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Outside View: The war of ideas -- Part 3

By MICHAEL VLAHOS, A UPI Outside View commentary

WASHINGTON, July 21 (UPI) -- For two years and more the war of ideas has had only two definitions. Think of them as working models to explain what is going on, and thus, frameworks for strategy and policy. Most of those in the United States, and their president, subscribe to the explanatory model of "terrorism." The terrorism model describes the enemy as small groups that are marginal in their own world -- generally accepted at this point as the Muslim world. They may have political objectives but within their own societies they are considered no more than criminal. They can thus be addressed as criminals through eradication. However, their persistence suggests that broader societal ills are responsible for their emergence. Thus, encouraging democratic reform within societies that produce terrorism is indicated.

Others in contrast describe a Muslim "civil war." This explanatory model says that terrorism is the expression of a broad struggle within Islam between moderates and radicals. Radicals have chosen the path of violence -- hence, terrorism -- while moderates, including most governments in the Muslim world, would prefer to pursue political contention peacefully. Thus the United States should oppose "Radical Islam" generally and support moderate Muslim regimes. This model by implication suggests that U.S. strategy cannot merely encourage, but must insist upon the adoption of Western civic values in order to successfully defeat the vision of Radical Islam.

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But there is a third explanatory model, and it exposes what is wrong with the two prevailing frameworks. This model describes neither terrorism nor civil war, but rather a "world-historical" movement of Islamic revival. Terrorism in this reality framework is an expression neither of criminal evil nor of an evil vision. Rather, violent radical elements are only a small part of a much broader movement for Islamic restoration speaks more directly to Islamist visions than words like "revival," which in the Western consciousness at least refer more narrowly to simpler religious "awakenings." For Muslims at least, their vision is one of an entire order restored, of not simply religion but of an entire, "rightly guided" way of life brought back as it should be. For a generation and more the drive for this Islamic restoration has been gathering strength and asserting itself.

This alternative model suggests that terrorism cannot be truly abstracted as a separate phenomenon within the Muslim world, but instead must be seen as part of a bigger change movement within that world. Likewise, there is no civil war between mythical "moderates" -- meaning "reasonable" Muslims who just want to live and let live -- and wild-eyed "radicals" who would burn it all down. In contrast the larger Islamist restoration movement seeks to purify the Muslim world of corrupt and apostate tyrants. The movement has many elements and agendas, and thus many paths to this goal. Like many broad movements with revolutionary goals, most are non-violent. The example of Islamists in Egypt and Turkey suggests that the majority of Islamists seek their goals through peaceful means, and the world they would create is couched in surprisingly moderate and tolerant terms.

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But the goal shared by all Islamists is nonetheless a radical goal. The restoration of Islam would mean an end to Western style secular civil society in the Muslim world, even if it led to an Islamic civil society that Westerners might not find uncomfortable.

This is an excerpt from the author's "The Muslim Renovatio and U.S. Strategy," in the online journal TechCentralStation -- techcentralstation.com/042704D.html. Even if its long-term hypotheses in terms of change are not realized, it is nonetheless vitally important to approach the Muslim world in terms of change and it key change groups.

-- What Is the Historical Change Group?

The dominant historical change group is unmistakably the New Islamist movement. Not from the vantage of Western perception, but rather from the dynamics of change within the Muslim world. Yet this reality is still unacknowledged, either within the administration or more generally, among the Washington establishment. Yet nonetheless it is the place of ferment today in Islam; it is the place where we should expect new things to happen, and the place where the future societies of the Muslim world will be made.

The administration has erred in its presentation of the situation: not merely by not distinguishing between New Islamists and the Radical Jihadis, but by not recognizing that the larger strategic situation cannot be managed over historical time. Rather, the world of Islam is a world in flux -- a situation in which change must be accepted, if not encouraged. The question is what source of change, and what authority to change, will the United States support? Clearly the terrorists are the expression of a vision of Islam's future that is insupportable. But the New Islamists offer a vision, arguably, that Americans should find acceptable, if somewhat variant to our home grown notions of freedom and democracy.

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It is in fact remarkable that so little attention has been paid to the non-violent, pluralistic, and yet nonetheless radical New Islamists. But we should understand that here, "radical" means a new basis for society in places like Egypt and Arabia where corrupt regimes have played havoc on their own people. We must in good conscience look at what these very authentic movements for Islamic restoration have to offer, and at the same time be able to distinguish between them and the violent radicals that seek our destruction.

-- Does This Mean the Message Must Change?

It is incumbent on the United States to reach out to the prospective historical change group, and to begin to distance itself from the ancien regime that it has backed these many decades since the end of World War II. This means is essence not only a change in message -- as in the message of "strategic communications" -- but potentially if not surely, a change in national strategy.

But it need not be an orthogonal or discontinuous change. A subtle shift in U.S. strategy to support non-violent, pluralistic change in Islam could be set into motion without announcing the end of U.S. support for the ancien regimes of Egypt, Arabia, Pakistan, etc. But at the same time, such a reworked message cannot be contained within the discredited blandishments of reform offered by recent administration announcements. No one in the Muslim world believes in that sort of hortatory window dressing.

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Thus there is something decisively implicit in creating a message with authority from the United States to the new Muslim world. Such a message need not cross the political Rubicon today, but it must show its sincere intent. To date this has not been done. The United States demonstrates every day and in every way how it seeks to maintain the status quo in the world of Islam. To create message authority with Muslims, in contrast, the United States must find a way to demonstrate that it believes in change -- real change. Change that Muslims seek and that Muslims will create.

How can the United States even begin to do this? Craft a surprising and unexpected message of Good News.

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(Michael Vlahos writes on war and strategy at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He was commissioned to write this paper by a senior executive at the Department of Defense. This is Part Three of a four-part series on the subject of exhuming the war of ideas.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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