Why a Western “War of Ideas” with Islam is Futile

Islamists don’t distinguish between ideology and theology, making a discussion pointless.

Two Muslim men pray in a mosque in Srinagar, India, August 18, 2009
Two Muslim men pray in a mosque in Srinagar, India, August 18, 2009 (Irumge)

In the wake of recent Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, well-meaning liberals have revived calls for a “war of ideas,” arguing that the “ideology” of the terrorists must be defeated as much as the terrorists themselves.

American president Barack Obama maintains that “countering violent extremism” involves more than a military effort. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas and more attracting and more compelling vision,” he said last year.

British prime minister David Cameron has similarly argued, “What we are fighting in Islamist extremism is an ideology.” Not only those advocating violence must be challenged, he believes, but everyone who promotes “parts of the extremist narrative.”

Politicians in other countries and thought leaders across the Western world have argued much the same.

Their attempts could be futile if Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle is right.


He writes in The American Interest that most of the young Muslim men (and some women) who carry out terrorist attacks in the West or travel to Iraq and Syria to wage jihad for the self-declared Islamic State there aren’t motivated by some great idea. They are neither well-versed in Islamist political thought nor educated sufficiently to parse it. “They join for other reasons of a run-of the-mill social-psychological sort.”

After last year’s attacks in Paris, which left more than 130 dead, the Atlantic Sentinel argued that the perpetrators were driven to madness less out of conviction than spite.

They tend to come from broken or unhappy homes. They are likely to be unemployed or perennially struggling to keep a job because they are hard to work with. They are often young man struggling to make their way in a society that is liberal and meritocratic — or, as they see it, feminized and unfair.

They lashed out at a society they had refused to assimilate into by targeting not symbols of the liberal French state, like the Elysée Palace or the Ministry of Defense, but symbols of liberal Western society. The cafés, the football stadium and the concert hall to them represented a life and a world they could not accept.

Garfinkle argued in an earlier column that Westernization has similarly radicalized some Muslim men in the Middle East.

Urbanization, modern communication technology and increased literacy levels, particularly for women — “which in turn has made them more formidable potential wives” — have conspired to disrupt traditional social forms, including the family.

Like the Paris attackers, Middle Eastern men who can’t keep up with such changes are blaming others and hence susceptible to fanatics who put the onus on nonbelievers in the West.

Put in slightly more elaborate form, as it might be pitched to a young would-be adept, it gathers up the ambient elements of the region’s deep-seated grievance culture and conspiracy-theory tendencies and says, in effect, “All the problems in our society, all the humiliations and lack of dignity and justice, are the fault of nonbelievers and their lackeys within our midst. If we vanquish them, we will restore the Muslim umma to its rightful place as global leaders in both faith and power. If you do not join the struggle, you dishonor your family and spite God and His Prophet.”

This motivation is difficult for Westerns to comprehend, Garfinkle writes, because we tend to turn everything into the political and hence into ideology. Universalists Islamists, on the other hand, tend to turn everything into the religious and hence into theology. If there is a “war of ideas” between the two, it is certainly not being waged on the same ground.


Islamist leaders do have a more sophisticated belief system than the majority of their followers, but it is not commensurate with any system of Western political values.

For the Islamist, politics is not autonomous but derivate. “It does not have its own credentialed authorities and discourse,” writes Garfinkle, “only the authorities and discourse of the clergy whose concerns far transcend politics.”

This makes it nigh impossible for a liberal Westerner to debate an Islamist. For where the first at least accepts that his ideology must be testable against reality, the second’s theology is recursive and non-falsifiable.

Hence the collapse of the Soviet Union discredited communism and convinced even most left-wing zealots to accept at least the basic tenets of the market economy, but no such failure will ever persuade Islamists that their beliefs are flawed.

Westerners want there to be an Islamist “ideology” that can be defeated, if only because — as Obama said — they don’t like the thought of relying on military force alone.

Yet that is all the West can do, argues Garfinkle. If fanatics “come looking to kill us in our own part of the world,” Westerners shouldn’t stop to argue with them over ideas but kill them first.

“That in itself won’t solve the larger, longer-term problem,” he admits. But the problem in Islam is one neither liberalism nor the West can solve.

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