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9/11: Launching the War of Ideas

9/11: Launching the War of Ideas

Radical Islam could be weakened by deploying the moral force of liberal democracy and equality.


America's war on terror was launched when the heroes of United Flight 93 rushed the hijackers over Shanksville, Pa., aborting what would have been al-Qaeda's fourth 9/11 attack. In the decade that began on that terrible day, the goal of disrupting and crushing the Islamist terror network has been pursued with remarkable versatility: The United States has fought this conflict with military, diplomatic, and financial weapons; it has relied on aggressive intelligence-gathering and sensitive counterinsurgency; it has reshaped airline security and rewritten civil-liberties law. Jihadists have been killed with Predator drones abroad, detained as enemy combatants at Guantanamo, and thwarted in undercover stings at home.

Yet in the long run it may turn out that more significant than any of these was the war of ideas that followed 9/11.

Almost from the outset, President George W. Bush recognized that the United States was engaged in an ideological struggle. During the Cold War two decades earlier, Ronald Reagan had argued that the promotion of freedom should be a key priority in American foreign policy. By advancing the ideals of liberty and human dignity, Reagan told the British Parliament in 1982, America and its allies would undermine the Soviet Union and eventually relegate Communist totalitarianism to "the ash-heap of history." In much the same way, Bush saw, radical Islam could be weakened by deploying the moral force of liberal democracy and equality.

Related Articles: Remembering 9/11

Just nine days after 9/11, addressing a joint session of Congress, Bush began to lay out an ideological strategy for defeating the jihadist threat.

"Al Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime, but its goal is not making money," Bush said. "Its goal is remaking the world -- and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere." Terrorism was not caused by the religion of Islam but by the Islamists' political fanaticism. "They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions -- by abandoning every value except the will to power -- they follow in the path of fascism and Nazism and totalitarianism."

The only way to prevent al-Qaeda and its allies from imposing an "age of terror" was for America to sustain an "age of liberty, here and across the world."

The war on terror, Bush accurately foretold, would be a long struggle fought on many fronts. But ultimately the only way to prevent al-Qaeda and its allies from imposing an "age of terror" was for America to sustain an "age of liberty, here and across the world." While Bush would get plenty of things wrong after 9/11, this ideological insight -- that the root of Islamist terrorism was the lack of freedom in the Middle East -- was one of the big things he got right.

There were plenty who didn't. Many voices insisted that terrorism was fueled by poverty or lack of education. Other analysts rushed to explain 9/11 as the fruit of US "arrogance," or as a reaction to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, as Princeton economist Alan Krueger demonstrated in a 2007 book, What Makes A Terrorist?, the best predictors of terrorism are "the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights."

Bush's campaign to democratize the Middle East -- what came to be known as the "freedom agenda" -- was rooted in the conviction that the way to break the back of jihadist hatred was to drain the swamps in which it breeds: the dictatorships and theocracies of the Muslim Middle East. "Terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and the resentments of oppressed peoples," he said in 2003. "When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror, and turn to the pursuits of peace."

For decades, foreign-policy "realists" argued that stability in the Arab world was more important than liberty, and so it was better to tolerate oppressive regimes than to risk the upheaval that democratic change might bring. That was the roadmap that led to 9/11.

Today, 10 years after 9/11, the region is more unstable than it has been in generations. Iraq's dictator is dead, Libya's is on the run, and demands for freedom and democratic reform have shaken regimes from Tunisia to Syria to Iran. Yet who wouldn't prefer today's churn and ferment to the illusory stability of 2001?

No, Islamist terror hasn't been eradicated. Liberal Muslim democracy has a long way to go. But we have engaged the struggle of ideas. And as we fight not just the terrorists, but the poisoned ideas that motivate them, we are slowly winning the war that began on 9/11.

This article original appeared in The Boston Globe.

September 11, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Wassim, October 22, 2011 7:48 AM

Islamic Reformation - the elephant in the room

It's ok, everything is going according to plan. Once people begin "expressing opinions" the hardest part is over. The people have begun to speak and think for themselves. Some opinions will survive the test of ridicule and others won't. They will be filtered by the logical and confronted by the idealists. Every idea is born to be refined, that is inescapable. Islam will be reformed, or it will die. It is God's plan. Nothing can stop it. Nothing will stop it.

(5) hrothga, September 25, 2011 3:09 PM

wishful thinking.

