Washington is getting enthusiastic about an ideological war these days: not between Democrats and Republicans — that’s old news — but rather between Americans and radical Islam. Many of those who spent the past several weeks insisting that we label jihadi terrorists “Islamic” now urge that we fight them on the ideological front. It’s the right arena, but such a struggle would be different from past wars of ideas and could lead to some surprising recommendations for action.
Our image of an ideological war comes from the Cold War, another titanic struggle between opposing worldviews. But the Cold War was so pervasive and intense because each side’s ideas were potentially attractive to anyone, anywhere in the world. Communism and capitalism were both secular ideologies, each trying to seduce the world’s “undecideds” into its camp.
It’s difficult to remember today that for decades, tens of millions of people around the world were greatly attracted to communism. Some of the West’s greatest intellectuals — such as playwright George Bernard Shaw and novelist and historian H.G. Wells — wrote sympathetically about it. By the 1930s, when democracy seemed to be foundering and fascism was on the march, many thought socialism was the obvious answer to the world’s woes. In the first elections after World War II, Communist parties got about a quarter and a fifth of the vote in France and Italy, respectively, leading many to worry that those countries would become communist. Around the developing world, the call of socialism and communism was real and strong.
Radical Islam, by contrast, is severely limited in its global appeal. Almost by definition, it is deeply unattractive to all non-Muslims. What Christian would want the forced imposition of sharia law? Even within the Muslim world, radical Islam does not resonate. In the half of that world that holds elections — including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iraq, even Pakistan — such ideologies have not garnered many votes. The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success in Egypt is a partial exception to this rule, but it fared well for a variety of reasons unrelated to its Islamic ideology (which was also not nearly as radical as Egypt’s military dictatorship claims).
Because the ideas at stake are potentially seductive only to Muslims, the ideological war today is really a struggle within Islam. It’s a cultural war that has to be waged by Muslims. If outsiders such as the United States want to play a role, they should listen to and support Muslims fighting the good fight. One such person is the king of Jordan, Abdullah II, whom I interviewed this week in Amman.
President Obama is inclined not to describe the Islamic State as “Islamic,” and the king supports this, saying, “They’re looking for legitimacy that they don’t have inside of Islam.” But the truth is that it’s irrelevant what Obama wants to call these terrorists. What matters is what the king and other locals here in Jordan and across the Arab world call them. And uniformly, they choose not to call it the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL. Instead, they call it Daesh, a rough acronym that is seen as derogatory because it sounds like the Arabic word “daes,” which means to crush underfoot. The word that King Abdullah prefers is “khawarij,” which translates to “outlaws” or “renegades” of Islam.
“It’s not a Western fight,” the king said to me. “This is a fight inside of Islam where everybody comes together against these outlaws.” He wants international support and involvement, of course, but is wary of Western troops. Jordan is on the front line of this battle, but other countries, from Iraq to Egypt, are finally joining in, and not just on the battlefield. This week, the head of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious academy, denounced “extremist violent groups” that have “corrupt interpretations” of Islam.
Those most insistent that we need to name and know the enemy want the Obama administration to jump into the fight, guns blazing. But the irony is that, if one does understand the ideology behind the Islamic State properly, it leads in the opposite direction. Graeme Wood, in his recent essay in the Atlantic, discusses the prospect of a larger U.S. military involvement against the group. “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself,” he writes. “The provocative videos . . . are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide.” Instead, Wood counsels containment, selective airstrikes and support for Muslims who are working to dissuade their brethren from falling prey to radical Islam.
In other words, fighting an ideological war against the Islamic State actually points toward a sophisticated strategy that involves, for the United States, military restraint and close political cooperation with Arabs. I wonder if those clamoring for such a struggle would still be on board.