October 1, 2007

October 1, 2007 | Commentary on International Conflicts

Transform the Mideast

Spreading Freedom Is Not A Marketing Job; Leadership Has To Come From The Islamic World

If history repeats itself, the United States is in great shape. America has won a string of ideological battles from the Civil War to the Cold War. Odds are the beliefs of Osama bin Laden and those of his ilk will be dumped into the dustbin of history, as well.

Here is why: The United States is a first-class competitor - a free, safe and prosperous nation that stands for something good. Critics often misperceive or mischaracterize what America means. We are not selling consumption, secularism or a particular political system. America is exporting a belief in the worth of the individual, a confidence that a society run by free people delivers best.

As soon as the Cold War ended, tens of millions of individuals worldwide - individuals with different cultures, customs and religious beliefs - threw off totalitarian control and rushed to embrace that idea - proof enough that America still sells.

In contrast, bin Laden offers an ideology that is an apostasy, an ill-conceived religious justification for political conquest. The beliefs of bin Laden are not only a corruption of religion, they hardly ever work.

Since the 17th century, many so-called prophets have tried to harness Islam as a weapon of war. The result is usually a disaster - the slaughter of Muslims, mostly killed by other Muslims. The war on terror is a case in point. Of the many thousands of deaths around the world from terrorism, the overwhelming majority have been Muslims killed by their brothers.

Crusades such as those spearheaded by bin Laden most often result in the Islamic world turning its back on the false promises of religious purity and a golden age.

That said, a great deal of work must be done to win the war of ideas. The United States cannot take victory for granted - an evil unchallenged, even a poorly conceived one, can mount a serious assault on liberty. There is a simple reason why the hijacking of Islam has brought terror to our doorstep: The voices of terrorism are being heard around the world - and people are listening.

Anti-Americanism is predominant in the Muslim world. Many believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were unjustified, and they maintain that Arabs did not carry out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Polls indicate a large gap between the perceptions of reality in the Islamic world and those in the West.

The tasks in any ideological war are the same. Winning a long war is all about winning the struggle of ideas, destroying the legitimacy of a competing ideology and robbing the enemy of the support of the people.

Such an effort implies some essential tasks: understanding the enemy, delegitimizing its view of the world, offering a credible alternative and demonstrating the will to prevail in the long conflict.

What Americans have to realize is that this struggle is not an advertising campaign. Some people seem to think that if we could "package" the idea of America just right, the world would follow our lead. Such is not the case. Leadership has to come from within the Islamic world.

That should come as no surprise. After World War II, the United States did not impose political systems on Japan and Western Europe. Domestic leaders rose up and embraced freedom. Likewise, during the Cold War, it was heroes behind the Iron Curtain, from Lech Walesa to Vaclav Havel, who made the case for liberty most effectively. In the end, this is the course that the Islamic world will follow as well.

In fighting the battle to loosen terrorism's grip on the world, the United States need not reinvent the wheel. Credible spiritual and political alternatives to Islamist ideology already exist within the traditional Islamic global community, including the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and in the Muslim immigrant communities. The task of winning the war of ideas is engaging and empowering these voices without undermining their legitimacy.

The United States has no choice but to wage a war of ideas. We have been attacked and are continually attacked every day. The war of ideas must be joined and fought. In the struggle of ideas, failure is not an option.

James Jay Carafano is Assistant Director in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: International Conflicts

First appeared in The Press Enterprise