Losing the ‘war on terror’

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton let slip last week that the Obama administration has finally abandoned the phrase “war on terror.” Its absence had been noted by commentators. There was no directive, Clinton said, “it’s just not being used.”

It may seem a trivial thing, but the change in rhetoric marks a significant turning point in the ideological contest with radical Islam. That is because the war on terror has always been a conflict more rhetorical than real. There is, of course, a very real, very bloody military component in the struggle against extremist forces in the Muslim world, though one can argue whether the U.S. and allied engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond are an integral part of that struggle, a distraction from it or, worse, evidence of its subversion and failure. But to the extent that the war on terror has been posited, from the start, as a war of ideology -- a clash of civilizations -- it is a rhetorical war, one fought more constructively with words and ideas than with guns and bombs.

The truth is that the phrase “war on terror” has always been problematic, not just because “terror,” “terrorism” and “terrorist” are wastebasket terms that often convey as much about the person using them as they do about the events or people being described, but because this was never meant to be a war against terrorism per se. If it were, it would have involved the Basque separatists in Spain, the Hindu/Marxist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Maoist rebels in eastern India, Israeli ultranationalists, the Kurdish PKK, remnants of the Irish Republican Army and the Sikh separatist movements, and so on.

Rather, the war on terror, as conceived of by the Bush administration, was targeted at a particular brand of terrorism -- that employed exclusively by Islamic entities. Which is why the enemy in this ideological conflict was gradually and systematically expanded to include not just the people who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and the organizations that supported them, but an ever-widening conspiracy of disparate groups, such as Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the clerical regime in Iran, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Kashmiri militants, the Taliban and any other organization that declared itself Muslim and employed terrorism as a tactic.

According to the master narrative of the war on terror, these were a monolithic enemy with a common agenda and a shared ideology. Never mind that many of these groups consider one another to be a graver threat than they consider America, that they have vastly different and sometimes irreconcilable political yearnings and religious beliefs, and that, until the war on terror, many had never thought of the United States as an enemy. Give this imaginary monolith a made-up name -- say, “Islamofascism” -- and an easily recognizable enemy is created, one that exists not so much as a force to be defeated but as an idea to be opposed, one whose chief attribute appears to be that “they” are not “us.”

By lumping together the disparate forces, movements, armies, ideas and grievances of the greater Muslim world, from Morocco to Malaysia; by placing them in a single category (“enemy”), assigning them a single identity (“terrorist”); and by countering them with a single strategy (war), the Bush administration seemed to be making a blatant statement that the war on terror was, in fact, “a war against Islam.”

That is certainly how the conflict has been viewed by a majority in four major Muslim countries -- Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia -- in a poll in 2007. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believe that the purpose of the war on terror is to “spread Christianity in the region” of the Middle East.

Indeed, if the war on terror was meant to be an ideological battle against groups such as Al Qaeda for the hearts and minds of Muslims, the consensus around the globe seems to be that the battle has been lost.

A September 2008 BBC World Service survey of 23 countries, including Russia, Australia, Pakistan, Turkey, France, Germany, Britain, the U.S., China and Mexico, found that almost 60% of all respondents said the war on terror has either had no effect or that it has made Al Qaeda stronger. Forty-seven percent said they think that neither side was winning; 56% of Americans have that view.

It is time not just to abandon the phrase “war on terror” but to admit that the ideological struggle against radical Islam could never be won militarily. The battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims will take place not in the streets of Baghdad or in the mountains of Afghanistan but in the suburbs of Paris, the slums of East London and the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and New York.

In the end, the most effective weapon in countering the appeal of groups such as Al Qaeda may be the words we use.

Reza Aslan is the author of “How To Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.”