Walid Phares is a Lebanese-American historian who has just released his sixth book, The War of Ideas: Jihadism versus Democracy. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and a visiting fellow with the European Foundation for Democracies in Brussels.
WS: In your new book, you say the war on terror is actually a war of ideas. Why do you think many in the West are slow to recognize this?
Walid Phares: At first, the West and other democracies didn't even realize they were at war with the jihadis or that the latter had declared war against them decades ago. Western intellectual elites have ignored the threat and portrayed the ideology as a form of protest against colonialism and western foreign policies, while in reality it was and remains jihadism, a doctrine calling for a new imperialism and the re-establishment of an old empire, the Caliphate.
If this is a war of ideas, do militaries have any role to play?
Walid Phares: Militaries have a responsibility when military and security situations occur. They fight the hardware dimension of the war on terror. The NGOs, human rights activists, students, women, journalists, intellectuals, artists, and civil society in general--the ones who participate in the war of ideas--are the software dimension of it.
Defense has to do with countering the terrorist threat until civil societies can defeat the fascist ideologies in their midst. During the Cold War, NATO defended the West until the forces of change acted from inside the Soviet Union. In this war on terror, the West has gathered military resources around the world and within its countries, but little was achieved in terms of the war of ideas, particularly investing in intellectual resistance and reaching out to the forces of change inside the societies where the battlefields of ideas are decisive
There's a section in your book where you say that the democracies are in real danger of losing this war. In what ways do you think we're losing?
Walid Phares: Winning the war is to be able to contain the jihadi terror forces (regimes and organizations) until the counter-jihadi forces rise and win their war of ideas against the totalitarians, authoritarians and fascists. Losing the war of ideas is when . . . the West is not able either to identify the ideological threat or to extend support to the forces of change inside the Arab and Muslim world. . . . [In] my book, I argue that democracies have to win this war of ideas from within; that is, making sure the public is educated and informed and thus engaged in shaping policies. Then, as the West regains consciousness of the problem, it should help the civil societies in the greater Middle East to counter the jihadi ideologies, establish an alternative set of values and, eventually, in one generation, reverse the influence of the jihadis to a minimal size. . . .
The West is losing as long as it is not advancing forward in the war of ideas. It has all the resources to achieve success, but the pressure groups, mostly funded by oil-producing regimes from the region, have penetrated its educational system, some of its media, and are delaying the rise of awareness from within.
What is Canada's role in the fight for democracy?
Walid Phares: . . . Unfortunately the jihadis didn't spare Canada from their warpath. Their attitude is not shaped by Canada's foreign policy but by what Canada's political culture and identity are: antithesis of jihadism. Hence, Canada was and continues to be targeted by jihadi terror cells because of radical ideologies, not only generating overseas, but also (unfortunately) from within. The so-called second generation al Qaeda or "Mutant Jihad" have shown their face in the multiple arrests made over the past year and before. But Canada as a civil society can muster energies to educate itself and also support the role of rising secular, democratic and counter-jihadi intellectuals and groups in their quest to reform and engage in a battle of ideas. In this regard, Canada will play an important role in the years to come.
What role do states such as China, Russia and Thailand play in this war, states that are not democratic but also have problems with jihadis?
Walid Phares: Jihadism has a problem with all non-jihadi societies and countries, democratic or not, Muslim or not. It is similar to National Socialism, which was oppressing German opposition and waging war against both democracies . . . and the Soviet Union. Today the jihadis are waging confrontations against Russia, China . . . and other authoritarian governments on the ground of infidel status . . . The jihadis are also waging a war against Muslim societies and governments accused of being infidels as well--Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, et cetera.
In your book, you write that most Americans wondered where this sudden threat came from on September 11, 2001. You point out, however, that the threat wasn't sudden at all. Why do you think so many westerners were slow to realize that they were threatened?
Walid Phares: The first question asked in America on 9/11 was : "Why do they hate us?" which is indicative of the ignorance prevailing at the time. A better-educated country should have reacted along the lines of: "How were the jihadis successful?" Remember what the F-16 pilot said when he rushed over the Pentagon: "Goddamnit, the Russians had us!" That was 10 years after the end of the Cold War. In fact, these reactions are a symptom of a success by the jihadis over the previous decades in their ideological offensives. As of the end of the 1970s, oil producing powers with a Wahhabi and authoritarian background--and later on the Khomeinists will follow suit--have invested tremendously in western academic institutions. They targeted the Middle East studies and related programs so that the classroom would be taught narrowly or even selectively about the region. And once they impacted the classroom, they reached the newsroom, the art room, the courtroom and even the war room. . . . But the western public still needs a deeper, more global education with regard to the ongoing conflict.
You have said al Qaeda attacked the West too early, in 2001; that it would've been better served had they waited five or 10 years. What did you mean by that?
Walid Phares: Indeed, the initial strategic planning of the mainstream jihadis (backed by oil dividends and influence) aimed at decades of infiltration, penetration of the systems and eventually a slow crumbling from the inside. The initial strategies devised by the Salafists, such as the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, wanted an insertion of layers of jihadis inside the various levels of society and government. And once deep enough, they would begin their second stage, almost as they are about to generate in Europe. But al Qaeda, a neo-Wahhabi group, preferred a direct engagement with the enemy, particularly what they perceived as the "head of the snake," the United States. Hence, after debates since the early 1990s, the "hot-headed jihadis" engaged the U.S. in different places, and finally attacked it upfront on 9/11. But had they waited another eight to 10 years they would have been able to accomplish what the Madrid attacks achieved: a retreat of the U.S. or even a collapse of its national determination to fight back.
What do the jihadis ultimately want?
Walid Phares: According to their open sources and ideology, they want to bring down 21 Arab states, 52 or so Muslim states (including the 21), replace them with a Caliphate where a strict implementation of their form of sharia (religious law) would be enforced--a sort of a super Taliban state ruling from Morocco to China, with 70 per cent of the world oil and nuclear power. Then, in a second stage, resume jihad against the infidels till world supremacy is accomplished. What we have here is a relentless, unstoppable and totalitarian agenda. It is very serious.
How has your book been received by America's foreign affairs establishment?
Walid Phares: Well, my previous book, Future Jihad: Terrorist strategies against the West, was very well received by readers of foreign policy, as it made the bestseller list of Foreign Affairs [magazine] . . . It got good reviews on the one hand, but was met with a deep silence from the classical Middle East studies community, for obvious reasons. However, I note that the younger generation of scholars has been using it, requesting it as a reading material across the land, and, since it was published, a number of books in the same direction adopted its premises. To my satisfaction of course, it was and is well read in various sectors of government, both the Congress and the Administration
This interview first appeared in The Western Standard.