On Fighting Islam’s Ideologues

Posted By July 5, 2002 No Comments

Ideologues are always a challenge – regardless of the origin of the belief system they have adopted. They are impervious to any reason or logic that does not fit within the construct that has substituted for original thought. The armor of their conviction resists the blows of the heaviest arguments. What is cognitive dissonance to most of us is sweet music to them.

If ordinary ideologues are impossible to debate and remain unmoved by fact and experience that contradicts their world view, it is much harder to shift those who have allowed an ideology to justify their use of violence. This makes the threat posed by Islamic Fundamentalism a difficult one to challenge.

Look at the most persistent ideologues of the 20th Century — members of Communist Parties. That elderly hard core that withstood the shocks of the purges; stuck their fingers in the ears when told of the famines; and coped with the turnabout of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbontrop Pact, the revelations of the abuses of the Stalin Era, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, seem unconvinced of the failure of their beliefs by anything so trivial as the collapse of the Soviet Union. A graying procession of Stalinophile octogenarians is heading off to their graves with unshaken beliefs.

Inside the Soviet Union, even in the mid-1950s, it was apparent that the system was going to fail – something that became increasingly obvious with every passing year. Yet Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko (and even Khruschev) remained impervious to demands for real reform.

It is perhaps worth remembering that Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader without bloodstained hands… Brezhnev had been a political officer in the Red Army in the Second World War, and had survived the purges before that – it is a virtual certainty that he had personally supervised executions. Andropov had overseen deportations in annexed Finnish Karelian territories and had assisted in the suppression of Hungary after 1956. Chernenko’s biography mentions service as an NCO in the NKVD during the 1930s — which implies that he had probably had a hand in execution or deportation squads during the Purges. It is interesting to note that of this trio, Andropov – who probably only ordered deaths rather than participating in them – was regarded as the “reformer” of the lot and Gorbachev was his protégé in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The same sort of impressions can be drawn from the Nazis – most of who were faithful enough until their ideology was soundly discredited by defeat. German soldiers were normally known to die hard during the conduct of the Second World War, but for absolute stubbornness it was usually hard to beat the Waffen SS – particularly those members who were not German, but had abandoned their own people to join the German cause, and those divisions that drew their personnel from Concentration Camp Guards and Police.

If ideologues are difficult to sway with argument, ideologues who have fought for their cause or, worse still, murdered for it are next to impossible to deal with.

The Nazis and the Communists were short-lived ideologies – both have their roots in the Romantic Era of the early 19th Century, particularly with its notions of a heroic surrender of the individual into a collective to achieve a transformation. (Remember, both the Nazis and the Communists were pre-occupied with the creation of a new superman who would sweep away the old world and create an exciting new one). Times changed, particularly after the Nazis were disgraced by an unequivocal defeat, and the Soviet ideal became a stale vision in a new world with no place for it – and the clash between reality and ideology was leading into collapse. These ideologies did not survive history, but what of one that can claim centuries of successful history behind it?

Religions as codes for individual conduct do not usually attract or sustain ideologues, although there are examples enough in Christianity of ideological impulses at various times. Islam has developed enough aggressive ideological warriors in its history, but the naked political slant to today’s Islamic Fundamentalists is a comparatively new development that drew from both European nationalist and Marxist impulses as far back as the 1930s.

Dealing with Nazis and Marxists was the challenge of the 20th Century; dealing with Islamic Fundamentalists will be the challenge of the early 21st Century. The ideological wars of the 20th Century cost tens of millions of lives and trillions of dollars. If we are not firm in purpose, strong in will, cunning in our strategems and precise in our responses, we might rack up similar costs against Al-Qaeda and their ilk.

Ideologues must proselytize. They have a vision of a different world or changed society, and must recruit supporters and followers. They have few scruples about actively engaging in propaganda and seek to gain exclusive control over all forms of media in the audience they hope to sway. In the Islamic world, it will be important for us to use their own symbols and themes to first establish a dissenting message to that of the Fundamentalists, and then to perpetuate a dominant one. We will need scholars and Muslim clergy in our effort. Fortunately, while an ideologue normally needs to either isolate his audience or dominate all forms of media, counter-propaganda need only use one or two forms to damage the ideologues’ messages.

It is important to remember, that the ideologue is already lost to reason, the point is to first keep him from persuading the undecided, and then to get the undecided to reject him.

The ideologue sells a simple message, and will usually lie when selling it. Bernard Lewis, one of the World’s most senior and talented scholars on Islamic history and culture, describes the Fundamentalists as those who ask “Who Did This to us?” rather than the more difficult question of “What did we do wrong?” when considering why the Islamic World has become so weak compared to the West. In asking and answering this question, Fundamentalists make a number of erroneous interpretations of history – and this could leave them vulnerable.

Ideologues also recruit among the disadvantaged – not the poor (although they can be useful), per se, but usually among the Middle Class who fear becoming poor or are frustrated at an inability to advance. Any reasonable measure (and not simple foreign aid) that encourages the development of a prosperous middle class in the Muslim world is worth taking. However, the main obstacle to this is, alas, the root of the problem. The Islamic world is poor and backwards largely because of its own internal cultural problems and the attendant behaviors of their governments. Cutting off the sources of the ideologues’ new recruits is going to require a lot of patience and careful selective support for positive change where it occurs.

Ideologues, particularly those of the Islamic World, enjoy clinging to a heroic myth. Stripping them of the shards of heroism in the eyes of their own community is always worthwhile. They do not like being portrayed as thugs and still less as incompetent fumblers — as they so frequently are. Nazis grew furious when reminded that Horst Wessel (the song in his honor remains one of the most recognizable tunes of that era) had not just died as a result of street scuffle with Communists, but also because he was a pimp. Brutally stripping ideologues of their myths is useful at deterring the young and impressionable, while clinically dissecting the subjects of those myths is also useful in instilling doubt among the intellectuals.

Ideologues tend to rely on the common aspects of their belief system as a unifying element outside of the normal bounds of family, clan, class or culture. Communists talked endlessly of class solidarity, and the Nazis ranted on about the spirit of comradeship they were forming. Islam is an uber-society that overarches many different peoples and cultures, and makes a fuss about brotherhood within the faith. While poking fun at Islamic Brotherhood (always more of a myth than a fact) would be counterproductive in the broader Muslim world, providing examples of times where Fundamentalists have sold each other out would be beneficial. In a more direct sense, it is always worth any reasonable effort to erode trust within the ranks of any insurgent movement.

We have some powerful communications tools in the Western World which have a global impact, and it would be most useful if they could be quickly harnessed against the Muslim Fundamentalists. The alternative to effective counter-propaganda against Islamic Fundamentalists would be to either wage another ineffectual war of fumbling counter-insurgency, or risk a WWIII with the entire Islamic World.