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.