My article in Tablet and Victor’s challenge

I recently published a piece on millennial Jihad, cognitive warfare, and the al Durah affair at the Tablet Magazine. Among the comments, was a particularly interesting set of challenges from Victor. Given the limitations there (2000 characters per comment), I’m responding here.

The problem with all such essays (I’ve spent two days following all the links on this piece, including the Stuart Green paper on Cognitive Warfare, which touches on Soviet propaganda efforts – very interesting), is that they’re long on delivery and short on remedy. The final paragraph he cites seems to be saying that we should adopt jihadi tactics against them (honor-shame sensitivities), but against whom? Who are the jihadis? Can we really say that all Arabs/Muslims are jihadists, or even a majority of them? Can’t a case be made that by engaging the jihadis, and not other elements of Arab societies, we’re reinforcing the jihadist position relative to other factions?

i’m using jihadi here to designate anyone who shares the activist apocalyptic dream of spreading sharia to the entire world. large numbers of muslims (my guess is a majority) are millennial – i.e. they want to see the world submitted to sharia, but not necessarily now or violently. apocalyptic means a sense of urgency, *now* is the time. the most violent version (what most call jihadis) are “active cataclysmic apocalyptic”, who think that only great violence will bring about the millennial world and they are its agents.

there are two further issues. 1) those who are less violent, but share the millennial dream and its apocalyptic hopes (e.g., some Salafis). we in the west like to think they’re separate, but they’re only different in the degree to which their sense of urgency leads them to violence. some European Muslims who want to impose sharia there are against violence not on principle but because a) it’s too soon, they’re still a minority; and b) the fruit will be easier to pick in a generation when the demographics will have shifted. they are demopaths.

2) a much larger circle of muslims who will (sincerely) denounce al qaeda, nonetheless find in something like 9-11 a great swell of pride and a sense of honor restored. this reaction can occur even in secular muslims and even, non-muslims, eg, christian lebanese, anti-american europeans. even tho a victory of millennial islam would be disastrous for these folks, they can’t help but be excited. Lee Smith’s Strong Horse nails the dynamic. if we don’t resist both the violent jihadis and their demopathic allies, the false “moderates,” we feed their strong horse… every day.

so the short answer is, yes, we can’t just engage the jihadis, but we have to engage the larger circle of people – muslims and non-muslims – who might be attracted to their range of messages.

But all this is moot anyway, because Western civilization is not going to regress to honor-shame dynamics just to fight militant Islam.

There are many would would argue that we’re regressing in that direction – patriotism, Iraq War, Islamophobia/xenophobia, fascist tendencies. And that does represent a problem. In fact, rallying around the flag is one of the classic responses to threat; and refusing to do so in order not to regress is one of our greatest vulnerabilities. What I’m trying to do is find a way to respond to the threat without regressing.

We have our own cultural propaganda efforts – Hollywood, for one – the only problem is that these are not focused; they reflect our lives and values, but are not aimed specifically at undermining jihadism. Stuart Green focuses on Soviet disinformation actions in the West, how 85% of the intelligence budget actually went to such activities. First, before we model ourselves according to the Soviet Union, whose own citizens did not believe it’s propaganda, perhaps we should first see some research demonstrating effectiveness of Soviet disinformation efforts.

Among the many things worth reading, try Robert Conquest, “The Great Error: Soviet Myths and Western Minds,” chapter 7 of Reflections on a Ravaged Century, a book I regret not having read while writing my own. One choice quote with great import for the current state of academia: “One might suggest that a course on the credulity of supposed intellectual elites should be one of those given, indeed made  compulsory at universities – even, come to that, at theological colleges” (p. 149).

Second, assuming these efforts were successful, why is it that we can’t replicate such efforts? Has the knowledge been lost to do this? Is there a lack of generation commitment on the part of leadership? Why aren’t we practicing information operations in peacetime?

As Green says, you can’t win (much less fight) the battle of the Midway if you don’t know you’re in it. We view news media as something quasi-sacred (and so we should), not something to be turned into cognitive warfare. We can’t fight the way they do because, despite its failings, Western democracies and academics are based on certain commitments to honesty and truth, commitments we honor far too often in the breach, but almost always by deceiving ourselves rather than openly and cynically manipulating information. (When Orme drops the genocidal part of Halabiya’s sermon, he doesn’t think he’s a propagandist.)

Moreover, their side is not susceptible to the kind of demopathic appeal they succeed in making to us. We can’t make headway appealing to their commitment to human rights and egalitarian values. (Or maybe we can, but not with the ease they can do so to our public.) All these things need to be thought out carefully.

