Propagandists of terror prevailing
IN July 2005, al-Qa'ida's chief strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri outlined a critical element of his organisation's war against the West.
"We are in a battle and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of our umma (community)."
Al-Qa'ida has made "the media battle" a key front in its war, a strategy that helps explain why the jihadist movement continues to flourish. Yet intelligence and security agencies engaged in the so-called war on terror have been slow to seize this imperative, choosing instead to remain in the shadows, avoiding the vigorous media and public debate about terrorism and how it should be combated. Their reluctance has allowed the jihadists to gain the upper hand in the crucial battle for hearts and minds.
Al-Qa'ida's media strategy was deliberate and targeted from the outset, in keeping with an earlier directive from Zawahiri: "We must get our message across to the masses of the nation and break the media siege."
Osama bin Laden's first television interview in May 1997 was with CNN. The launch of his World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders in 1998 was announced at a press conference, where invited journalists were treated to a show staged by his entourage of mujaheddin, firing their AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades at the mountains. In 2004 bin Laden's videotaped "Message to America" was released for broadcast just before the US elections.
From its inception, al-Qa'ida established a media committee to run its propaganda offensive and a media production company, Al-Sahab, to film and distribute professionally produced videos, DVDs and other propaganda. Its activity has escalated markedly in recent years. In 2006, Al-Sahab released 58 videos, one every six days. In 2007 it issued 97, one every four days.
The trend has continued.
Al-Qa'ida used the Qatar-based AlJazeera television network as a regular forum. Senior al-Qa'ida strategist Mustafa Hamid, also known as Abu Walid al Masri, who was married to Australian woman Rabiah Hutchinson, was a correspondent for Al Jazeera in Kandahar at the same time that he was a serving member of bin Laden's advisory Shura Council.
The practice of targeting the media is not unique to the present generation of Islamist terrorists. It's a strategy terrorists have always used. "Terrorism is about theatre," says Brian Jenkins, of the think tank RAND Corporation. Put another way, terrorism is "an extreme act of political communication", in the words of Richard Dearlove, former head of Britain's MI6.
People used to say: "Terrorists don't want a lot of people dead; they want a lot of people watching." That has changed; now they want both. Harvard University scholar and author Louise Richardson writes in her book What Terrorists Want that what they want is "the three Rs": revenge, renown and reaction.
Renown is what they gain through publicity, which Richardson describes as a central objective of terrorism, serving "to bring attention to the cause and to spread the fear instilled by terrorism".
Richardson cites an article by an al-Qa'ida operative, Abu Ubeid al-Qurashi, which was published in the group's online magazine al-Ansar, which described the Palestinian massacre of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics as "the greatest media victory". "Four thousand journalists and radio personnel and 2000 commentators and television technicians were there to cover the Olympic Games," al-Qurashi wrote. "Suddenly they were broadcasting the suffering of the Palestinian people. Thus 900 million people in 100 countries were witness to the operation by means of television screens."
Al-Qurashi went on to observe: "The September 11 (operation) was an even greater propaganda coup. It may be said that it broke a record in propaganda dissemination."
Al-Qa'ida and its allies film and distribute motivational videos of their training camps set to rousing jihadist songs. They film their bombings, often using several cameras strategically placed to capture the action. They film the testimonials of would-be suicide bombers that are posted on the internet to inspire others. There is even a TV program called Hidden Camera Jihad, a video compilation of attacks on US forces, set to a laughter track. BBC journalist Gordon Correra calls it "the mainstreaming of jihad as entertainment". All of this is crucial to recruitment, mobilisation, solidarity and morale.
The availability of and access to jihadist literature and audiovisual material has become a central feature in the evolution and spread of Islamist terrorism and the formation of home-grown terror groups across the world. Typically, these groups have no direct links to al-Qa'ida central and are almost entirely reliant on material obtained on the internet for their self-recruitment, ideology, spiritual guidance and the facilitation of their plans, such as manufacturing explosives.
It is accepted wisdom that the jihadists' aggressive media offensive is a key reason their movement continues to flourish and why the terrorists' freedom-fighter narrative has proven so enduringly potent for millions of Muslims.
