In a recent column, I suggested that one of the best ways to fight terrorism is by undermining the terrorist’s ideology. For example, by undercutting the belief that seventy-two virgins await the young martyr in paradise, you simultaneously undermine the will to fight.
That’s not to say that the standard method of fighting terrorists—with guns—can be safely abandoned. The propaganda war works best when it is reinforced by the shooting war. The more convincingly force is applied on the battlefield, the more convincing will be the ideological arguments.
If, for example, you’re an ISIS fighter and you see your buddies on the battlefield fall victim to an occasional bomb or bullet, that won’t necessarily shake your faith in the brides-to-be. As long as the war is going well, and as long as there’s a senior officer or two around to assure you that your fallen comrades are now enjoying their reward in paradise, your basic assumptions can remain intact. If, on the other hand, you look around and see nothing but death and destruction and no surviving officers to make sense of it all, you may begin to doubt the whole enterprise.
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Just as importantly, a devastating defeat will have a salutary effect on people far away from the battlefield. The fellow in Brussels or Brisbane or Boston who’s thinking of joining the jihad will now have second thoughts—not only about ISIS, but also about the ideology that fuels it. Even fanatics can become realists in the face of overwhelming facts. In short, doubts can be accelerated by defeats.
Most people, of whatever religion, like to think that God is on their side of the battle, but in Islam belief and battlefield success are more closely linked than in, say, Christianity. Indeed, the seemingly miraculous military successes of Muhammad and the caliphs who followed him were taken by Muslims to be a proof that Islam is the true religion. Conversely, the religion of Islam has never fared well when its imperialistic ambitions have been thwarted. After Napoleon’s invasion and subjugation of Egypt, and subsequent European conquests and colonization of the Muslim world, Muslims began to seriously question the efficacy of Islam. As Islam scholar Raymond Ibrahim observes:
It was one thing to hold unhesitatingly to Islam and Sharia when Islam was conquering and subjugating non-Muslims, as it had done for well over a millennium. It was quite another thing for Muslims to remain confident in the Islamic way when the despised Christian infidels were conquering and subjugating the lands of Islam with great ease—displaying their superior weapons and technology, not to mention all the other perks of Western civilization.
During the colonial and post-colonial era, Muslim nations looked increasingly to the West as a model of emulation, and increasingly they looked away from Islam. Religious fanaticism declined, the jizya collection and the dhimmi laws were abolished, and, according to Ibrahim, “By the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East’s Christians were widely seen, particularly by the educated elites and those in power, as no different from their Muslim counterparts.” Islam had been so thoroughly defanged by mid-century that, if Americans thought about it at all, they thought of it in terms of comedy movies like The Road to Morocco or Broadway musicals like Kismet.
The point is that this more moderate Islam of the not so distant past was made possible by Western military power and by the secular strongmen who succeeded the colonial rulers. Likewise, the recent renewed appeal of fundamentalist Islam has been made possible by shows of force: the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan, the bombing of the World Trade Center and numerous other successful terror attacks, the Arab Spring revolutions and, most recently, the march of ISIS across Syria and Iraq.
Such victories against technologically and/or numerically superior forces create a psychological momentum which makes militant Islam all the more appealing to potential recruits. Psychological momentum, however, can be halted and reversed by decisive battlefield defeats. The idea that nothing is ever accomplished by war is not quite true—as evidenced by the current pacifist inclinations of our former enemies, Japan and Germany. In this respect, it’s heartening to see that some Catholic leaders are coming around to acknowledging that, on occasion, there is no alternative to military force. I recently criticized Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, for blaming terrorism on poverty and injustice, but in his address to the UN Security Council, he also called for intervention to combat the Islamic State:
My delegation wishes to recall that it is both licit and urgent to stop aggression through multilateral action and a proportionate use of force.
He was referring, of course, to the Catholic Church’s teaching on just war. One of the conditions of a just war is that force must be used proportionately. If you bulldoze my barn, I shouldn’t respond by burning down your house with all the people inside. The trouble is, when dealing with a group like ISIS, it’s difficult to say what constitutes proportionality. We are battling an armed force which also happens to have considerable symbolic significance for others. In figuring what a proportionate response would be, we have to take into consideration ISIS’ ability to inspire both lone-wolf and well-organized terror attacks around the world. Consequently, it’s crucial not only to degrade and contain ISIS, but to defeat it, and to defeat it in such a way as to crush the dreams of would-be jihadists.
As war historian Victor Davis Hanson has observed, successful military leaders strive to not only defeat the enemy, but also to discredit his ideology. This does not mean the killing of every last man on the enemy side, but it often involves the killing of the enemy’s dreams. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Allied generals forced Nazi officials and thousands of nearby residents to take humiliating tours of the concentration camps and, in some cases, forced them to bury the dead prisoners. The prosecution of Nazi officials at the Nuremberg trials also helped to ensure that the Nazi dream would never rise again. Nazism was so thoroughly discredited as an ideology that, for decades after, no one—except for a few on the fringes—wanted to be associated with it in any way.
The Islamic State itself seems to fully understand the symbolic side of war. The crucifixions and ritual beheadings are not senseless acts, they are acts calculated to send a message. On one occasion, after capturing 250 Syrian soldiers, the Islamic State militants forced the prisoners to strip to their underwear and then paraded them in front of cameras before marching them to the place of execution. The message? Those who resist ISIS will suffer both defeat and dishonor; they fight for a worthless cause.
The ISIS campaign of psychological warfare, crude and ugly as it seems to the Western mind, has had the intended effect. Rallies to support ISIS have popped up in numerous Western cities, other Muslim groups have pledged their solidarity, and more and more Muslims are flocking to join its army. In ever-distracted America, football fans are abuzz about a penalty imposed on a Kansas City Chiefs player for prostrating himself in Muslim prayer after scoring a touchdown. Since Christian players are not penalized for similar behavior, fans were outraged. Meanwhile, on the same day, a much more significant sports-related event was playing out in Casablanca, Morocco. A video posted by the Middle East Media Research Institute showed a sizeable group of fans—perhaps one hundred—chanting “ISIS! ISIS!” and then “Allahu akbar, let’s go on jihad! Allahu akbar, let’s go on jihad!” American football fans—that is to say, Americans in general—might want to take note of the ever-expanding ISIS fan base. They might also do well to consider that the penalty ISIS imposes on losers is considerably more severe than fifteen yards.
If and when we get around to defeating ISIS, let’s hope we administer a psychological defeat as well—one that shows up not only the impotence of their fighting force, but also the emptiness of their vision. Else ISIS will rise again in some other form under some other name.
Exactly how this would be done is difficult to say. We are not, hopefully, going to descend to the level of displaying severed heads. And parading troops in their underwear is inconsistent with our concept of human dignity. Indeed, the whole idea of imposing a humiliating defeat goes against the grain of our highly developed sensitivities. Nonetheless, it seems time to reconsider our politically correct policy on waging war with terrorists—a policy which seems to say that war is simply a misunderstanding, and that after we’ve defeated you quietly and without fanfare, we will give you a clean cell and a copy of the Koran untouched by infidel hands because, of course, your religion has nothing to do with your terrorist behavior.
If we wish to avoid endless wars with jihadists, we should conclude our war with the Islamic State in such a way that Muslims around the world will rethink the notions of Islamic jihad and Islamic martyrdom. It’s not as improbable as it sounds. Not so long ago, historically speaking, Turks, Egyptians, and other Muslims who read the writing on the wall did rethink Islam. Faced with a West that was not only militarily powerful, but also culturally confident, they opted for a more muted form of Islam.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Napoleon and his General Staff in Egypt” was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1867.