After a short two-year tenure, Karen Hughes now departs as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She concentrated on the public affairs area of her job by creating the Rapid Response Unit and regional media hubs—things that anyone would find hard to believe the U.S. government was not already doing before her arrival. Hughes inherited the detritus from the 1999 destruction of the U.S. Information Agency, and tried to put back some of the missing building blocks of public diplomacy.
However, by almost every index, we are not doing well in the war of ideas. Some say we have already lost. After a six-month journey through the Muslim world, Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, said, “I felt like a warrior in the midst of the fray who knew the odds were against him but never quite realized that his side had already lost the war.”
How can this be? Why aren’t we winning? Hughes frequently suggested that Iraq is the source of U.S. unpopularity, since “we are engaged in a war that much of the world disagrees with.” However, the deeper reason is that we have failed to address the larger issue of moral legitimacy—our own and the enemy’s—which is the real nub of the conflict, which began well before Iraq.
The problem is that Hughes seemed to concede the very point of moral legitimacy—without even realizing she had done so. When appearing before the group of Washington ambassadors from countries belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference on March 15th, Hughes told the “good news” story of her meeting with a Turkish woman in Germany who complained of the isolation of the Muslim community there. When Hughes asked if she could visit her community, the Turkish woman “told me quite bluntly, ‘no.’” “We’re not interested in meeting with our own government,” she said. “Why would we want to meet with yours?”
If the Turkish woman were isolated, why would she not wish to have these meetings to help end her isolation? The apparent reason is because she does not recognize the moral legitimacy of the US or German governments. The “isolation” of which she spoke was clearly self-imposed according to Islamist criteria.
To this challenge, Hughes’s hapless response was: “Could I send some Muslim American citizens?” The Turkish woman responded, “That would be wonderful.” Indeed, she was delighted with this offer because Hughes, in making it, tacitly acknowledged the Turkish woman’s implicit claim that only Islam is the source of moral legitimacy. No doubt, the Islamization of Europe would overcome the “isolation” of her community. Why, however, should the United States help in this endeavor? It may be a fine and thoughtful thing to send American Muslims to talk with their confreres in other countries, but not on this basis. (Note that Hughes did not offer to send along Irish Americans or Jewish Americans, who purportedly are every bit as much US citizens as American Muslims.)
Having conceded the legitimacy of the notion of citizenship, Hughes then ironically announced that her encounter had inspired the State Department’s “Citizen Dialogue” program. What kind of dialogue could there be if one side refuses to acknowledge the citizenship on which it is based, rather than one’s Islamic identity? Radical Islamists are only too happy to begin an asymmetrical “dialogue” based upon the self-inflicted delegitimization of the principles upon which our government is based.
Hughes lost before she had even started. Yet she continued to relate this story as one of her singular achievements. I can only imagine how the Muslim ambassadors reported her preemptive surrender to their home governments. Losing the war of ideas at the level of principle means losing it in practice. This episode illustrates the US government’s incomprehension of what is at stake in the war of ideas.
Wars of ideas are fought over contending versions of reality concerning ultimate things—the meaning of life—for which people are willing to die. Terrorists demonstrate this daily, as do our own troops. Terrorism is not politics by other means, or a “cry for help” that social workers can address. It is the outcome—a perverted one—of a search for meaning. Terrorism is first and foremost a spiritual disorder. That is the origin of its strength and also of the magnitude of destruction that it causes.
A Washington Post story (6/17/07) on one of al-Qaeda’s foremost explosive experts, Saad al-Houssaini, a native of Morocco, provides an insight into the symptomatic nature of the problem. Like many terrorists, Houssaini came from a technical, scientific background, with little religious education. He was given a scholarship in chemistry for graduate study at the University of Valencia, Spain. According to the Post, his academic mentor said that, when Houssaini arrived, “he was not visibly religious and would occasionally join students and faculty for drinks.” Tapas bars? No problema.
Then something changed. “He became radicalized in Spain after meeting a Tunisian friend,” reported the Post. “Our principal subjects of discussion were around the jihad,” said Houssaini. “He made me understand the importance of religion and faith, providing me with religious books and audiotapes of the great sheiks’ speeches.” So Houssaini abandoned his research into the anti-cancer properties of certain chemicals, and began making bombs.
This is particularly ironic in light of Karen Hughes’s frequent mention of the U.S. program to fight breast cancer in the Middle East as one of our public diplomacy successes. Fighting breast cancer in the Arab world is good in itself, but it does not engage at the level of the war of ideas. Houssaini is a man whose research might have helped in the struggle. Instead of fighting cancer, he thought it was more important to blow up the country from which the anti-cancer program had come. Why? What need in Houssaini’s life was met by his al-Queda recruitment? Didn’t this young man have the very freedom and educational opportunities for which many Muslims long? Don’t we, in fact, think that providing these opportunities is the solution to the problem of terrorism?
Karen Hughes thought so. She repeatedly told the story of another young Moroccan, one whom she met, who is employed because of his U.S.-sponsored English language training. Because he has a job, Hughes said, the young man, “who came from the same neighborhood that produced the Casablanca suicide bomber...has a hope, and a reason to live rather than die in a suicide bombing.” However, it appears that Houssaini’s excellent job prospects did not similarly give meaning to his life. Perhaps that is not because he lacked “freedom,” but because he had it.
In the West, we seem clueless that much of the Muslim world sees our presentation of freedom as morally empty. In a prescient short story published before 9/11, My Son the Fanatic, written by a British Pakistani author, Hanif Kureishi, there is a scene in which the immigrant father says to his son, “I don’t understand you. I love this country. You can do anything here.” The radicalized son responds, “I know. That’s the problem.” The problem is freedom with no moral orientation—freedom as inimical to moral order.
Here is another way to put it. There are some people who can survive without freedom because they have meaning in their lives—like Solzhenitsyn or Aung San Suu Kyi. There are others who cannot survive freedom because they have no meaning in their lives. Houssaini had freedom in Spain, but no meaning. So he chose meaning over freedom. His story has been replicated many times by Muslims in Europe and elsewhere, perhaps most recently by the two young Swedes featured in the new documentary, Aching Heart, who “sold their lives to please Allah.”
The war of ideas is not about a jobs program or an anti-cancer campaign. These things may be helpful illustrations of an idea, but are useless if there is no idea to illustrate. We are losing because we fail to address the war at the level at which it is taking place. We do not bother to demonstrate that there is an indispensable moral meaning to freedom. In fact, we often unintentionally do the opposite. Karen Hughes repeatedly lauds “diversity” as our strong point. That is not good enough against the divine mission of our opponents. When the rainbow of diversity that is popularly celebrated in America leads the message, it leaves the impression that the United States is indifferent to various claims to truth. In many Muslim eyes, diversity equals moral relativism, which repels them. Our sloganeering does not begin to suggest the moral principles from which our tolerance derives. You will not find them expressed on the State Department web site or in the new, clueless US National Strategy for Public Diplomacy. As Professor Harry V. Jaffa wrote in The Proposition: we are "telling others to accept the forms of our own political institutions, without any reference to the principles or convictions that give rise to those institutions."
Thus, young Muslims, disoriented by the forces of globalization, are faced with the following choice: greater freedom with no purpose, or personal submission to a higher purpose. If offered in this way, which alternative would you choose? So long as our adversaries successfully frame the issue in these terms, we will lose, and it is why we are losing. We can win if we restore the sense of purpose that makes freedom a moral imperative—not a problem.