I was recently invited to speak to the 19th Economic Forum that was held in Krynica, Poland on Sept. 9-12. The topic was “Lessons of the Cold War for the War on Terror”.
A summary of the points that I discussed is below: It is vital to realize that if some strategies or tactics succeeded in the cold war, this does not necessarily mean that they will succeed in dealing with radical Islam (A key that opened one room cannot necessarily open another). This is partially due to the difference in cultural and ideological factors between the two cases. Special strategies need to be created to deal with radical Islam. The main differences between communism and Islamism must be understood, as this affects the way we deal with the latter. Communism is an economically-based model while Islamic radicalism is a religiously-based one.
In economic models it is much easier to prove something wrong by simply showing that it failed to improve people’s living conditions. It is also much easier to decrease people’s enthusiasm toward it, as their relationship to the model is more or less processed at the higher cortical brain centers (responsible for critical thinking) rather than the subconscious, or emotional, level. In addition, in economically–based models the followers of the model — unlike jihadists — want to live.
On the contrary, it is relatively difficult to prove to its followers that the religiously-based model of radical Islam is wrong, as its hopes are not necessarily on earth.
For example, it is hard to convince a jihadist that he will not find the “72 virgins in Paradise” if he dies a martyr. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to decrease people’s enthusiasm toward the religious-based model as opposed to the economically-based one, as the former is usually processed at the subconscious rather than the higher cortical level of the brain.
To clarify this point, it is possible to convince a smoker logically that smoking is “harmful,” as the processing of data occurs at the higher cortical levels; and yet the same person might still “love” and enjoy smoking, as the features of love (or hate) are processed in the emotional parts of the brain. The same applies to the Islamists: it might be possible to convince them logically that their model is ineffective, yet they may still “love” it and continue in the same path of violence.
In addition, the opponent in the economically-based models may develop military power, but at the end — unlike the jihadists — it is not in the opponent’s interest to destroy the others and die as a result of this. Dealing with enemies such as the jihadists, who are willing to die (as martyrs) just to destroy their opponent, makes it mandatory to develop different strategies to deal with them than those strategies that were previously used to defeat communism. When we think about suggesting solutions to the problem of radical Islam, we need to consider the following lessons from the Cold War:
(1) It is important to be able to negotiate from a position of power. The opponent must feel defeated, either militarily or economically, before it will accept change.
(2) It is important to find and work with reasonable and progressive leaders of the opposition. For example, working with Mikhail Gorbachev was crucial in making changes to communism. The same principle applies to the Islamic world.
(3) Ideological defeat of the enemy can sometimes be more important than military confrontation. The U.S. won the Cold War without war or military confrontation with the communists. The defeat occurred predominantly at the ideological, psychological, and economical levels. The media played an essential role in this war. These principles can also be applied to radical Islam; however, unlike in the case of the Cold War, military confrontation with the jihadists is sometimes a necessity and should not be ignored.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." He was a former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) and currently he is a reformer of Islam. To know more about Hamid please visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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