The Problem: Democratic Vulnerabilities in the 21st century
Over the last decade, the primary spokespeople for the progressive causes of human freedom, equality, rights and dignity have lost battle after battle in a cognitive war launched by an astonishingly regressive foe. Global Islamism and Jihad openly champion intolerance of the “Other,” sacred violence, misogyny, homophobia, theocracy, scapegoating and hatred of other religions – the Manichean view of “us” and “them” that has, historically, led repeatedly to mega-death cults. One would have imagined that progressives, dedicated to dissolving that hard zero-sum dichotomy, would have won the battle of ideas rather easily. And yet, the opposite has occurred.
Islamist Jihadi apocalyptic discourse has, in this last decade, played an astonishingly prominent role in defining 21st century narratives, and has established major centers promoting their discourse in both the Muslim and even the Western public sphere. This has permitted a succession of stunningly stupid moves by the West which have not only weakened democratic culture, but strengthened radicalization is the Islamic world. In small and large hostile clashes, Westerners have backed down before Islamist aggression, allowing them to demand a wide range of deeply disadvantageous submissive responses. This has led to a new phenomenon of global Muslim street demonstrating/rioting (French riots of 2005, Cartoon scandal, 2005/6) in response to perceived insult. This reached comic proportions when Muslims the world over rioted and killed in response to the Pope calling Islam a violent religion.
But no one laughed. Instead, Western opinion pressured the Pope to apologize for provoking the violence. The pattern emerged that when faced with angry Muslims demanding “respect,” Western moderates backed down and Western radicals sided with the Islamists. In the end, not only did we look like fools (or dhimmis) to them, but the crowds that rioted were now mobilized within majority Muslim countries, for example, those rioting in Pakistan and Afghanistan at the very suggestion that someone might leave Islam and live. In the West, our passivity in the face of Islamist maximalist claims has hardened over time into a strategic consensus: the best way to deal with Muslim violence is to make friends with (appease) it; sooner attack the critic of Islam for provoking the violence.
At the same time as a broad range of our cognitive elite has adopted these paralyzing measures of appeasement, making it difficult to even perceive the existence of a cognitive war, a more militant branch has actively mobilized on the side of the Jihadi enemy. In particular, “left-wing” radicals have adopted the Palestinian narrative of suffering, in which the Israelis are the Nazis and the Palestinians are the Jews, in which the existence of Israel represents the single greatest obstacle to world peace and justice. This is an only slightly less virulent secular version of the Islamic apocalyptic narrative about the Jews and Israel as the Dajjal (Antichrist). The repeated anti-War and anti-Israel rallies that spread the world over in the aughts (‘00s), beginning with the Durban Conference of 2001, testify to this deeply disturbing alliance, and its effectiveness in increasing belligerence and hatred around the world.
Among the demands that the Islamists make on those who would befriend them, is the acceptance of this particular scapegoating, “lethal narrative,” aimed not only at justifying and inciting the extermination of the Jews, but also the subjection of the kuffar (infidels) the world over. Sadly, this (characteristically) self-destructive anti-Zionism has become almost a shibboleth of identity for the mobilized, progressive left in the 21st century.
Such a scape-goating narrative – Israel is the cause of the evil, and hence must be sacrificed for the well-being of humanity – had not only an international dimension, but a regional one as well. Starting in October of 2000, radical Muslim preachers, using a violent anti-Zionist discourse that got approval from radical “leftists,” activated disenfranchised Muslim youth and young adults all over the West, in a series of increasingly violent attacks, first on Jews (and Muslims), eventually on (post-)Christian Europeans in general (especially women), climaxing in the 2005 Ramadan riots that spread to the whole of France. A new paradigm now animated the European “street,” Israel was the arch-villain, and peace lay just the other side of its destruction.
At the same time, with particular strength in France, radical Muslims and the gangs they nourished, drove Jews from the neighborhoods Muslims and Jews had once shared as North African immigrants with much in common – the first of the territoires perdus de la République. Increasingly, such “zones urbaines sensibles” have becoming no-go zones, and, in places like England, Sweden, and Holland, Sharia zones. To paraphrase a historian of the fall of Rome, “the new, and more powerful, Islamist groups were able to carve out autonomous zones for themselves from the European Union’s living body politic.”
