The War on Terror and Modernity

Posted on October 15, 2010 by

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Report of the Defense Science Board Task Forceon Strategic Communication:

“Moreover, if the Cold War could be described as a struggle against one form of totalitarianism — Marxist-Leninism — so too there is a desire to describe the “War on Terrorism” as a struggle against yet another form of  totalitarianism — this time in the form of a radical Islamist vision.Thus the problem is presented as one of how to confront and eventually defeat another totalitarian evil. And as with the Cold War, many now also declare that it is incumbent on the U.S. to assume leadership in this struggle.

But this is no Cold War. We call it a war on terrorism ― but Muslims in contrast see a history-shaking movement of Islamic restoration. This is not simply a religious revival, however, but also a renewal of the Muslim World itself. And it has taken form through many variant movements, both moderate and militant, with many millions of adherents ― of which radical fighters are only a small part. Moreover, these movements for restoration also represent, in their variant visions, the reality of multiple identities within Islam. (p 34)

If there is one overarching goal they share, it is the overthrow of what Islamists call the “apostate” regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, and the Gulf states. They are the main target of the broader Islamist movement, as well as the actual fighter groups. The United States finds itself in the strategically awkward — and potentially dangerous — situation of being the longstanding prop and alliance partner of these authoritarian regimes. Without the U.S. these regimes could not survive. Thus the U.S. has strongly taken sides in a desperate struggle that is both broadly cast for all Muslims and country-specific.

This is the larger strategic context, and it is acutely uncomfortable: U.S. policies and actions are increasingly seen by the overwhelming majority of Muslims as a threat to the survival of Islam itself. Three recent polls of Muslims show an overwhelming conviction that the U.S. seeks to “dominate” and “weaken” the Muslim World. Not only is every

American initiative and commitment in the Muslim World enmeshed in the larger dynamic of intra-Islamic hostilities — but Americans have inserted themselves into this intra-Islamic struggle in ways that have made us an enemy to most Muslims.

Therefore, in stark contrast to the Cold War, the United States today is not seeking to contain a threatening state/empire, but rather seeking to convert a broad movement within Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of Western Modernity — an agenda hidden within the official rubric of a “War on Terrorism.”

But if the strategic situation is wholly unlike the Cold War, our response nonetheless has tended to imitate the routines and bureaucratic responses and mindset that so characterized that era. In terms of strategic communication especially, the Cold War emphasized:

• Dissemination of information to “huddled masses yearning to be free.” Today we reflexively compare Muslim “masses” to those oppressed under Soviet rule. This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies — except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.” (p 34-35)

“Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic — namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is — for Americans —really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.” (p 41)

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