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Video: Lessons in the War of Ideas, with Ilan Berman

Ilan Berman

“Multiple conflicts for legitimacy” leave nearly every major country in the Arab-Islamic world “grappling with questions of identity,” Ilan Berman told Jewish Policy Center webinar participants February 22. But pivoting to great power competition with China and Russia from 20 years of counter-insurgency warfare against Islamist movements including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, the United States barely competes in “the war of ideas,” he said.

Islamic extremism of the al-Qaeda variety that hit the Pentagon and brought down New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and led to ISIS’ “Islamic caliphate” over much of Syria and Iraq until its destruction in 2017 by a U.S.-led coalition “is making a comeback,” according to Berman. While many al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists were killed in counter-insurgency campaigns, many made their way to Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

One result has been “a four-fold increase in Islamic extremism” in affected African countries, said Berman, senior vice president for the American Foreign Policy Council. This creates “serious instability” that “is not recognized in Washington.” Since the average age on the continent is only 19 and Africa has a high birth rate, it soon will be the world’s fastest growing region. If individual governments cannot meet the challenge, Islamic extremists will find opportunities, Berman said.

He highlighted other elements of U.S. strategy, including the use of public diplomacy, Washington must improve to counter renewed Islamism:

  • “Our rapid and undignified evacuation from Afghanistan … [which] allowed the Taliban back into power,” he noted. This “created a powerful message of successful, long-term insurgency,” Berman said, giving a map to Islamic-based terrorists all over the world.
  • October 7, 2023 and “the surprising acquisition of power and heft of Hamas” in staging its invasion and massacre of 1,200 people and kidnapping of nearly 250 more in Israel. “How enduring this lesson is” for Islamists elsewhere “depends on Israel’s response,” according to Berman. This is “why it is so important that Israel destroy Hamas.” Since the U.S.- and Israeli-designated terrorist organization is, like many other Sunni terrorist movements, a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the result of the war in the Gaza Strip will influence them all.
  • The “extremely unaccountable news media environment.” In the pre-Internet world, barriers to publication and broadcasting of extremist messages were relatively high. Now “they are really low … and any insurgent can set put a YouTube account.” If he or she is deplatformed, they can simply go elsewhere.” And, “we’re not really paying attention because of China, Russia” and other nation-based threats.

“So, local governments are grappling with the challenge ideologically and politically.” Berman said. A consultant to the CIA, State and Defense departments, he noted that Egypt, for example, has promoted messages from less radical Muslim institutions and scholars to discredit those from al-Qaeda and ISIS. The United Arab Emirates, which like Saudi Arabia after 9/11 recognized the extremist threat to itself, acts “like an angel investor,” paying governments in “the global South” to set up responses to the radicals. Indonesia, a large, geographically and demographically diverse island country, emphasizes a message that “values the nation-state over the caliphate.”

Washington—Supporting Actor

In responding to renewed Islamist threats, “one size doesn’t fit all,” Berman said. This means that though the challenge is crucial for United States, America is not the main character in the drama. The states of the Arab-Islamic world are.

“But we have the power of the purse to shape the character of society … when American values are accompanied by American aid.” Recognizing that “it takes a network to defeat a network,” the United States “can be the amplifier of moderate voices,” he said.

Unfortunately, right now “we are not serious about it.” Though the past 20 years have shown that America has military battlefield “escalation dominance,” it is on the battlefield of ideas that “these extremist movements are so ‘sticky,’” Berman analyzed.

Editor of the 2021 anthology, Lessons in the War of Ideas: Theology, Interpretations of Power in the Muslim World, Berman said that in working with less-the-perfect regimes, Washington must learn to emphasize evolution over revolution, long-term moderation over short-term democracy. Had the Biden administration “almost at the last minute” not dropped its push for early Palestinian elections, for example, Hamas might have end up ruling not only the Gaza Strip but also the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). De-radicalizing Palestinian textbooks, for example, should precede balloting.

Western European countries, by accepting large numbers of economic immigrants from North Africa and the greater Middle East but erecting economic and cultural barriers to assimilation of their European-born children have contributed to radicalization, according to Berman. Now the United States is “seeing that in real time in Chicago and at Harvard University,” he added.

In the Cold War versus the Soviet Union, when many in the United States saw this country as President Reagan did, “a shining city on the hill,” “we had that advantage when the Soviets were a closed society.” But now, many American “feel like we don’t have a story to tell” and that is reflected in “ineffective public diplomacy in the Muslim World.”