Thus, the very young 21st century stands witness to a new and unprecedented form of aggressive cognitive war in which Islamists seek not to chase the West out of Dar al Islam, but to take over Western democracies to expand Dar al Islam into Dar al Harb. Unlike defensive asymmetrical warfare, this cognitive campaign involves getting Westerners to renounce their fight to defend their own territory, their own states, their own cultures, their own values and the painfully-won democracies built on them.
The Study of Cognitive Warfare: An Infant Field
Part of the problem derives from our lack of awareness, and in some cases aggressive denial, that there even is a cognitive war. While all modern militaries have psy-ops divisions, and study some areas of the cognitive war, few Westerners imagined that their public sphere, the very site out of which democracies have emerged, would become a theater of war, colonized extensively by religious zealots dedicated to destroying it. As a result, not only have few people thought about these problems on the scale they occur, but those who have find themselves stigmatized at the very site where such thinking should take place – academia.
So while for modern armies, psy-ops is an adjunct to military battlefield operations, for the weak side in an asymmetrical war, battlefield operations (terror attacks) are an adjunct to the cognitive war, the principal theater of war. In the 2007 edition of Military Strategy, Thomas Hammes noted that “Strategically, insurgent campaigns have shifted from military campaigns supported by information operations to strategic communications campaigns supported by guerilla and terrorist operations.” Terror aims at polarizing forces both within one’s own society, where it weakens moderates and recruits radicals, and within the target society, where it intimidates those who might fight back, and strengthens those who advocate appeasement.
Viewed from the perspective of the military battlefield, 9-11 was nothing but a painful scratch, a wake up call. But call to what? War in Afghanistan and Iraq? War on Terror? International police action against terrorists? Over a decade later and we don’t really know whom we’re fighting, partly because we’ve been forbidden certain discussions. But from the point of view of cognitive war, 9-11 has been an enormous, almost incalculable and as-yet uncalculated victory for Global Jihadis and their assertion of Sharia, both in Dar al Islam and in Dar al Harb. While they play on a three-dimensional global chessboard, we still play two-dimensional checkers.
Modern democracies are inherently susceptible to cognitive attacks for a variety of good reasons:
- Publicly elected civilian commanders-in-chiefs subject to public opinion makes targeting decision-making rather than armies an effective strategy.
- Public sphere in which images from the warfront can have enormous psychological impact on the public (TV, Internet) – targeting empathy.
- Antipathy to violence and concurrent susceptibility to intimidation.
- Ideologies prone to peace rhetoric and cooperative foreign relations, rationalizing appeasement as generosity and openness.
All of these are built-in, necessary, even healthy vulnerabilities in any successful civic polity: empathy and openness make it possible to learn and share; and free people choose their leaders. But in the 21st century, both our vulnerabilities and the nature of the attack have mutated into far more aggressive varieties, even as we push further into denial that cognitive wars even exist. Indeed, it seems racist to us to even acknowledge what Islamist Jihadis say and do; as one scholar of apocalyptic Jihad discovered, to describe someone else’s hate speech, is itself hate speech. Thus, whether out of fear or ignorance, most Westerners consider someone who takes these propositions seriously, to be a paranoid alarmist, an Islamophobe, a racist. Even thinking about the problem is forbidden.
21st-century cognitive war studies is thus in its infancy, at a time when it should be rathera sustained and sophisticated research endeavor. Academia, the very place that should have identified the problem early on, and developed effective responses, has not only failed, it has become largely hostile to any kind of thinking on the matter that deviates from the pacific formula: “War is not the answer.” Thus, while some people have, in one way or another, awakened to find themselves in the trenches of that ubiquitous war, and (fewer) have fought back, still fewer have stepped back to assess the larger context, to analyze the public sphere (journalism, academia, NGOs) as the central and highly successful theater of the Islamist cognitive warfare. We have many warriors, some officers, but no generals and no academies.