Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists
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When I first heard in the mid-1990s about the dreams of some jihadis and Islamists to have the green flag of Islam waving over the White House and the queen of England wearing a burka, I, like so many other Western liberals, thought that these were ludicrous fantasies. But as a student of apocalyptic millennialism, I understood that however silly such beliefs might sound to outsiders, they can have devastating consequences.
Millennialists, from stone-age cargo cults to the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution in Egypt around 1350 BCE to modern secular movements including the French Revolution, Marxism, Communism, and Nazism, all imagine that in the future the world will transform from a society in which evil, corruption, and oppression flourish and the good suffer into a world without suffering and pain. The term “apocalyptic” refers to the experiences and behavior of those who believe that this millennial transformation is imminent. In my new book, Heaven on Earth, I focus on two major developments in apocalyptic movements: The first concerns those rare moments when a previously low-volume apocalyptic discourse successfully enters the public sphere and, despite its outlandish claims, wins zealous, open, converts, and the second concerns the inevitable disappointment that greets all such movements, including those that succeed in taking power and implementing their plans for perfecting the world. Of the most dangerous such movements to jell are those I call “active cataclysmic” ones that believe that only vast destruction can pave the way to the new world, and that they are the agents of that violence. Such movements have killed tens of millions of people (often their own people) before their raging fires burned out.
Two key laws of apocalyptic dynamics became relevant in assessing Muslim apocalyptic expectations, even the most curious ones attached to the advent of the year 2000: First, one person’s messiah is another’s antichrist; and, second, wrong does not mean inconsequential. Muslims observing messianic Christians and Jews who wanted to rebuild the Temple where the Dome of the Rock stands in the year 2000 predicted the Dajjal, the Muslim version of the antichrist, for that year. And given the active cataclysmic fantasy involved—“We, Allah’s agents, must destroy much of the word to save it”—I understood how devastating it might be if this movement spread, no matter how wrong it might seem to secular people in the West.
When I first began to familiarize myself with this phenomenon, I was primarily worried that organizations like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi and mujahedin movements might gain support in the Muslim world and cause damage both to fellow Muslims and to “infidels” around the world. But I did not for a moment imagine that these hateful and paranoid apocalyptic tropes—the very opposite of the notions of peace, equality, openness, and tolerance that Western progressives prized—would win supporters and allies among even the most progressive elements of the Western public sphere. Neither I nor, I suspect, the men who wrote Hamas’ genocidal charter in 1988 expected Western infidels to march in European capitals with Hamas’ flag, shouting “We are Hamas,” as protesters did in London, Athens, Paris, and Madrid in 2009.
In the course of the last decade, the Western public sphere has seen two major developments that systematically increased the strength of global jihad: on the one hand the adoption of some of the most vicious jihadi discourse—in particular the new anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism—and on the other, the equally strident attacks, often by non-Muslims, on those who try to identify the Islamic sources of the problem as hate-mongering Islamophobes. The result has been an undreamed-of success for jihadis over the past decade in a cognitive war that Westerners scarcely recognize.
Most Westerners greet the news of a global jihad against the West with derision. The vast asymmetry between Muslim and Western military forces makes any such ambition seem like a bad joke. Thus when Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1998, the Western news media scarcely mentioned it, and few even noticed. And if we outsiders ignored the battlefield jihad, we also failed to note that the jihadis were aware of their disadvantage on the battlefield and had chosen to conduct their major campaign against the West in a very different theater of war.
Cognitive warfare aims to paralyze the will of the enemy to resist attack, to maneuver that enemy into adopting vulnerable positions, and eventually to get him to give up in a conflict. In cognitive warfare, real violence (such as terror attacks) are adjuncts to the mental conflict, and the targets of such warfare are large audiences both among populations at home (recruitment and mobilization) and, still more significantly, among the enemy (paralysis). The advent of television, for example, with its highly emotive power, played a key role in the cognitive war the Vietcong successfully conducted against the United States in Vietnam.
Of course, such a line of action seems almost as unlikely to succeed as the military option. Jihadi Islam embraces values that by the normal standards of the Western public sphere are simply grotesque—misogyny, oppressive theocracy, homophobia, hate-mongering, and genocide. Yet as a collection of civil polities that prize peaceful conditions and positive-sum relations, in which public opinion has a great deal of influence on political decisions, the West is particularly vulnerable to a campaign based on appealing to our commitment to human rights, justice, and peace and against prejudice, racism, and intolerance. If jihadis can convince us—their target population—that by our standards we are in the wrong, that to think ill of them is a form or racism, or Islamophobia, then they can drain us of the will to resist and the awareness that we need to resist something.
One the most important dimensions of their cognitive war is to get infidels, even without being conquered, to behave according to the restrictions of Islam. Among the most important impositions we have seen of this phenomenon—one whose violation immediately removes any protection from harm from the head of the blasphemer—is the absolute prohibition on criticizing Allah or his prophet. Thus, a major battlefield of the cognitive war between jihadis and the West concerns tolerance for criticism of the other. Here, as elsewhere, the jihadis strive for asymmetry: Even as they criticize us virulently, how dare we criticize them?
Normally, the West would have won this fight hands down. Tolerance applies to all, and for freedom of expression and public criticism to exist one must develop a thick skin and renounce honor violence—shedding someone’s blood for the sake of saving face.
Three cemeteries belonging to Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, are tucked away in Manhattan, a visible legacy of New York City’s long-ago Jewish past