Landes seems to think that the only way to defeat jihadist infiltration is for a critical mass of people to “awaken” and stand guard. But how many people do you know that want to engage in conflict on a daily basis? It’s just not feasible, in my opinion. We would be much better off directly implementing disinformation efforts within Arab societies.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, blah blah blah. It is. We need to wake up. Think of all those lost souls looking for meaning in their lives. Here it is. I agree that many – too many – of us would rather just get on with our lives and ignore these pesky jihadis, soft and hard. But I think the world is a much more interesting place, and democracy a much more vivifying challenge, when we try to grapple with the threat in creative and humane ways. Read Lee Harris, The Suicide of Reason.

The final paragraph he cites seems to be saying that we should adopt jihadi tactics against them (honor-shame sensitivities), but against whom?

The entire culture is subject to honor-shame dynamics in ways that we are not – indeed, I argue democracy is only possible when we gain some control over the honor-shame instincts (some call it anger-management). Any culture in which it is legitimate to kill a daughter because she has “shamed” the family, is also a culture in which it is legitimate to exterminate an enemy that has “shamed” the culture/religion. The two are linked, and they both express a remarkable psychological fragility and vulnerability. We tend to back away from this, to avoid “provoking” violent (and deeply immature) behavior on their part. We don’t need to gratuitously humiliate them, but we need to pick our fights and win them, and make it clear that certain forms of behavior will bring on humiliation.

4 Responses to My article in Tablet and Victor’s challenge

  1. Sérgio says:

    I think the role of universities and charlatan-academics needs to be deeply tackled. University students were massively supportive of the nazis in the 1930´s. In the 1960´s, the massification of universities began in earnest and a deep indentity crisis began as universities changed from elite institutes of learning and scholarship to a politicized post-adolescent amusing park. Particularly at humanities departments there was an amazingly indulgence in all types of pseudo-science and plain BS, where demopathic (or, in Lee Harris words, “cultural predators”) professors lending “theoretical” support to suicidal anti-western concepts. The first outcome were those terrorists grouplets such as Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof (check the excellent book “Blood and rage: a cultural history of terrorism”, by Michael Burleigh).

    The debasement of scientific standards and ethics is also spreading to other fields, particularly in biomedicine, and we´ll see the harm it causes pretty soon, as people are reverting to medieval magical thinking. Meanwhile a lot of harm is being done as students a being indoctrinated in “political science” classes, “journalism”, “gender studies”, “communication and media” BS, and even history and philosophy. Students go through this without developing the most rudimentary critical and logical thinking abilities. The influence on media operatives is surely immense.

    And it´s very hard to dislodge such academic mandarins, as every criticism of their debasement of scholarship is immediately branded as “censorship”, a typical demopathic strategy. But intolerance to such BS is mandatory if universities are to be restored to their fundamental role. I just don´t know how can this be done. I must come from within, from academics that are really concerned about the future of universities.

    In the bigger picture, Lee Harris, in his “The suicide of reason” discern two strategies to combat the attack on Western societies: critical liberalism and enlightened tribalism or a mixture of them. The first is a liberalism which is critical of old utopian illusions and traps, which boils down to the “eternal vigilance” motto. The second is the realization that under mortal threat one has to resort to violent measures if necessary to defend one´s “tribe” (values, etc), as the West did as it fought nazi-fascism, communism and nowadays, islamism. It´s surely a type of “regression” but, as Benny Morris once said, when the alternative is to destroy of to be destroy, it´s better to destroy.

  2. Cynic says:


    In your last paragraph you write
    Any culture in which it is legitimate to kill a daughter because she has “shamed” the family,
    is also a culture in which it is legitimate to exterminate an enemy that has “shamed” the

    so how do you accept defining those you hope are moderate as “secular Muslims”
    this reaction can occur even in secular muslims and even, non-muslims,
    when in all reality they, according to Muslims of faith, are apostates.
    This is simply hiding the truth that anyone who claims to be Muslim cannot be “moderate” enough to accept other faiths. The culture simply does not permit such permissiveness.

    Victor is quoted as requesting:
    perhaps we should first see some research demonstrating effectiveness of Soviet disinformation efforts.

    I think one of the finest examples was aligning conservative thinking with Nazis as the polar opposite of Communism.
    To counter it would need the effort to bring the philosophy and psychology of the sectarian world of Socialism to the attention of the general public while demonstrating to their shame that they were fooled all these years.

  3. nelson ascher says:


    at least two other extremely extreme extremist leftist movements were born and nurtured first in western universities: the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and the Peruvian Shining Path. Right now in Brazil you’ll find a more enthusiastic following of movements that are to the left of the PT (Workers Party), movements like the PSOL, in such places as the University of São Paulo.

    But I insist with what I have been saying earlier: it’s bad enough what’s happening with the humanities departments of Western universities, but the big, very big trouble nowadays is that people who have been indoctrinated in them have the monopoly of teaching at junior and high schools. Thus, kids are being indoctrinated even before they manage to acquire the most basic concepts with which to work/think rationally. In a way, when they go to university, they’re more than ready to the further indoctrination they’ll be getting there.

    BTW, have you ever read Hans Magnus Enzensberger?

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