Yet the intelligence and security agencies with the task of countering terrorism remain stubbornly reluctant to join the media battle, typically refusing to answer media questions, engage in public debate or explain and justify their actions and policies.
In many cases there are compelling practical and logistical reasons for secrecy. More often it seems to be simply a hangover from their historical preference for lurking in the shadows. No doubt they prefer people not to know when they venture on to the "dark side", to quote former US vice-president Dick Cheney.
The well-reported excesses in the secret war on terror - Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the CIA's rendition program, the use of torture, all skilfully exploited by the jihadists - have had a profound influence on popular opinion, in the West and the Muslim world, and on the prevailing media narrative.
Seven or eight years ago, the prevalent story was that evil religious fanatics were bent on destroying our democratic societies and killing as many innocent civilians as possible. Today, the war on terror is frequently depicted in the media as an unjust and ill-executed war that has undermined the freedoms and values it was supposed to uphold.
The intelligence and security agencies can no longer afford to stay mute in this seminal debate. It is time for them to come out of the shadows and engage in the crucial battle for hearts and minds.
This can be as simple as releasing more information to illustrate the nature of the threat, such as the revelation in 2006 by MI5 head Eliza Manningham-Butler that British authorities were dealing with 30 known terrorist plots and 200 terrorist networks, and watching 1600 individuals who were "actively engaged in or facilitating terrorist acts here or overseas". It was a strategic decision to take the media and the public into their confidence by releasing data that normally would be deemed classified. And it clearly had the desired effect, a jolting reminder that terrorism is not a figment of the security agencies' imaginations but a very real and present danger.
By Barry Rubin
It never ceases to amaze me that people who know nothing about the Middle East, in this case Roger Cohen but many other names come to mind, can suddenly proclaim themselves experts and make the most elementary errors involving the lives of other people. It also never ceases to amaze me that people can visit a country, especially a dictatorship, be wined and dined, handed a line and believe it so thoroughly that their mind is closed ever after.
Recently, I met a young man who helped me understand this phenomenon better. He worked on Afghanistan and took exception to my saying that there was no way that Western intervention was going to make that a stable and moderate country. It was too geographically diverse, bound by traditional culture, beset by conflict, and economically underdeveloped to achieve that condition. And no matter how much money was poured in to train its army to be efficient or to finance its government to be honest and effective, the situation would not change drastically.
He responded with some heat that after the Soviet withdrawal that the Communist government Moscow had established lasted three years, proving how good the Afghan army could be. That argument surprised me since—like so many I hear nowadays—it was so easy to refute, indeed containing within itself its own refutation.
My response was simple: so, in effect, what you are saying is that if the Western forces are withdrawn then the Taliban will take over within three years. In short, this is precisely the kind of thing I was saying.
I think that the mainstream view of the Middle East is so reinforced by its hegemony in the discussion, so underpinned by cultural and ideological assumption (which it isn’t even aware of making) that one often hears such weak or, in other cases, factually inaccurate statements. The idea of free debate is to test and correct our views. Yet when there is such hegemony in academia and—to a lesser extent—the mass media , for one viewpoint that set of arguments is weakened simply because it dismisses all challenges without even considering them.
Later that day, I had a chance to talk further with this young man, who was very sincere and dedicated to his studies. He had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. And it quickly became clear what that meant. He argued passionately that the West must overthrow the current government and install others who, he said, were honest and would provide the country with a great government.
Upon further discussion, it turns out that these were powerful people from wealthy families who had courted him. They had invited him to their palatial homes, wined and dined him, and flattered him. “You understand our country,” they had said in admiring terms. In some cases, though not this one, aside from access and flattery, career promotion opportunities and money are also offered.
One might speculate—this is just a thought—that women are used to being courted and have learned how to discount flattery to a greater extent. Men, however, are probably especially prone to such appeals as they are used to colder treatment by their fellows.
At any rate, we see this constantly. One young scholar, given unprecedented access to write the biography of a ruthless dictator, gushes at how wonderful he is. Roger Cohen of the New York Times, goes to Iran, they treat him well and thus he deduces that the mullahs have only benign intentions. Robert Leiken, totally ignorant about the region and succumbing to similar treatment by the Nicaraguan Contras, meets the Muslim Brotherhood and—with no knowledge of what they write in Arabic—believes everything they tell him and describes them as moderate. I also think such a process went on when Iraqi exiles assured American interlocutors that Iraq was just waiting for America to liberate it, that all would go smoothly, they would then take power and be moderate and stable democratic friends ever after.
