A war of ideas, not icons
By Leon D'Souza
October 17, 2006 | A few months ago, when I arrived
at my current duty station in the eastern United States,
military scholars and those in the know whispered apprehensively
about the enormous clout of one man standing in the
way of a safe handover of security operations in Baghdad.
Moqtada Al-Sadr, they cautioned, was not a cleric
to be trifled with. One word from him, and his Mahdi
Army -- an armed militia, thousands strong -- would abandon
all restraint and run amuck in streets already plagued
by indiscriminate violence.
The ensuing carnage would be catastrophic, jeopardizing
the mission of coalition troops endeavoring to bring
order and civil society to a country teetering on the
brink of unbridled chaos. Al-Sadr, they counseled, needed
to be won over; persuaded to adopt a more moderate position.
Six months later, we seem to have had some success
in that direction. Al-Sadr, by most accounts, is now
a more pliable figure, amenable to negotiation. The
bad news, however, is that he hasn't carried his followers
along in this conversion. They remain staunchly antipathetic,
dedicated to retaining their stronghold in the Iraqi
According to a recent Newsweek report, "Mahdi
Army members, Iraqi politicians and Western officials
describe an organization in which local commanders are
increasingly independent of Sadr, splintering into cells
of fighters committed to civil war." Some are even "taking
orders from Iran."
Evidently, in focusing our attention on Al-Sadr's
disposition, we seem to have ignored the theology of
Muslim fundamentalism that underlies the Mahdi Army's
politics of terror. To put it another way, in obsessing
over an icon, Bush administration officials appear to
have squandered yet another opportunity to understand
and attack the idea at the root of this war.
We are fighting a concept -- the ideology of radical
Islam -- not the lunatics who have become its public
face. As Newsweek writer Evan Thomas observed in a recent
report, no matter how often U.S. forces "capture a 'high-value
target' -- a top Qaeda leader -- a new one seems to emerge
as the shadowy terror network metastasizes. It is unclear
if a Qaeda Central, a hierarchal command structure,
still exerts authority, but it may not matter: with
the Internet and fanatical inspiration Al Qaeda can
morph and spread."
Put simply, this is a war against Bin Ladenism, not
the man himself.
It would be patently illogical to combat a mosquito
menace by chasing after the bloodsuckers with a flyswatter.
The only real way to fight the insects would be to treat
the stagnant water where they breed.
Likewise, the only way we can hope to reform the Middle
East is by presenting an ideological opposition to the
cesspools of Islamic fundamentalism -- by building secular
schools where only madrassas exist, by funding social
development initiatives, by supporting secular governments
without ties to radical elements, by educating and empowering
Muslim women. These are the policies that will ensure
our victory in the long-term War on Terror.
An obsession with icons, on the other hand, will only
distract us from the important work of dismantling the
software of terrorism. And that is a fight we cannot
afford to lose.
For additional reading on this topic, visit http://leondsouza.blogspot.com/2006/10/wrong-war.html