Are jihadis “losers”?

George Weigel

When I first visited Israel in 1988, my friend Professor Menahem Milson, a distinguished Arabist at Hebrew University who was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s military aide during Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, told me that “you have to meet my friend, Colonel Yigal Carmon.” Carmon worked in the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv; I had a very busy schedule in Jerusalem and around Galilee; so I tried to decline. Menahem insisted and I finally agreed to spend a morning in Tel Aviv. It was one of the most fruitful surrenders of my life.

It turned out that Yigal was the advisor on counter-terrorism to the Israeli Prime Minister, and when I went to his office in what I remember as the basement of the Ministry of Defense, he was handling three telephones simultaneously; on each of them, he made life-and-death decisions, daily, sometimes even hourly, about reported terrorist plots: Was the report reliable? What could be done about the threat? Who was to be put in harm’s way? We talked for over an hour, during which the phones interrupted us several times. I left deeply impressed by his remarkable calm, his fluent Arabic (a trait he shared with Milson), and the extraordinary nature of his job, to which, in that pre-9/11 world, there was no real analogue, save perhaps in an MI-5 office dealing with Northern Ireland.

Two years later, I was in town for what turned out to be the last meeting of the Jerusalem Committee, an international advisory panel to Mayor Teddy Kollek. Our meetings ended and, as Yigal had a rare day off, he invited me to go with him to Masada, Herod the Great’s massive fortress.

It was September 1, 1990, and tourists had fled Israel in droves, Saddam Hussein having helped himself to Kuwait a month previously. When we got to Masada, the parking lot was empty, save for a bus carrying tourists from American evangelicaldom. We rode up the funicular to the top of the great plateau together and then went our separate ways. Yigal, unfamiliar with the ways of some goys, asked me in a puzzled voice, “What are they doing here? Everyone else has left.” I explained that these good folk probably thought that, with war imminent, they’d lucked into a front-row seat at the Battle of Armageddon. So they were staying put.

Over some three decades of friendship and collaboration, I’ve come to think of Yigal Carmon as the contemporary reincarnation of an ancient Stoic. He is completely tone-deaf religiously: not hostile to religious belief, perhaps even admiring it in others, but incapable of it himself. Yet he is a man of the utmost moral seriousness, determined to see things as they are and to live in an ethically rigorous way, according to the norms of justice we can know by reason. So in a world increasingly dominated by irrationalism, he is very much worth listening to.

Since 1998, Yigal has been the driving force behind MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose self-defined goal is to “bridge the language gap between the Middle East and the West” by providing translations of materials originally appearing in the Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Pashto, Turkish, and Russian media into English, French, Polish, Japanese, Spanish, and Hebrew. In a recent MEMRI Daily Brief, Yigal, taking exception to one of President Trump’s bombastic characterizations of terrorists, wrote that “the jihadis who perpetrate these horrific crimes are neither losers nor nihilists….these perpetrators, by the standards of their own belief, are virtuous people…” That means that the only long-term answer to the bloody borders between “Islam and the rest” – borders than now reach deeply into Western societies – is for Islam to undertake a far-reaching internal reform, which purifies the faith and leads Islam to develop, from within its own resources, a case for religious tolerance and political pluralism: “a Muslim aggiornamento…along the lines of the reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII.”

Thus informed by both his Stoic ethic and his long experience in trying to thwart terrorist violence while helping the West understand it, my friend Yigal Carmon has come to precisely the same conclusion as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – Islam must develop and propagate an Islamic case against terrorist violence. It won’t be easy. But it must be done.

COMING UP: The cooler Cold War

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The claim that “the Cold War is over” and that the West needs a “new paradigm” for relations with Russia has become an antiphon in some conservative political circles – not least conservative Christian circles. The call for serious and creative thinking about Russia is welcome and sensible. The claim that the Cold War is over is not, because Vladimir Putin never got that memo. Ignoring that reality means danger in devising any new paradigm.

Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy with a post-modern difference, for the veteran KGB man is far more clever and deft than the reptilian characters who preceded him (think Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko). Yes, he wants to reverse history’s verdict in 1989 (when the Soviet external empire liberated itself) and 1991 (when the USSR disintegrated). But he knows he can’t compete with the West as the old Bolsheviks tried to do when they promoted communism as a humane alternative to liberal democracy. And he knows that, in the digital age, information – including fake “information” – is power.

So while the Putin regime is not averse to brutality when it can get away with it (e.g., murdering domestic political opponents like Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov), its international tactics in this new, cooler Cold War are more discreet. Those tactics include polluting the global information space with disinformation through overt instruments like the television network, Russia Today, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kremlin propagandists. But the even more insidious (and far larger) Russian attack on the global information eco-system comes through various cyber-warfare tools. Thus the Putin regime deploys an army of internet trolls who, supplemented by bots, generate a vast amount of traffic on Facebook and Twitter, spreading lies and propaganda across the globe.

Very few people in the West grasp the reality, much less the magnitude, of this threat to what might be called “cognitive security:” the capacity of Western populations to see things as they are, including things going on in our own societies. In today’s social media world, virality and frequency – how much does your stuff get around and how often is it repeated – can easily get confused with veracity (i.e., truth), especially among millennials whose information-space is social media.

In this campaign, Putin & Co. have adapted a method they’ve long used for domestic political control – polluting the information environment – for an international audience. It’s not the same old same old, however, for the Russian strategic approach has changed. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet propaganda promoted the glories of the Russian Revolution and the emerging workers’ state – and did so with considerable success because of the gullibility (and worse) of Western intellectuals and journalists. Today’s Russian propaganda isn’t aimed at promoting Russia, though; its purpose is to undermine and demoralize us, destabilizing Western societies by throwing election results into question, creating suspicions about Western intelligence services, and generally mucking things up.

Further, Putin & Co. have abandoned ideological chastity, being rather wanton about the political company they keep. They’ve supported far-right groups in Europe (including France’s Marine Le Pen) as well as more traditional far-left allies. The ideas promoted by the political parties and movements the Russians support are entirely secondary to Russian calculations about how much disruption within and among Western states those parties and movements can cause.

Putin’s cynical pose as a defender of traditional Christian values and persecuted Christians in the Middle East is part and parcel of this new, cooler Cold War attack on the cognitive security of the West– and too many Christian conservatives have swallowed that noxious bait. Then there is the current Vatican Ostpolitik: Russian Orthodox Church leaders have been prominent actors in Putin’s war of propaganda and disinformation, yet the ecumenical efforts of the Holy See seem premised on the wish that these churchmen are not what they manifestly are – agents of Russian state power.

The exhaustion of Western political culture and the devolution of ground-level politics in the North Atlantic world into a shouting match between the forces of political correctness and the forces of a new “populism” make us singularly vulnerable to this cooler Cold War. That this vulnerability has emerged a mere twenty-five years after the communist crack-up is something else to ponder in this summer of our discontent.

Featured image by Bohumil Petrik | CNA