Saturday, November 10

Speaking your truth vs fighting the ideas of others

My truck with Robert Satloff's How to Win The War Of Ideas is that he seems to assume that democracy is so strong around the world, and so well understood all around the world, that America can focus on supporting 'moderate' Muslims, as the way of winning the war of ideas with 'extremist' Muslims.

Satloff does a good job of outlining US government failures to help moderate Muslims argue effectively with extremist Muslims. And he is clearly speaking from the viewpoint of strategic communication -- a necessary component of US military-based operations in the war on terror.

However, as I indicated in a post on strategic communication, a big part of building effective argument is controlling the ground of discussion. In other words:

Do you want to invest your resources in helping moderate Muslims argue matters of religious doctrine? Or do you want to invest in teaching democracy and rule by law?

I suppose Muslims who are arguing with the extremists would say that both approaches meet at the same place. I'm just not sure this convergence works out at the resource allocation level. And I am not sure that Muslims should be the specific focus of any new broad-based US communications effort with developing-world peoples.

Even cursory attention to this week's headlines from Georgia and Burma reminds that many peoples around the world, not just extremist Muslims, have only the most tenuous grasp of democracy and its conceptual underpinnings.

As to the grasp that moderate Muslims have on democracy-- a Pakistani Talking Head pointed out last week that Musharraf's crackdown, which was clearly supported by the 'moderate' junta he leads, was alienating the very Pakistanis who support liberal democracy and the war on the terror.

And I am not entirely convinced that there are extreme and moderate forms of Islam. I think it can be argued that there are just different views among followers regarding how much Islam is to rule their life and society.

Perhaps the same observation applies to other religions as well. I won't labor the point but I mention it because I'm not sure it is the responsibility of the United States government to help Muslims take a more moderate approach to practicing their religion.

I am sure, however, that repressive forms of government of all kinds arise wherever democracy and its conceptual basis are nonexistent or very poorly understood. So I should think that teaching democracy would be where the US government should concentrate the bulk of communication resources.

This doesn't mean that Satloff's advice should be ignored in all quarters, particularly among NGOs dedicated to arguing against Muslim extremism. However, the advice overlooks the ground rules of argument itself:

If you're trying to argue people away from a set of ideas, you first need to clearly establish the other shore. This on the time-tested theory that it's hard to ask people to wade across rapids to a shore they can't see.

In like manner if you want people to give up, say, Sharia as the law governing society, you have to create a clear conceptual map of the alternative you're proposing. The map can't be made by pointing to Western prosperity and saying, "See, we're free." It's based on the abstract argument that all humans have rights regardless of their differences.

Making that argument to someone who's not familiar with it takes brain sweat. It takes great familiarity with the map. It takes skill at logic. And it takes creativity and considerable knowledge to develop analogies and metaphors that are already very familiar to those you're trying to persuade.

So maybe, just maybe, we here in America should rebuild our own dilapidated intellectual defenses of democracy before trying to help Muslims modernize their ideas of the best way to govern society.

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