The Real Front in the War Against ISIS

The Real Front in the War Against ISIS

As the war with ISIS heats up, so too does the debate over what it will take to win. Immediately following Obama’s announcement of air strikes against ISIS, the debate centered on whether air power was enough or whether the United States also needed to commit boots on the ground.   

However, in recent days the focus has shifted to the war of ideas.  The now infamous verbal brawl between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on the Bill Maher show is just one sign that more and more people are identifying the ideology of jihad as the main front in this war. 

General Jonathan Shaw, former Assistant Chief of the UK Defence Staff, said in a recent interview with The Telegraph that the war against ISIS will not be won militarily.  This battle must be fought ideologically and politically.  He said the heart of the problem is Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s funding of militant Salafism.  Saudi Arabia has long funded radical mosques and Islamic cultural centers across the globe, and Qatar supports Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, considered the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Al Jazeera, the pro-Muslim Brotherhood news outlet.  But these efforts have now backfired. According to General Shaw: “This is a time bomb that, under the guise of education, Wahhabi Salafism is igniting under the world really.  And it is funded by Saudi and Qatari money and that must stop.  And the question then is ‘does bombing people over there really tackle that?’ I don’t think so. I’d far rather see a much stronger handle on the ideological battle than the physical battle.” 

Even President Obama, who spends much of his energy insisting that Islam is a religion of peace and that ISIS has nothing to do with real Islam, acknowledged that ideology might have some role here. In his September 24 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, he said, “It is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL.”  But as Bill Gertz points out in a recent article, in fact the Obama administration is not engaging in the ideological war. They simply refuse to engage the Islamists on the battlefield of ideas.  Gertz quotes Quintan Wiktorowicz, an architect of U.S. counter-extremism strategy, who blames this failure on Constitutional constraints: 

While the government has tried to counter terrorist propaganda, it cannot directly address the warped religious interpretations of groups like ISIL because of the constitutional separation of church and state…U.S. officials are prohibited from engaging in debates about Islam, and as a result will need to rely on partners in the Muslim world for this part of the ideological struggle.

But this is disingenuous.  Wiktorowicz is on record in numerous places asserting the need for the United States to tread softly with Salafists in order to avoid pushing them toward violence, even while he acknowledges that in the long run they do endorse violent jihad. 

President Obama himself has repeatedly engaged in discussions about Islam, stating, for example, as he did on September 10th when he announced his plan to fight the Islamic State, “ISIL is not Islamic.”  John Kerry has likewise entered the fray, insisting that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, an assertion that has formed the basis of U.S. counter-terrorism policy and training under the Obama administration.  So to say that U.S. leaders cannot talk about Islam is simply untrue.  It is how they talk about that it is the problem.  The bottom line is that they do not see the fundamental clash between Islamism and the principles of the American founding, and as a result, they are fighting this as a purely tactical war.

As Robert Reilly, former director of the Voice of America, has written, “In fact, the U.S. side has failed to show up for the war of ideas. Strategic communication or public diplomacy, the purpose of which is to win such wars, is the single weakest area of U.S. government performance since 9/11.”

Refusing to engage in the war of ideas, whatever the reason may be, is a disservice both to Americans and to the world’s Muslims.  It is a disservice to Americans because unless the United States engages in the ideological war against ISIS, the battlefield will simply keep repopulating itself.  For every fallen jihadist, there will be ten ready to take his place, another hundred willing to fund and support them, and another thousand to silently cheer them on.  So it is not Al Qaeda or even ISIS who are the real enemies, but the ideology that inspires them, and it is this ideology that the United States must oppose, among both its violent as well as its non-violent adherents.

Obama and many others have said this is not our debate, the Muslim world must work this out for itself.  But this is not true.  The ideas of the American founding are as relevant for the Muslim world as they are to the West.  America’s forebears learned over centuries that when religion is allowed to drive politics, it leads to tyranny, oppression and endless conflict.  This is no less true for the Muslim world.  As Ahmad Mustafa writes in today’s Gulf News, “Whether we like it or not, we all helped in the rise of this terrorism by manipulating religion. And here comes the simple conclusion: Religion in politics leads only to ills.”  He goes on to say, “The fight for Islam will not be won unless the current alliance partners, and the rest of regional and international powers, come to an agreement on freeing politics from religion.”  

As the war of ideas heats up, the good news is that Americans are throwing off the strictures against talking about Islam.  People like Ben Affleck and Bill Maher and Sam Harris are engaging in substantive debate about the nature of Islam and what is at stake. The bad news is that our own leaders so far are not exercising – or permitting – the same freedom.  And until they do, the ideas driving our enemies will continue to thrive.

Katie Gorka is president of the Council on Global Security.  Follow her on twitter @katharinegorka.


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