As I write these words, I see an article in the Los Angeles Times that provides a terrific example of this phenomenon* about David Lesch, a man with no real knowledge of the region who was chosen to be the biographer of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad. Lesch hero-worships the dictator who, in a real sense, made his career.
“He is very low-key, he is a very amiable, very humble individual, not intimidating at all," Lesch says.
He admits that he wouldn’t get tough with Bashar: “It would do damage to this access, which will be far worse than bringing it up." And he talks more like a fan for a rock star than a serious analyst of regional politics: “He values my opinions and ideas.” How pitiful, how easily deceived. Yet in dealing with Iran and Hamas, Hizballah and Syria, Muslim Brotherhoods and assorted other dictators and anti-democratic movements or states, how often this happens.
This article is positively embarrassing and the fact that Lesch, the article’s author, and the Los Angeles Times don’t see this is an important sign of how seriously mainstream journalism and academic Middle East studies have gone off the rails.
Why is the gap between reality and perception so much wider on the Middle East than on other subjects or areas of the world? It would take a book to give a proper answer but here are some admittedly too-brief and incomplete talking points:
1. High level of partisanship, making even the simplest statements of fact controversial at times.
2. Indoctrination on campuses to an extraordinary extent.
3. Since so much is written about the region—often bad material--people think they know everything, a mistake less likely to occur in more “obscure” places.
4. The need for special knowledge to understand the region which should not—but is—often lightly disregarded.
5. A complex historical picture which people may ignore since history is not deemed to be important.
6. The importance of cultural differences in understanding the region at a time when, according to PC, everyone is supposed to be seen as being exactly the same. A letter by Iranian-American academic in the New York Times this week asserts that it’s ridiculous to claim Iranian regime nuclear weapons are threat because Iranian mothers want good lives for their children and living standards have gone up.
7. The importance of ideology which is discounted as an influence creating totally different world views, at least among regimes. (See point 6, above).
8. Precisely because the threat from the region and in it is so high there is a tendency either to claim no threat exists or that it can be easily defused through understanding and concessions.
9. The hysteria about alleged Islamophobia and misuse of the concept of racism which makes it somewhere between hard and impossible to have a serious discussion of these issues.
10. Failure to understand the difference between what's said in English or in Arabic and Persian, discounting the latter as of no importance.
People have a right to be foolish and naive. But they have no right to misdirect national policies and risk—or cost—the lives of hundreds and possibly damage the lives of millions on the basis of their own stupidity.
Political Correctness vs. Religion
After posting my blog on George Will and Obama's Leninism and reading Carol Platt Liebau's post today on "Political Correctness vs. Religion," I would like to tie these two together--that is, what is the relationship between communism, political correctness, and the Judeo-Christian religions?
First, we must take a look at the last few centuries, where “religion” has taken on the additional connotations of dedication to abstract principles or ideals rather than a personal being. The French Enlightenment, with its worship of Reason is a prime example of this kind of religion. The god is no longer personal, but abstract, though it may be personified in art or ritual. Hence, modern dictionaries include definitions relating religion to impersonal principles rather than persons. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary widens the definition to include: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith.” Meaning “religion” in only this broad, even purely metaphorical sense, the atheist may bristle at the notion that his “religion” entails anything other than adherence to his core principles, whatever they may be. Yet two movements of the last century, one explicitly atheist and the other vehemently secular if not outright atheist, exhibit many striking similarities to those of more traditional religions.
Until recently, the most notable example of a secular movement that was, for all practical purposes, a religion, was Marxism. During the global expansion of Marxism in the twentieth century, many critics noted its religious and quasi-religious characteristics. For example, Marxism had dogmas, core teachings that all Marxists embraced. Among these were “economic determinism,” the doctrine that politics, culture, and ethics were necessary extensions of economic relations; and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a necessary historical stage in the inevitable transformation of capitalism into socialism. Such dogmas were laid out in Marxism’s canonical scriptures, which included Das Kapital, The Communist Manifesto, The Collected Works of Lenin, The Collected Works of Stalin, The Little Red Book of Mao Tse-tung, and other official Marxist-Leninist works of the mid-twentieth century.
