Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Final Battle

Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists

Print Email
Related Content

Unholy Anger

One of Obama’s top advisers on Afghanistan reviews two new books on Osama Bin Laden and the U.S. approach to al-Qaida that put Israel at the center of the conflict
Muslim demonstrators at the Danish Embassy on Feb. 3, 2006 in London.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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.

Continue reading: the case of Muhammad al Durah and anti-Semitism via anti-Zionism. Or view as a single page.

1 2 3View as single page
Print Email

Brilliant article.
Should be compulsory reading before viewers turn on their tv sets and watch the news.

George One says:

How do you ensure this artcle gets maximum exposure all over the Westzern democracies?

The case of Al-Durah should be studied in universities. Students should know how the reckless and unprofessional journalistic report could lead to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, how much harm could bring irresponsible journalism. For there is no doubt that this report acted as a catalyst to the followed it intifada and no doubt that nor Mr. Enderlin, nor management of French TV, nor anyone else, who presented this pure speculation as a truth feel any guilt for the tragedies that fell afterwards on thousands of people.

Hazel Armstrong says:

Superb analysis with irrefutable evidence. I shall be circulating this to both those guilty of unthinking acceptance of journalistic (corrupted) ethics and those who require as much information as possible in their defence of Israel.

Magnificent piece of work, Richard. Remembering the old days at the Heyman Centre, CU?

Rebecca says:

While I think the point of the article is very valid and has occasionally been written about, I found the article itself too academic. The points made are an absolute must read and a must be discussed item however it needs to be said in plain English. I think the suggestion of making the incident that led to the Intifada a case study in journalism programs is brilliant and I hope it happens. As with most other historical incidents within the last 40 years that were twisted because of sensationalistic journalism, the events will not be examined, studied, taken apart and dissected until probably 100 years from now, if at all. We repeat history that we do not understand.

This article reminds of the seminal work, The Paranoid in American Politics. Like the paranoids of the 60′s, for this writer, it’s all so clear, all so precise, all so pervasive, the dots all connect….pointing to so little. Al Qaida, to the extent an organization, is pulverized, not triumphant. Sharia has no meaningful role in America and little than claimed in Europe. Muslims play such a preipheral role in American politics, and yet,the threat is grandly presented to ensure speaking fees, book readers,and relevance, but for the rest of us, it all adds up to…so very little. So little. So very little.

J.Mishner says:

Read the sign in the photo this way-
“Europe, is the cancer Islam? Answer:”

jacob arnon says:

“This article reminds of the seminal work, The Paranoid in American Politics.”

Landes isn’t writing about American politics.

You remind me of those supposed pacifists in the 30′s who blamed Jews for Hitler’s belligerence.

geof, sorry to bore you.

you might consider reading Bruce Bawer’s Surrender. the point i’m making is not about al qaeda specifically. they’re just the outside edge of a much larger phenomenon that is, a millennial movement that wants to see globalization as the spread of dar al islam. these are the folks screaming in the streets of capitals around the world everytime they’re “offended” whether by israeli military actions (as reported by the media) or danish cartoons (as purveyed by muslim radicals who faked the three most offensive ones). if you think they have so very little impact, why did yale not print the cartoons in a book on the subject.

if you think that “sharia has no meaningful role in the usa and in europe, then i think you’re not paying attention. people are waking up in england to find themselves in self-proclaimed “sharia zones” and there are whole segments of french suburbs that are no-go zones for public officials (even ambulances).

as for speaking fees, there’s no faster way to be marginalized in the current scene than to speak as i do. i’m thankful that the Tablet has the courage to print this kind of analysis. i’m not expecting the NYT or any center for middle eastern studies in the US or Europe, or the White House – which doesn’t want to mention al Qaeda on the tenth anniversary of 9-11 – to invite me to speak. on the contrary, the dominant voice still is that of those who think minimizing the problem will help resolve it.

what’s clear to me is that the current conditions make all the “right-left” stereotyping not just useless but even counter-productive.

covering your eyes with your hands and saying “no one can see me” is not exactly a mature way of dealing with reality.

I think this article should be offered as Exhibit A to the regular commenters who attack Tablet as a mouthpiece of the radical Israeli and American Left.

I continue to applaud Tablet for publishing perspectives from across the Jewish political and ideological spectrum. The debate engendered is good for am Yisrael, even if the extreme polarization is difficult to swallow.

Kol HaKavod, Tablet.

salem says:

Landes is a liberal? Has to be the most clear thinking in liberal on the planet in regard to the war waged against Europe, Israel, and the US by Islam.

