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Counter-Terrorism and the War of Ideas: Is the West losing it?

05/04/2012

Beyond the body count following a fresh terrorist atrocity on the streets of Baghdad or Bali or a US predator drone attacking another target in Waziristan, the struggle against global terrorism is truly a contest between competing ideologies. After all before a suicide bomber detonates his or her vest they must be ideologically indoctrinated to believe that they are doing the “right” thing – both in terms of the act and the target. Moreover, such an act exists within a social milieu in which such acts are not only condoned but also lauded.

Most of the twentieth century witnessed an ideological struggle between freedom and democracy. Democracy won that struggle whilst Nazism, Fascism and Communism have been largely confined to the dustbin of history. However the ideological struggle between freedom and authoritarianism is far from over. The spawn of this twentieth century authoritarianism, Islamism, is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Thus we witness a clash of two competing ideologies from Johannesburg to Jakarta, from Londonistan to Lahore, and from Toulouse to Tripoli. One ideology calls for democracy and greater human rights, whilst the other calls for global jihad and is fundamentally totalitarian in nature. As Walid Phares makes clear, this War of Ideas is raging relentlessly behind the War on Terror. The outcome of the second is ineluctably conditioned by the consequences of the first. Phares is emphatic in his conclusion that if democratic forces do not win the War of Ideas quickly, then the War on Terror will be expanded into the next generation.

My current research is largely focused on the rise of Islamism in Africa but even here, the battle of ideas rages on. Pan-Islamic organisations operate on the continent and these undermine not only communal harmony as we see in the rise of sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians, but also seek to internationalise national struggles, most notably the Palestinian cause. One such Pan-Islamic body is The Islam in Africa Organization whose preamble to its charter speaks of, “forging a common front to unite the Ummah with a view to facing the common enemies – secularization, illiteracy, poverty and degradation and to rediscover and reinstate Africa’s glorious Islamic past”. Should we then be surprised when Boko Haram moves from local northern Nigerian grievances to linking its own struggle with Afghanistan, Iraq or Palestine? Should we be surprised when Boko Haram moves from targeting local policemen and soldiers to the United Nations offices in Abuja? Given the uncompromising Islamist philosophy at its totalitarian core, it is not only the proverbial “other” which is targeted but also those Muslims who do not subscribe to their world view. Those Muslim clerics (ulema) in Nigeria who oppose totalitarian Islamism are targeted and killed by the likes of Boko Haram,

Whilst media reports surface that Washington is assisting the Nigerian armed forces with counter-insurgency training to combat Boko Haram, the real battle is being lost for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims in Africa’s most populous country. Nigerian Islamists have been quite good at finding themselves positioned in key places of learning from universities to madrassahs in order to recruit a new generation of radicals. They have been proven quite adept at using the new media like blogging in order to get their message out. Of course, they are greatly assisted in this with funds emanating from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

At the same time, how has the West countered this Islamist discourse? They have not. The West’s response of beefing up the state security apparatus at a time when the very idea of Nigeria is losing its currency amongst ordinary Nigerians who view their state as cruel and corrupt run by a venal political elite seems counter-intuitive at best.

More importantly, in the recent past the idea of the West with its secular liberal democracy and its market economies creating prosperous societies was a powerful antidote to Islamist discourses. However, in recent years the idea of the West has increasingly lost is allure. Secularism is under threat in the United States as we see the power of the Christian right especially in the current Republican primaries. Democracy is facing challenges too, with the rise of fascism across Europe and xenophobia (around immigration) in the United States. The free market, meanwhile, seems to lead to sub-prime mortgage crises in the US and the ongoing economic meltdown in the Eurozone countries.

It therefore seems to me that at the very time when Islamists are flexing their muscle as a result of the Arab Spring, the most powerful antidote to their totalitarian discourse – that of the idea of the West with its secular freedoms, its liberalism and its’ market economies – is in doubt.