Marxist orthodoxy was safeguarded by its “priests” and “theologians” who taught the requisite dogmas and presided over the “ritualistic observances,” principally workers’ strikes, especially general strikes. Within Marxist regimes, ideological police and government censors saw that the dogmas found their way into factories, neighborhood organizations, and newspapers. In academe, professors promoted adherence to dialectical materialism as the common creed.
Deviations from dogma (i.e., “heresies”), needed to be suppressed. Things associated with the two great heresies, traditional religion and capitalism, were banned and demonized. Traditional religion, the “opiate of the masses” in Karl Marx’s famous phrase, had to be abandoned in favor of the foresight and “five year plans” of state- controlled hierarchies. Orthodox Marxists had meticulously to avoid such “sins” as expropriating “surplus value” from an army of oppressed workers, preaching rewards in an afterlife to the proletariat, or settling into the life of a conspicuous consumer removed from the struggles of workers. The wayward were corrected in mandated “reeducation” camps; those found intractable to correction were frequently subjected to excommunication from the party, exile, and even execution.
There was even an eschatology: After the earlier evolutionary stages of capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, the “end times” would come, characterized by a new state of consciousness in “communist man,” who would live in a cooperative, crime- free, international community, without any vestiges of dehumanizing labor; and a hagiography, which included generally accepted revolutionary saints, such as Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as well as some venerated by select or local groups such as Bakunin and Trotsky.
Not all Marxists, of course, had sufficient ardor and faith to qualify them as “religious” in the wide sense. In the West during the Cold War, there were many persons partially influenced by progressive ideals of worker solidarity and a new socialist order, but who took their Marxism with a “grain of salt.” So also now, in the twenty-first century, there are many people working for social justice, human rights, international solidarity, and other causes commonly regarded as liberal without an ardent or unbending ideological commitment. But there are also those for whom their political views have become a life commitment (i.e., those on the Left), held to with the same ardor and faith as Marxism was for its strongest adherents. These men and women of the Left do not have an obligation to spread Christianity through faith in Jesus Christ, or want human beings to believe in ethical monotheism by following Judaism, or become communist by reading the works of Karl Marx.
Today’s Left relies on political correctness to further an array of race, gender/sex, cultural, political, and ideological agendas pursued in the name of such concepts as “tolerance,” “diversity,” “equality,” “peace,” and “human rights” among others. Religious Jews and Christians as well as “religious” Marxists and Leftists share and have shared two things in the twentieth century: a platform to push their agendas and the means to do so. What they have not shared is the same mode for producing converts. The “mode” used by leftists is called political correctness.
At the heart of political correctness is the war over Judeo-Christian moral absolutes, and thus an attempt to end the dialogue between one claiming that he has the Truth and allowing a new “truth” to take its place. Ironically, postmodernists see no contradiction in their claims of having the “truth.” Even those claiming there are not moral absolutes are contrarily making such a claim. After trashing moral absolutes, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, postmodern leftists and academics are free to advocate anything and, indeed, transform their new “truths” into absolutes. The tool that allows such a thing becomes political correctness.
And So He Became a Communist
By Theodore Dalrymple
It is an interesting, though perhaps unanswerable, question as to how much untruth you can squeeze into a single word of one syllable, either explicitly or by implication. However, I came across a very fine example of such compression in the British liberal newspaper, The Guardian, the other day.
I have reached the age at which I turn first to the obituary pages, as I once (how long ago it seems, and how incomprehensible to me now!) would have turned to the sports results. I cannot quite put my finger on why obituaries fascinate me, or seem important; it is certainly not personal connection with the departed, for I have never consorted with the famous, nor have they consorted with me.
The obituary page of The Guardian had recently adopted a feature called Other Lives, that is to say short obituaries of people whom its readership believes are worthy of public memorialisation but who are not otherwise well-known. And so, on 17 April, it carried an obituary of a man called Ron Bellamy, written by his wife. The obituary begins:
"My husband Ron Bellamy, who has died at the age of 92, was a dedicated teacher, a Marxist economist and a lifelong communist."