I’ll just say that much of the problem we have in this conflict is our side has a value for human life understanding its preciousness. The other side regards life as disposable and cheap. They use our value for human life against us.

andrew r says:

To single out any tidbit from this article by Landes is a rather pointless exercise. The whole deal is based on a blameless USA and Israel inexplicably targeted by an irrational, fanatical jihad that can be traced back to the Quran. Gone are the various interferences with the Middle East – Playing both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, surgical strikes on Iraq’s water treatment facilities in 1991, the sanctions which denied Iraqis chemotherapy and clean water and the 2003 invasion from which spring atrocities too numerous to relate here. The USA commits military aggression for one reason only – It’s profitable for the narrowest of the narrow uppercrust. And overblown jihad narratives cover up the fact that the non-fanatical, incitement-free, not-genocidal US military is the most destructive force of all, more than anything Hamas or Hezbollah could fathom. Except their people are often on the receiving end of it courtesy of Israel and the American Defense Industry.

andrew r says:

“I’ll just say that much of the problem we have in this conflict is our side has a value for human life understanding its preciousness.”

Selective value of human life value of human life. The US military serves rich Americans; the Israeli military is for the primitive accumulation of land. It could be the case that jihadis have no respect for their life or anyone else’s. However, respecting you and yours and showing utter contempt for anyone else does not mean you respect human life. And that’s what the US and Israeli armed forces have to offer.

andrew r says:

Should be, “selective value of human life does not equal value of human life.” Too bad the keyboard doesn’t have that equals sign with a slash.

Andrew, the US military’s main purpose is to kill people and break things. They accomplish that mission exceptionally well when allowed to go for victory and not restrained.

IMO, we went to war in Kuwait against Iraq to ensure the free flow of oil–our interests. Afghanistan after 9/11 as the excuse to go after Qaeda. Iraq after 9/11 believing they had WMD. Libya to help Europe dependent on Libyan oil. I agreed with 1991, disagreed with the rest as all it seems to do is lead to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise by deposing the thugs we’ve mostly bought off through aid money keeping their crazies on check.

I don’t see Israel as expansionist. They don’t have enough people to hold the land ensuring security. Arabs over 3 decades have brought about not just moral equivalence between Israel and Arabs, but Arab superiority/sympathy. They’ll do anything to win. When facing an enemy like this you end up fighting as they do, you’re forced to.

For those of us supporting Israel’s right to peacefuly exist there’s concern as to where things are headed.

We are giving Islam a free ride under the pretext of freedom of religion. In Islam a woman is a slave of a man. Would you allow freedom for any religion that practices human sacrifices? So, there is “no” religious freedom for human sacrifices but “yes” religious freedom for slavery and mistreatment? Is that the case?

andrew r. your list of offenses that we’ve committed against muslims is laughable in comparison with a) what they’ve done to infidels, and b) what they’ve done to each other. if you think that 9-11 and plans to conquer the world and submit it to sharia are motivated by the “wrong” we’ve done to them, you are living in a masochistic omnipotent fantasy in which it’s all our fault and if only we were better we could fix everything.

i don’t think we’re faultless, or that israel is faultless. i just think that the kind of calculus you use fails to understand what motivates this particular foe. it may be comforting to you to think that somehow you can appease them, but it’s a grave mistake. i don’t think that dismissing how they read the qur’an and crediting their complaints about us is going to give you a better understanding of what motivates them, nor will policy derived from that bring good results. on the contrary, it’ll blow up in our faces.

similarly those who think that the settlements are what really bothers the palestinians and all israel has to do is withdraw to the green line and they’ll be satisfied are making a fundamental error. act on it, and you’ll make things worse (as did oslo).

All they want is ‘right of return’ voting Israel out of existence.

The problem with all such essays (I’ve spent two days following all the links on this piece, including the Stuart Green paper on Cognitive Warfare, which touches on Soviet propaganda efforts – very interesting), is that they’re long on delivery and short on remedy. The final paragraph he cites seems to be saying that we should adopt jihadi tactics against them (honor-shame sensitivities), but against whom? Who are the jihadis? Can we really say that all Arabs/Muslims are jihadists, or even a majority of them? Can’t a case be made that by engaging the jihadis, and not other elements of Arab societies, we’re reinforcing the jihadist position relative to other factions?

But all this is moot anyway, because Western civilization is not going to regress to honor-shame dynamics just to fight militant Islam. We have our own cultural propaganda efforts – Hollywood, for one – the only problem is that these are not focused; they reflect our lives and values, but are not aimed specifically at undermining jihadism. Stuart Green focuses on Soviet disinformation actions in the West, how 85% of the intelligence budget actually went to such activities. First, before we model ourselves according to the Soviet Union, whose own citizens did not believe it’s propaganda, perhaps we should first see some research demonstrating effectiveness of Soviet disinformation efforts. Second, assuming these efforts were successful, why is it that we can’t replicate such efforts? Has the knowledge been lost to do this? Is there a lack of generation commitment on the part of leadership? Why aren’t we practicing information operations in peacetime?

