that such problems exist in the United States speaks to how difficult it will be to correct equally wrongheaded beliefs in distant places. If the American education system can’t reliably teach American school kids the most basic facts about this country’s history and culture, I am extremely skeptical that we will be far more effective elsewhere.

No one can doubt that there are great opportunities for promoting ideas in those parts of the world that haven’t been touched by liberalism. But the fact remains that liberals in the West have only a very limited capacity to shape the debate so that a modern vision of world order will prevail over the forces of oppression and illiberalism.

On the other hand, and paradoxically, though we cannot ensure that those who fight against violence, and preach a message of tolerance and respect for human rights, will prevail, Americans do have a great capacity for influencing the debate in a negative direction, empowering extremists and nihilists, and marginalizing the moderates.

Recognizing this, before we set out to educate others, we must first educate ourselves.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ali Soufan recommends dismantling the ideological appeal of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. He argues for several measures he believes will help, including defusing regional conflict; pressuring the governments of Muslim allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to abandon extremist proselytizing; and replacing pro-terror messages in Islamic education with nonviolent ones that stress particularly those messages that local communities will find appealing. He laments that U.S. actions have done little to further these goals.

Response Essays

  • Seth G. Jones agrees that understanding terrorists’ recruiting tactics is important, as is the need to understand their worldview and motivations. He recommends several steps beyond Ali Soufan suggestions, including taking a much harder line against online jihadist content, which he recommends aggressively removing from social media.

  • Christopher Preble agrees that current U.S. antiterrorism strategy has failed. Yet he despairs of using better education to counter terrorist narratives: Not only does the United States commonly lack the credibility and nuance needed to deliver better messages, but many Americans also share all too much of the jihadists’ own beliefs: that Islam is violent, and that the West is correct to fight against all of it.