It continues shortly afterwards:
"Like so many of his generation, he was deeply affected by mass unemployment, poverty, and the threat of fascism and war, so he joined the Communist party".
It is the second ‘so’ of this sentence that is fascinating. So short a word, so many ambiguities; so much suggestio falsi, so much suppressio veri. Truly, human language is a subtle instrument. Suppose the late Ron had been a fascist instead of a communist, and – as is not very likely - The Guardian had accorded him space for an obituary, would it not have been possible to write the following?
"Like so many of his generation, he was deeply affected by mass unemployment, poverty, and the threat of communism and war, so he joined the British Union of Fascists".
At the time he joined the Communist Party, the second sentence would have made much more sense than the first (though still not a lot). The obituary does not give the date that Ron joined the Communist Party, but since he was born in 1916 or 1917 (the precise date of his birth is also not given), it seems likely that he joined at some time between 1936 and 1938. By then, communism in Russia had brought two massive famines causing the deaths of millions, routinely more executions in a day than Tsarism performed in a century (and this from the very first moment of Bolshevik power), the establishment of vast forced labour camps in which hundreds of thousands had already died, and the utter decimation of intellectual life. It is a myth that none of this was known or knowable at the time: on the contrary, it was all perfectly well known, if widely ignored.
By contrast, Nazism had ‘only’ passed its persecutory Nuremberg race laws, while its death toll – when the late Ron joined the party – was numbered in the hundreds, rather than the millions. Most of its evil was in the future. Of course, it had suppressed intellectual freedom too, and established concentration camps for ‘enemies,’ but the late Ron obviously didn’t mind that, if it was all in a good cause. Nazism had done a good job in reducing unemployment, without first having caused two vast famines, and the standard of living in Nazi Germany was incomparably higher than that in Soviet Russia, including for the workers.
So it would at the time have made more sense at the time for Ron to become a fascist than a communist; the ‘so’ would have been slightly more compelling, though the explanation of his decision would still have been far from complete. It is intrinsically unlikely that a man espouses a totalitarian doctrine of proved and indisputable viciousness and violence from a love of peace and a dislike of poverty.
Although the author of the obituary was herself a communist, and indeed met her husband through the Communist Party (in 1953), the ‘so’ to which I have drawn attention has a slight exculpatory connotation, as if it is there to head off criticism from anti-communists. Yes, it seems to say, you may criticise Ron for being a communist; but what you have to remember is the economic and political context in which he joined. In that context, any generous-minded and hearted man concerned about the fate of the world might have made the same decision.
But this, if it was meant, is untruthful. The late Ron was a member of the Communist Party for forty years. In 1961, he actually spent a year in the Soviet Union, conducting ‘research.’ That meant he swallowed many things without any of them impinging on him in the slightest: not only the famines, but the show trials, the Gulag, the Great Terror, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the ludicrous cult of Stalin’s personality, the removal of entire populations, the Doctor’s Plot, the show trials in Czechoslovakia, Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Berlin and Hungarian uprisings, to name but a few.
So – if I may still use that tainted word – it is simply not true that the conjunction of circumstances was what determined the late Ron’s political choice for communism, neither at the beginning nor at the end of his life. If it had been true, the late Ron would not have remained in the Communist Party for forty years. It is more probable, indeed, that he was attracted by precisely those aspects of communism that would repel most decent people: its violence and ruthlessness; its suppression of all views inimical to it; its cruel wholesale restructuring of society according to the crude and gimcrack ideas of arrogant, ambitious but profoundly mediocre intellectuals. The late Ron’s personal modesty notwithstanding – I see no reason to disbelieve his wife’s assertion that he was friendly and unassuming, as indeed Stalin, Uncle Joe, was often described as being – what he dreamed of was mass murder, deportations, suppression of people who differed from him, and complete control over the lives of everyone. Many people do dream of these things: most utopians, in fact.
At the very least, the late Ron was, in political matters, a moral idiot. The ‘so’ is subtly designed to disguise the fact.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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