Understanding Islamic Culture Vital in Dealing With Its Problems
Wednesday, September 2, 2009 1:59 PM - Tawfik Hamid
In an Op-Ed published Aug. 27 in the New York Times, Thom Shanker mentioned that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has written a intense critique of government efforts at “strategic communication” with the Muslim world. The critique comes as the United States is widely believed to be losing ground in the war of ideas against extremist Islamist ideology.
The issue is particularly relevant as the Obama administration orders fresh efforts to counter militant propaganda, part of its broader strategy to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Mullen wrote in the critique, to be published by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.
Members of Congress also have also expressed concern about the government’s programs for strategic communication, public diplomacy, and public affairs. Both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have raised questions about the Pentagon’s programs for strategic communication — and about how money is spent on them.
Understanding Islamic culture and types of Muslims is vital to develop effective strategic communication approaches.
A simplistic visual analysis of Islamic culture can be illustrated using five concentric circles that represent categories.
The outer circle consists of "cultural Muslims," who follow their religion in a somewhat superficial manner. They consider their religion a part of their culture, but do not necessarily read much about their faith or practice their religion actively. Islam simply forms a framework identity for the social activities they engage in or identify with.
The second circle is occupied by "ritual Muslims" who mainly practice the five pillars of Islam and are against violent edicts of Shariah laws (such as stoning adulteries and killing apostates).
The third circle represents "theological Muslims," who study in greater depth Islamic texts and are interested in implementing Shariah law to replace the secular law of the land. This group can represent major threat to values of liberty and the stability of the free world once their percentage exceeds certain threshold in the society.
The fourth circle represents "radical Muslims" who accept and promote using force to subjugate others to their beliefs.
The final and innermost smallest circle represents terrorists, who represent only a very small fraction of Islamic society but who are ready to sacrifice their lives to attack others and have the potential to do major harm.
Our ultimate goal must be to transition terrorists through the various stages, or circles on the bull’s eye, so that they leave the center and reside in the circles closer to the periphery. In addition, we must prevent the transition of individuals from outer circles towards the center.
This suffocation type strategy of the most inner circle is important to achieve a viable long term solution.
Based on the former analysis we need to tailor our strategic communications to suit each group as follows:
Cultural Muslims: Simple logic and working with this group to promote common values of humanity can work effectively to win hearts and minds of this group.
Ritual Muslims: Showing compassion, respect of word, and giving care is extremely effective tool to win this group to our side against the extremists.
The state department can play an important role in strategic communications with these two groups.
Theological Muslims: Respectful critique of the violent edicts of Shariah law is important to deal with this group as on one hand ignoring such violent aspects will only allow the growth of violent and radical believes in the society and, on the other hand, disrespectful critique create irrational emotional response (such as anger) rather than a sane rational constructive response. The government should not be directly involved in this form of critique. Other organizations or groups can contribute to this part of the strategic communications.
Radical Muslims: Tactics to create a state of psychological defeat are vital to weaken this group as traditional diplomatic approaches are interpreted by them as weakness and thus aggravate the problem of Islamism. U.S. Intelligence agencies can play major role in this part.
Terrorists: One of the crucial ways to deal with this group is to prove to them that their acts of terror or suicide bombing bring the opposite of what they want to achieve. This can create strong deterring message that can weaken them psychologically and makes many of them think twice before launching an attack.
Parameters to characterize each of the above groups (or Muslim categories) are needed to be able to:
Understand the structure of different Islamic societies
Measure the degree of radicalization within Muslim communities
Evaluate the effect of anti-radicalization measures used by governments to solve the problem of radical Islam. The more we shift toward center and away from the periphery, the less effective our measures to weaken Islamic Radicalism are, and vice versa.
Dealing with Islamism phenomenon without addressing the above mentioned Muslim categories is a primitive approach that does not allow us to deal with the problem effectively.
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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