Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists
Swept with a wave of moral Schadenfreude, European audiences eagerly devoured the lethal narratives the Palestinians fed their press about an evil Israel. The blood libel worked: For many, Israel was above all a serial murderer of children. In 2007, when I gave a talk in Budapest about Muhammad al Durah, one of the organizers interrupted my presentation to insist that, “Everyone knows that the Israelis kill Palestinian children every day.” The same year, Canadian pro-Palestinian activist Mary Hughes-Thompson, who to this day recalls the importance of what she called seeing Muhammad al Durah “shot and killed before my very eyes,” wrote: “It’s … horrifying to know that Palestinian children are killed every day by bombs and bullets from Israeli occupation forces.” In the cognitive war, the al Durah lethal narrative was a nuclear bomb; while the explosion has died down, we’re still breathing in the radioactive waste.
Western journalists, especially Europeans, made three critical mistakes in their handling of the al Durah episode. First, even as they rejected any narrative supportive of Israel as unreliable “communautarisme,” or partisanship, they embraced any Palestinian lethal narrative no matter how incredible. Second, they represented the Palestinian hostility to Israel as that of a secular, national liberation movement hostile only to Israel rather than an Arab-Muslim jihad in search of honor lost on a global scale. Third, they therefore assumed that by siding with the Palestinians, they would gain their favor. Instead, as the Arab-Muslim street that took root in Europe in the last decade has illustrated, European infidels were every bit the target of jihadi malevolence.
Thus, as European journalists replayed endlessly the images of al Durah and reported every Palestinian claim that the Israelis murdered children, the journalists had no idea that they were waving the flag of jihad in front of their own Muslim immigrant populations, and no idea that they too were the target of jihadi hatred. In 2002, in response to unconscionably irresponsible reports from the European press about a massacre of hundreds if not thousands of innocent Palestinians in Jenin, self-styled progressives poured into the streets in support of the very terrorism that had prompted the Israelis to defend themselves. As Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote at the time:
In Italy there [is] a procession of individuals dressed as suicide bombers who spew vile abuse at Israel, hold up photographs of Israeli leaders on whose foreheads they have drawn the swastika, incite people to hate the Jews.
After all, at this point, the only victims of suicide bombing were Israelis and Americans, both (still) the objects of astonishing European hostility. And yet, in so doing, Europeans both fueled the worst of the intifada and prepared their own paralysis in the face of jihadi threats. Suicide bombings, and the threat of them, have blighted, and will likely continue to, the new century. As a French friend told me in 2003: “The Arabs act as if they have a knife to our throat, and we act as if they did.” And that invisible knife was suicide terror.
Throughout this process, the press played a key role, both by concealing the genocidal incitement of the Palestinians (and other jihadi forces) and by broadcasting every lethal narrative produced by Pallywood. Thus al Durah triggered a wave of violence and vituperation against the Jews in Europe, and the very press that broadcast the false footage fell silent when it came to reporting its real effects. Anyone who had the nerve to denounce this explosion of Muslim anti-Semitism was tarred as a Zionist Islamophobe.
When Charles Enderlin, the reporter for France2, saw the footage his cameraman had sent him, if instead of rushing to broadcast and sharing it freely with his colleagues, he had exercised due diligence, fired Talal for faking the footage, and had run an article on Palestinian incitement via fake “reporting,” the Second Intifada would have had a very different trajectory. When European elites, hit with a wave of anti-Semitic speech and deeds by their Muslim populations in response to al Durah and similar reporting from the intifada, if instead of excusing it as an understandable response to Israeli crimes and concealing its full force from the public, had instead responded by making clear how unacceptable such behavior is in a civil society, the wave of European Islamic aggression might also have had a different career. Instead, the apocalyptic fires of genocidal hatred were stoked, often by people who thought they were advocates for peace.
Lest one think this was merely a problem of European anti-Zionism (coupled with its twin brother, anti-Americanism), consider the emblematic response of the New York Times to the problem of Palestinian incitement. The day after the savage lynching in Ramallah, two key events occurred: The Israelis in retaliation bombed a Palestinian radio station because, according to the IDF, the broadcaster was guilty of the same kind of genocidal incitement that led to the atrocities in Rwanda less than a decade previously. The same day, PATV broadcast a sermon by Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabiya live from Gaza:
The Jews are the Jews. Whether Labor or Likud, the Jews are Jews. They do not have any moderates or any advocates of peace. They are all liars. They must be butchered and must be killed. … It is forbidden to have mercy in your hearts for the Jews in any place and in any land. Make war on them any place that you find yourself. Any place that you meet them, kill them.
New York Times reporter William Orme came to investigate the Israeli claim of incitement as a major contributor to Palestinian violence. After giving ample and unchallenged space to a Palestinian spokesman who insisted, in an allusion to al Durah, that “we have no fabricated pictures, and no fabricated stories,” and that Israelis think anything is incitement, Orme offered this quote as his only example of Palestinian incitement:
Israelis cite as one egregious example a televised sermon that defended the killing of the two soldiers. “Whether Likud or Labor, Jews are Jews,” proclaimed Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya in a live broadcast from a Gaza City mosque the day after the killings.
One could excuse the uninformed reader for sympathizing with the Palestinian claim that the Israelis are hyper-sensitive.
Those aware of the full text might have difficulty imagining how this is not news fit to print. Unfortunately, this censored statement constitutes just one example of a vast industry of hatred and incitement to violence that characterizes the most aggressive forms of apocalyptic jihadi Islam not only in Palestinian circles but the Muslim world over. And Orme’s silence has been the rule, not the exception, in mainstream media coverage of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and global jihad since 2000.
Ultimately, Orme himself must explain his lacuna (which, so far, he has refused to do). I suspect that it has something to do with a widespread sentiment among journalists and intellectuals that if you broadcast such information, you put wind in the sails of the right-wing warmongers. The less said, the better.
Alas, from the perspective of cognitive warfare against an apocalyptic millennial foe, such a silence is wind in the sails of genocidal warmongers. And when joined to a systematic mainstreaming of jihadi lethal narratives into our information system as news, those winds wax ever stronger.
When will we stop losing, and even start winning, a cognitive war we should have won from the beginning? When will we use weaponry we have—like the jihadis’ honor-shame sensitivities—instead of allowing jihadis to bully the West into backing down for fear of provoking them? It’s entirely a matter of imagination and will. This one really is in our hands. And it begins with a prise de conscience. As Stuart Green, the author of Cognitive Warfare and the Role of the Media, remarks, “You can’t win the Battle of Midway if you don’t know you’re in a battle.”
Richard Landes, a professor of history at Boston University, blogs at The Augean Stables. His new book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience treats a variety of apocalyptic movements, including global jihad.
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