Tips for understanding the mind war

muslimFor journalists -- or anyone for that matter -- looking to understand the conflict in the Middle East between the West and the Islamic fundamentalism, take a look at this book review in Sunday's Washington Post titled "The War for Muslim Minds," and then consider picking up one or more of these books. The review by the RAND Corporation's Bruce Hoffman encompasses three recent books on the minds of Muslims. The heaviest of the three, Fawaz A. Gerges's The Far Enemy, moves along the theory on "why Jihad went global." Khaled Abou El Fadl's Wrestling Islam From the Extremists deals with the more well-known theory that Islam has been hijacked by highly charismatic characters, while Fred Halliday's 100 Myths About the Middle East seems to be a quick guide worthy of a Christmast-time airplane ride (it's also only about $10). I should note that I have not read any of these books, but that is no the point of this post.

While masterfully quoting Sun Tzu, Hoffman underscores the point I've been trying to make about journalists, only pointing towards the United States' counterterrorism strategy:

Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America's counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a "kill or capture" approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America's targets -- be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq -- have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces -- not toward understanding the enemy we now face.

This is a monumental failing because al Qaeda's ability to continue this struggle is predicated on its capacity to attract new recruits and replenish its resources. The success of U.S. strategy will therefore ultimately depend on Washington's ability to counter al Qaeda's ideological appeal -- and thereby break the cycle of recruitment and regeneration. To do so, we first need to better understand the origins of the al Qaeda movement, the animosity and arguments that underpin it and indeed the region of the world from which its struggle emanated and upon which its gaze still hungrily rests. Each of the three books reviewed here provides a good start in this essential, though lamentably belated, process.

"In my conversations with former jihadis, one of the critical lessons I have learned is that personalities, not ideas or organizations, are the drivers behind the movement," writes Gerges in his book, implicitly removing the importance of religion in this international conflict.

Why is this important to the average journalist? Most of us are not in the Middle East covering elections and suicide bombings.

Here's why: the Post also on Sunday carried an article title "Muslim Leader Forges Interfaith Accord" by Fredrick Kunkle of a "popular Imam," Yahya Hendi, who is supposedly boosting Islam throughout Maryland and beyond.

It's a fairly straightforward middle-of-the-local-section religion story except for the fact that he's a cologne-splashing Imam who is convinced that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are more similar than different. Fair enough character, but any reporter digging past the same-day feature story written by Kunkle must pitch some serious questions at Hendi who believes he is the Arabic version of John the Baptist. And to do that one must have at least a primer in what Muslims today believe and it is about as far away from monolithic as you can get.

Then there is the international story of Muslims flocking to the polls in Iraq and the convening of Afghanistan's first parliament in more than 30 years. What story is more important these days?

These historical moments will receive their due treatment in lengthy magazine pieces followed by thick books, but for the journalist grinding out daily news stories on these dramatic events -- whether for the metro section or from the Green Zone -- a background in the minds of the Muslims will be crucial for accurately understanding the story.

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