Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

How to Win a War of Ideas

Created: 09 January, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read

Judging from the comments on my most recent post, a non-trivial number of IVN Facebook followers believe that the United States should lead the way in eradicating Islam from the earth—preferably with nuclear weapons. Whatever the merits of such a proposal may be, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s just not going to happen. We are not going to commit the crimes of 200 Hitlers and incinerate a fourth of the world’s population in a single afternoon. Practical considerations and (one would hope) moral qualms will get in the way.

Barring such a cataclysmic response, we must acknowledge that the “War on Terror” is a war of ideas that cannot be won with military force. Wars of ideas are won with persuasion. This does not mean (as it is often reduced to in political discourse) that we should persuade the terrorists to stop bombing us. That’s just silly. Radical Islamicists constitute a small percentage of the Islamic world, and they are trying to convince the rest of that world to adopt their ideas. It is the billion or so Muslims who are not terrorists that we have to win over. To do this, we must persuade them that we have better ideas than radical Islamicism.

This means is that we are involved in an ideological contest with radical political Islam. We have to try to understand what this means. The big idea that we bring to the contest is the set of beliefs about human liberty, individual rights, and fundamental equality that we group together and call “the Enlightenment.” It is, I believe, a very good idea, but that does not mean it is guaranteed to win. We still have to present the case. There are a lot of ways to do this, none of which involve bombing stuff.

It does involve, however, living by our ideas, even when doing so is hard. One of the persistent problems of the Enlightenment has been the tendency of its most vocal advocates to try to keep it in the family. This is how we got the unfathomable hypocrisy of a group of slave owners coming together to create a nation dedicated to the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” (women, not so much).

We are guilty of a similar hypocrisy when we abandon our Constitutional protections of due process in order to engage in torture, or when we conduct war with drone missions that rack up high rates of “collateral damage” (dead and injured people who have nothing to do with terrorism) without putting a single American life at risk. Actions like these send a fairly easy-to-understand set of messages to the very audience we are supposed to be trying to persuade. It tells them that our big idea is compatible with the theory that our lives are more important than theirs.

As Professor Jacob Levy pointed out after the bombings, there is a related (but by no means as glaring) hypocrisy in the French law banning face coverings, which was primarily aimed at Muslims. “What this ends up saying, Levy argues, is “‘you have to accept that editorial cartoons blaspheming Mohammad will be published. But if you wish to express your religious identity in public by women covering their faces, that is too offensive to French civic identity. . . and so we will prohibit that act of expression.” This pretty much keeps with the theme: "we have the right not to be offended, but you don't."

These sorts of double standards are simply not good ways to persuade the millions of Muslims who are not terrorists that the values of the Enlightenment are superior to the values of radical Islam. The message that it communicates is that the “big idea” of Western Civilization—the Enlightenment—is not capable of handling hard questions. When things really get tough, we have to ditch this idea and go with brute force instead.

This is why nearly everything thing that radical Islamicists have done since 2001 has been designed to goad Western nations into abandoning the core values of the Enlightenment. They want us to be brutal, to devalue human life, and to deny human rights. They are trying to convince us that we have to be barbaric in order to defeat the barbarians (a role that they are only too happy to play). And if we do this--if we take the bait and become the thing we are fighting against--we must concede the point that barbarism is a better idea than Enlightenment.

And conceding the other guy's main point is not a good way to win a contest of ideas.