Al-Qaida has always been a propaganda power. Its dark genius has been to connect the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800 years of Muslim decline.
Al-Qaida's rage predates any offense at Danish cartoons of Muhammad, protests over the ground zero mosque or goofy sectarian grandstanders in Florida threatening to burn the Quran. Al-Qaida's dedication to the destruction of its ideological enemies -- including its Muslim enemies -- lies at the organization's malign spiritual and savage philosophical core.
That malignant ideological core is the target of U.S. Navy Commander Yousef H. Aboul-Enein's extraordinary new book, "Miltant Islamist Ideology" (Naval Institute Press, 2010).
Aboul-Enein is an officer with a stellar professional resume and a compelling personal background. His book is immediately valuable to everyone engaged in the fight against Militant Islamist terrorism -- and Aboul-Enein would insist on militant with a capital M.
When viewed as a treatise on information warfare (which is what the book is, though the author might debate this description), the volume's utility extends well beyond combating Militant Islamists. Aboul-Enein provides an intellectual framework for analyzing and countering the ideology for every transnational terror organization, whether its creed is secular political, tribal, anarchist or religious.
As for the fascinating background: Aboul-Enein is a U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps officer who advises the Department of Defense and the U.S. intelligence community "at the highest levels." He was born in Mississippi and raised in Saudi Arabia, and has a master's degree in strategic intelligence from the National Defense Intelligence College.
Aboul-Enein establishes a goal: He intends to distinguish Islam as a religion from two other groups, Islamists and Militant Islamists. He then seeks to "disaggregate" Militant Islamists from both Islamists and Islam. This, he argues, is key to defeating Militant Islamists, the violent actors who scar Islam, harm Islamists, and murder Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He makes an insistently strong, and often profound, intellectual argument.
"Militant Islamist" Aboul-Enein defines as "a group or individual advocating Islamist ideological goals, principally by violent means." Islamists are a group who advocate "Islam as a political as well as religious system. Chief Islamist objectives include implementing sharia (Islamic) law "as the basis of all statutory issues." Islam is "the religious faith of Muslims, involving ... belief in Allah as the sole deity and in Muhammad as his prophet."
Militant Islamist ideology he condemns as a vicious fraud, for it "is composed of fragmented pieces of Islam ... they are recombined out of context to make up the bulwark of Militant Islamist ideology, which is not the religion of Islam." Militant Islamist ideology "seeks to establish a totalitarian state steeped in the language, symbols and narrowly selective aspects of Islam."
Aboul-Enein says faithful Muslims play a central role in defeating Militant Islamism, arguably the key role. "Unlike communism," he writes, "against which free enterprise and democracy were used as ideological counterweights, Militant Islamist ideology can be opposed among the Muslim masses only by Islamic counter-argumentation. We cannot contain Militant Islamist ideology but only work to marginalize, de-popularize, and erode its influence and mass appeal by identifying it as different from Islam or even from Islamist political groups."
Aboul-Enein does not dismiss the ideological warfare effects of defeating al-Qaida militarily on its home ground, such as Iraq. His chapter titled "Marginalizing al-Qaida" has definite operational implications for exploiting tensions and divisions in a terrorist organization when it is engaged militarily in a decisive theater.
Chapter 20, titled "Mindsets That Hamper America's Capabilities," begins with a quote from Saint Augustine: "When (men) go to war, what they want is to impose on their enemies the victor's will and call it peace." The chapter is a strong riposte to the imposing "Clash of Civilizations" argument Samuel Huntington made in the 1990s.
While Aboul-Enein specifically addresses Militant Islamism, with a tweak of terms and a slight adjustment of the historical dial, his analysis of American information warfare weaknesses applies to World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the great ideological and economic struggle we call the Cold War.
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