Once again we see wishful thinking over ruling basic facts and history.The Islamic religion is built on the over riding principle that allah is god,muhammed is his messenger and all moslems hve a strict ,divine obligation to spread Islam through out the globe by war if need be until EVERY ONE worships allah and recognises muhammed as his prophet.For a pious Muslim it is not a matter of choice,he must not even question it,to do so is to question allah and is apostacy.The problem therefore is deep within Islamic theology.How can any one think that Islamic schools will stop teaching these things to children?The schools would have to stop teaching Islam which in itself is a grave crime.Any teacher who tried it would be in danger.To Islam democracy is an insult to allah because it questions his authority and the position of muhammed and the veracity of the koran.Secular governments in Islamic Countries are never democracies because allowed to vote the people would vote for sharia.That is why all the Islamic dictatorships are continually on the brink of destruction held together by brute force.Turkey is an exception but the Islamic parties are on the ascendency.Islam believes it has a destiny to rule the world and it has a right to treat non-muslims as inferior beings existing purely to fund the land of Islam through tax and demonstrate the superiority of Islam over Christians,Jews etc.It would be a wonderful thing if muslims were to start to examine islam,debate it openly and reject it's in-built sense of destiny to rule by jihad.Islam could proselytise peacefully and rationally,but until it accepts the concept of human rights,democracy,freedom of conscience and religious belief,equality under the law for all,acceptance of an enlightened view of women,It will never be acceptable to the non-Islamic world.That would of course mean a different kind of Islam must arise from the present version.This is something that most moslems it seems can not even envisage as yet.One day?

(4) Anonymous, September 18, 2011 3:54 PM

Disagree with Mr. Jacoby On One Point

It must be noted that only one county in the Middle East has embraced the ideals of a Constitutional Republic (the US is not a Democracy) and Western Society: Israel. While I am not a historian, I believe that there are 2 reasons for this: 1). Historically, culturally, and religiously, the Jewish people have been guided by several over-arching principles: A). The Rule of Law; B). Accountability and equal treatment under the law; C). Mercy and compassion for the down-trodden; D). Education; E). Freedom; and F) A common faith that embraces these principles. 2). The Modern Founders of Israel share a common history and culture with the framework that has brought the greatest freedoms, safety, health, and wealth known to human history: Modern Western Civilization. Unfortunately, I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about the Middle East's (short-term) ability to embrace these ideals. After the Fall of Rome, 1,000--1,500 YEARS PASSED BEFORE Western Society was able to embrace the (Jewish) ideals of A). The Rule of Law; B). Accountability and equal treatment under the law; C). Mercy and compassion for the down-trodden; D). Equal Access to Education; E). Freedom; and F). Common ethics. Prior to this, Western Society "evolved" through the Dark Ages; The Renaissance/Protestant Reformation; Anti-Semitism and Religious Persecution; the Enlightenment; the Establishment of the US; Slavery; the Industrial Revolution; WWI/WWII, Civil Rights; the Information Age, etc. ARE WE SO ARROGANT AS TO BELIEVE THAT WE CAN FAST-TRACK THE MIDDLE EAST THROUGH 1,000--1,500 YEARS OF WESTERN HISTORY and CULTURE IN A DECADE OR EVEN A LIFE-TIME when the radicals among them 1). Do not even share our most basic guiding principles: Freedom and the Value for Human Life and 2). Are determined to eradicate from the planet the very people who are trying to bring these principles to them? Even HaShem did not force the entire planet to accept the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

(3) david, September 15, 2011 3:30 PM

simplistic and narrow perspective

There are , certainly , some grains of truth to the analysis offered here - but an enormous contributor to the terrorist movements is the culture of hatred that is taught to the very young from the time they are old enough to begin school . This hatred therefore is self- perpetuating and exists independently of civil liberties or a lack thereof . It comes from a very misguided religious initiative . A lack of liberties didn't grow Hamas' ranks . The economic problems mentioned as the "traditional " breeding agent ( mentioned and practically dismissed ) ARE , in fact , a major contributor ( they create the fertile field of those willing to sacrifice all they have , since they don't have much ) . The biggest factor though continues to be the teaching ( brainwashing) of the very young . This has been documented on both 60 minutes and CNN , and is confirmed by prominent psychological authorities . Schools like those run by Hamas, that teach hatred and violence , are creating the recruitment base for the terrorists of the future

(2) Mae Eye, September 11, 2011 5:02 PM

He is wrong

Mr. Jacobi is wrong... Islam is the problem. Muslims each have a mandate to fulfill the Jihad in one way or another. According to Islamic jurisprudence, the world is divided into the House of Islam and The house of war, the Dar Al-Islam and the Dar Al-harb. The law divides unbelievers theologically into those who have a book and profess what Islam recognizes as a divine relgion and those who do not. There is a canonically obligatory peroetual state of war until the whole world is either converted or subjugated. Google it.

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