Landes seems to think that the only way to defeat jihadist infiltration is for a critical mass of people to “awaken” and stand guard. But how many people do you know that want to engage in conflict on a daily basis? It’s just not feasible, in my opinion. We would be much better off directly implementing disinformation efforts within Arab societies.

andrew r says:

“andrew r. your list of offenses that we’ve committed against muslims is laughable in comparison with a) what they’ve done to infidels, and b) what they’ve done to each other.”

Funny you should mention that. I was going to say terrorism isn’t a big deal compared to what Christians have done to each other during WWI and II and the 90′s Balkan wars. Well, not really, but doesn’t it sound just as facile switching a and b around?

andrew r.: the difference is that the west learned slowly and painfully from those wars. that’s where the UN – a millennial pipe dream in the 19th century – comes from. how successful a meme do you think “war is not the answer” is in the muslim world today or yesterday? this is not to say that we’re successful in avoiding war (altho the EU is unthinkable without that attitude), nor that the UN is a successful body (my sense is that it’s now taken over by demopaths and in many ways promoting war), but these are major shifts.

the facile switching, i’m afraid is yours. you seem hell-bent on “self-”criticizing no matter what. democracy, and its remarkably hostile attitude towards war (“the sport of kings”) is actually an astonishing accomplishment, world-historical in its implications. don’t sell it short.

self-criticism is a key dimension of democratic success. don’t turn it into a pathology. (for more on these issues see:

victor: “Who are the jihadis? Can we really say that all Arabs/Muslims are jihadists, or even a majority of them? Can’t a case be made that by engaging the jihadis, and not other elements of Arab societies, we’re reinforcing the jihadist position relative to other factions?”

i’m using jihadi here to designate anyone who shares the activist apocalyptic dream of spreading sharia to the entire world. large numbers of muslims (my guess is a majority) are millennial – i.e. they want to see the world submitted to sharia, but not necessarily now or violently. apocalyptic means a sense of urgency, *now* is the time. the most violent version (what most call jihadis) are “active cataclysmic apocalyptic”, who think that only great violence will bring about the millennial world and they are its agents.

there are two further issues. 1) those who are less violent, but share the millennial dream and its apocalyptic hopes (e.g., some Salafis). we in the west like to think they’re separate, but they’re only different in the degree to which their sense of urgency leads them to violence. some European Muslims who want to impose sharia there are against violence not on principle but because a) it’s too soon, they’re still a minority; and b) the fruit will be easier to pick in a generation when the demographics will have shifted. they are demopaths:

2) a much larger circle of muslims who will (sincerely) denounce al qaeda, nonetheless find in something like 9-11 a great swell of pride and a sense of honor restored. this reaction can occur even in secular muslims and even, non-muslims, eg, christian lebanese, anti-american europeans. even tho a victory of millennial islam would be disastrous for these folks, they can’t help but be excited. Lee Smith’s Strong Horse nails the dynamic. if we don’t resist both the violent jihadis and their demopathic allies, the false “moderates,” we feed their strong horse… every day.

victor, given the limitations here (2000 characters) i’ll respond to the rest of your comments at my blog:

Victor, you are wrong saying that citizens of the Soviet Union did not believe soviet propaganda. It was economy and not political or ideological reasons that led the downfall of USSR. Second, the biggest problem are not “jihadists” but western “intellectuals” who put the freedom of perceived oppression above human life and dignity on their scale of moral values.

andrew r says:

rlandes – When Gandhi was asked about Western civilization, he quipped it would be a good idea. Terminating the series of aggressive acts against Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, anywhere else I’m forgetting, must be done unconditionally without regard to what happens to us, which, in all likelihood, will be nothing. We are in the wrong here.

andrew r.: and if you’re wrong about “in all likelihood”? do you care? or is being squeaky clean morally your overriding concern, regardless of how dangerous.

andrew r says:

You’re not talking to someone who believes in the slightest chance anything the US military does overseas keeps us safe. A general rule of overseas invasions is that they are for conquest, not defense. The USA was an imperialist entity before 9-11 and the perpetrators were created by its misadventures during the cold war.

We threw squeaky clean out the window some time ago. The USA may yet be the first serial killer to stop killing and go scot-free even though its identity is publicly known.

Martin Knutsen says:

Oh dear, you just threw your credibility out the window by recommending Bruce Bawer and his Eurabia-claptrap. Have you considered the point that the howling anti-islamists are a part of the problem?

As for propaganda, it goes both ways. When the Israeli press insists on calling those killed on the Marmara for terrorists it becomes hard to listen to those same voices decrying palestinian propaganda.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Richard Landes, a professor of history at Boston University, had better written about his own U.S. of A. Reading this as a European, I can only grin. Old news, disinformation, generalizations about a great continent with 832,211,436 inhabitants in 57 states. Sure.

leverne hatcher says:



Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Final Battle

Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists