Cliff May

The first concept to grasp is that the global conflict now underway involves both a clash of arms and a clash of ideas. To succeed in this war will require effective combat on both fronts.

The second concept is this: The clash of arms and the clash of ideas influence one other, often in peculiar and even counter-intuitive ways.

One example: Al-Qaeda in Iraq could not challenge American troops directly. Their solution has been to target innocent Iraqis instead, to slaughter innocent Muslim men, women and children by the hundreds.

Why wouldn’t this cause outrage around the world? It did – but al-Qaeda calculated that in much of the West, the outrage would be directed less at them than at Americans for "stirring up a hornet's nest." And, as they also expected, images of death and destruction, coupled with reports of soldiers killed by roadside bombs, soon would erode the will of many Americans to continue the fight.

Now, however, a new phase in the clash of arms may be having an unanticipated impact on a different audience. A shift in strategy initiated by the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is changing ideas about both al-Qaeda and the U.S. in Muslim societies -- and on the theological plane.

I learned this from Hassan Mneimneh, a scholar and director of the Iraq Memory Foundation, a research institution with offices in Baghdad and Washington. Mneimneh also served, as I did, as an advisor to the Baker/Hamilton commission on Iraq. And we were recently on a panel exploring U.S. interests in Iraq at the United States Institute for Peace.

This time last year, even most military people concluded that Anbar Province was irretrievably lost to al-Qaeda. But General Patreaus was not ready to give up: A few short months ago, he told Anbar’s traditional leaders, the tribal sheiks, that if they'd ally with the U.S., their people and their lands would be liberated from al-Qaeda's "occupation."

They agreed. Since then al-Qaeda terrorists by the score have been killed, captured and driven out of Anbar. Mneimneh wondered: How would the sheiks and religious scholars justify this alliance to themselves and their people? To put it bluntly, how would they explain partnering with infidels against fellow Muslims?

He found the answer in numerous sermons and publications -- everything from books to blogs and websites. The truth, he discovered is that most Iraqis, unlike so many Westerners, do blame al-Qaeda for the carnage al-Qaeda has carried out. And most Iraqis have not embraced al-Qaeda's brand of Islam, with its barbarism – e.g. the murder of children to teach their parents obedience -- and ultra-fundamentalism.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.