Terms of Engagement

The Global War on Thinking Bad Thoughts

Can America really win the battle against Islamic extremism?


In the speech he gave last May announcing a re-formulation of the war on terror, President Barack Obama acknowledged that "we cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root"; the only alternative to "perpetual war" is a sustained effort to reduce "the wellsprings of extremism." The president should hardly have needed to make this obvious point; he had, after all, used almost identical language from his earliest days as a candidate. But after five years of responding to terrorism with many of the same lethal tactics George W. Bush had used, Obama needed to remind his listeners, and perhaps himself, that Islamic extremism can be blunted, but not defeated, by force.

It’s not at all clear, five months later, how Obama plans to dry up those wellsprings. But the administration made a modest start in that direction with the announcement in September that the United States and other nations would establish a $200 million, ten-year effort to counter violent extremism. For reasons of marketing, the new entity is blandly called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience and has been scrubbed clean of any explicit reference to Islam. But the goal is clearly to fund local programs designed to counter Islamist extremism. The initial programs will be based in six Muslim-majority countries and, in a show of nonpartisanship, Colombia.

The White House, which understands very well that any such effort will be doomed from the start if it carries a U.S. stamp, has spent several years trying to find an appropriate platform for the anti-extremism campaign. The sponsoring body is something called the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a harmless and high-minded body of which the United States and Turkey are co-chairs. The fund is structured as a partnership — like, say, the Global Fund for AIDS — which will receive funding from private sources as well as states. Republicans who consider foreign aid a waste of money should be mollified by the fact that the U.S. plans to spend all of $2 or $3 million on the effort this coming year. Nor has anyone else rushed to fill the coffers: Qatar, with its bottomless resources, has pledged just $5 million. Indeed, the whole thing will probably collapse unless Secretary of State John Kerry becomes the fund’s cheerleader and fundraiser-in-chief.

What will the fund fund? According to a U.S. official involved with its development, the "low-hanging fruit" could include funding local organizations that can produce and distribute textbooks that promote tolerance, things like providing job-training for youth at risk of radicalization — programs which could, if not designed properly, all too easily blend into the vast pool of existing development projects. "The ultimate target," he says, "has to be those individuals that are on the cusp of being radicalized and being able to bring them back from the brink" — for example, by bringing moderate imams into Pakistani prisons in order to counter radical versions of Islam, or supplying public defenders so that petty criminals don’t linger for years in prisons where they’re likely to become radicalized. "The challenge," he says, "is to find those local organizations that have credibility with access to those individuals. There are not enough of these right now."

But there are some. One is Khudi, an organization in Pakistan which holds workshops for young people offering a non-Islamist take on Islam and holds televised debates to dramatize the issue. Khudi held one such debate soon after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for defending girls’ right to go to school. The debate was held in Mingora, Malala’s home town. The Libyan government has recently asked Khudi to start similar programs there.

Khudi is the local-action arm of Quilliam, a British counter-extremism think tank founded by Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain, British Pakistanis who were both former Islamists. Nawaz has been in the United States promoting his new book, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, and trying to drum up funding for the two organizations. Nawaz was a kind of boy-genius recruiter for Hizb al-Tahrir (HT), a deeply politicized if officially non-violent Islamist group, and he has the intellectual confidence, the charisma, and the gift for self-dramatization which makes for a very effective public figure. When we met earlier this week, he told me, with a mixture of trepidation and pride, that he just heard that al-Shabab in Somalia had included him on a list of British Muslims to be killed — a tribute to his high-profile role as Islamist de-programmer.

The story Nawaz tells in Radical is of an angry and restless teenager looking for a sense of identity and self-respect, which he ultimately found in HT’s vision of a restored Caliphate. With no intellectual foundation of his own, he was a perfect target for Islamists who offered a narrative of world history based on implacable Western hostility to Muslims, with citations selectively culled from the Quran as it suited their purpose. He only began to re-think his principles during a four-year stint in Egyptian prison — the same prison, ironically, where Sayyid Qutb formulated Signposts, his proto-al Qaeda tract, but also where Hasan Hudaybi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, wrote a counter-polemic renouncing violence.

The lesson Nawaz took from his own agonizing trajectory was that a very powerful and self-reinforcing Islamist narrative can only be countered by an equally powerful non-Islamist one. Nawaz dreams of countering the "Islamist intimidation" which keeps politicians in Pakistan and elsewhere from challenging extremists with a "democratic intimidation" which would make them fear the political consequences of defying moderates. He imagines an organization which, like the Muslim Brotherhood, would win converts with a combination of social services and intellectual vision.

To call this quixotic is possibly a disservice to Don Quixote. Today’s Pakistan is a place where a provincial governor, Salman Taseer, can be gunned down in broad daylight for criticizing an apostasy law — and then lawyers jostle for the right to defend the murderer. It’s a place where Malala’s bravery has won her far more critics than defenders. That is the magnitude of the challenge which Khudi, and the Global Fund have taken on. It’s hardly a good sign that the initiative to challenge the extremist narrative has come, not from inside Pakistan, a country of 180 million people and a large urban middle class, but from outsiders. The extremist narrative, after all, can only be countered by people who are prepared to fight and die for a peaceful alternative.

Nawaz argues that the United States under Obama has shifted, barely, from a neoconservative vision of democracy-promotion-by-force to a "neocon-lite" project of decapitating al Qaeda leaders through drone strikes and lightning raids. "We’ve turned it into a battle against a Mafia-like organization," he says, rather than a war of ideas. That may be a slight caricature, but Obama has paid far more attention to trying to improve America’s image in the Arab world through fine proclamations of "mutual respect" than he has to actually draining the wellsprings of extremism. Obama’s success in decimating al Qaeda core has been offset by the rise of its affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa, while his personal diplomacy has done very little to improve America’s standing in the Middle East. In any case, it’s irrelevant to the problem of extremism. If the alternative to Islamist extremism is American liberal democracy, Islamism will win.

Of course, a president uses the tools he has. Obama is very good at "public diplomacy," so at least in his first few years in office he devoted a great deal of attention to it. He can influence the war of ideas inside Islam only from a great distance, and with great delicacy. And the tectonic plates of intellectual formulation grind at a generational pace. A president cannot claim victory in the war of ideas, as he can for killing bad guys. Nevertheless, U.S. leaders spent generations fighting Communism as an idea and not just as a military threat. Communism eventually sank under the weight of its accumulated failures. Islamic extremism, always oppositional, may be even harder to dislodge. Still, the only way to beat an idea is with another idea.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola