The War Against Jihadism

Published February 4, 2008

Newsweek February 4, 2008

What kind of campaign is this? Six-plus years after 9/11; while the Taliban attempts an Afghanistan comeback; as Islamist terrorists cause mayhem in Algeria and occupy huge swaths of tribal Pakistan; despite United 93 and The Kite Runner, a library-full of books, presidential commissions, congressional hearings, and four election cycles–despite all of that, a strange, Victorian reticence about naming the enemy in the contest for the human future in which we are engaged befogs this political season.

Such reticence is an obstacle to victory in a war we cannot avoid and in which we must prevail. For if there is one thing certain in this season of great uncertainties, it is that the war against jihadism will be staring the next president of the United States in the face at high noon on Inauguration Day, 2009.

That is what we are fighting: jihadism, the religiously inspired ideology which teaches that it is every Muslim's duty to use any means necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam. That most of the world's Muslims do not accept this definition of the demands of their faith is true–and beside the point. The jihadists believe this. That is why they are the enemy of their fellow Muslims and the rest of the world. For decades, an internal Islamic civil war, born of Islam's difficult encounter with modernity, has been fought over such key modern political ideas as religious toleration and the separation of religious and political authority in a just state. That intra-Islamic struggle now engages the rest of humanity. To ignore this, to imagine it's all George W. Bush's fault, or to misrepresent it because of a prudish reluctance to discuss religion in public, is to repeat the mistakes the advocates of appeasement made in the 1930s.

In the mid-twentieth century, it was important to understand the ideas that fed the totalitarian passions of fascism, Nazism and communism. It is just as important today to understand the ideas of such progenitors of jihadist ideology as the Egyptian scholar-activists Hassan al-Banna (1906–1949) and Sayyid Qutb (1903–1966). Why? Because the power of ideas that can call men and women to make great sacrifices can only be trumped by the power of more compelling ideas that summon forth nobler sacrifices. Yet while our presidential candidates have endlessly debated who-was-right-or-wrong-and-when about Iraq, the imperative of effective U.S. public diplomacy–of making the argument for freedom and decency effectively around the world–has gone largely unremarked. That failure reflects a reluctance to grasp the nature of this new kind of struggle.

This is a war of ideas, pitting two different notions of the good society against each other. The jihadist vision claims the sanction of God. The western vision of the free society, in which civility involves engaging differences with respect, has both religious and philosophical roots. Some Americans have lost touch with the deepest cultural sources of the nation's commitments to religious freedom, tolerance and democratic persuasion, thinking of these good things as mere pragmatic arrangements. But if the United States can't explain to the world why religious freedom, civility, tolerance and democratic persuasion are morally superior to coercion in religious and political matters, then America stands disarmed before those who believe it their duty to impose a starkly different view of the good society on us.

The war against jihadism is being contested on many fronts simultaneously. There is a military front, which involves Afghanistan and Iraq but also includes such unlikely places as the Caribbean, Mali and the Philippines. There is an intelligence front, an economic front, an energy front and a homeland-security front. Such a complex war, which could last a generation or more, cannot be the prerogative or burden of one political party. The war against jihadism must be owned by both political parties. Thus one measure of any presidential candidate's seriousness is this: can he or she build a bipartisan coalition capable of sustaining the long-haul struggle required to defeat jihadist nihilism?

The landscape is indeed forbidding. Still, there is some good news: the war against jihadism can lead to cultural and political renewal in America. Making compelling arguments in favor of the free society reconnects us with the great ideas on which our liberties rest. Putting faith and reason into conversation strengthens the unity of our diverse society. Defending religious freedom, and supporting Muslim reformers who seek an Islamic case for tolerance and pluralism, reminds us that American civil society is built on truths about the dignity of human life. Energy policies that de-fund jihadism by reducing our reliance on petroleum as a transportation fuel can ignite entrepreneurial energies, revitalize the American auto industry, and help the environment. Rational homeland security policies can make us safer and less beholden to political correctness.

The jihadist merchants of death must be defeated morally as well as militarily. Doing so offers the American people the opportunity for national self-renewal and the chance to defend the cause of human dignity throughout the world. The stakes–the future of freedom–are very high indeed. It's past time for those who would lead us to acknowledge that.

Weigel, a NEWSWEEK contributor, is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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