On August 19th, 2020 The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar entitled “Countering Islamist Political Extremism by Orchestrating the Instruments of National Power” which was a part of the Winning Without War series. The event featured Dr. Christopher C. Harmon and Dr. Douglas E. Streusand and was moderated by Michael C. Maibach, an IWP alumnus and Chairman of the Board of Advisors at IWP. The purpose of the event was to discuss how the United States and its international partners can better use the tools of statecraft to win the fight against terrorism without over-reliance on combat operations.
About the Panelists
Dr. Christopher C. Harmon has been publishing terrorism studies for over 35 years. His works include two editions of the graduate-level text Terrorism Today (2000; 2007) essays on counterterrorism in the geopolitics journal Orbis and a volume on terrorist propaganda for The Brookings Institution (2018). Dr. Harmon has lectured in some 15 countries and has taught at The Institute of World Politics and other graduate schools, civilian and military. He holds the Bren Chair at Marine Corps University and the Marine Corps University Foundation.
Dr. Douglas E. Streusand is a Professor of International Relations at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and Adjunct Professor at The Institute of World Politics. Educated as an Islamic historian, he has pursued a broad range of teaching and research interests, historical and contemporary He has written two books, The Formation of the Mughal Empire and Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, and edited a third, The Grand Strategy that Won the Cold War: Architecture of Triumph, as well as numerous articles and book chapters.
Introducing Totalitarian Islamic Ideologies
Dr. Streusand began the webinar by discussing totalitarian Islamist ideologies and stated that without addressing these organizations’ recruitment tools and practices, these organizations would continue to regenerate. He went on to state that the West is preoccupied with separating Islamic totalitarian ideologies from the West, yet the West has failed to acknowledge that extremist ideologies are hybrid ideologies that need separating from actual Islam.
Dr. Streusand then brought up the fact that the practices used by many extremist groups are based upon Marxist-Leninist ideologies. This explains why discussions surrounding tactics to deter totalitarian Islamism ideologies have been routinely linked to the Cold War. He stressed that those who have “hijacked” the Islamic religion rely on a revolutionary vanguard, which is borrowed from Leninist ideology and does not come from the Quran or Hadith.
Mr. Maibach then asked the panelists if they believed that terrorist actions stemming from Islamic extremism were in reaction to imperialism and nationalism. Dr. Streusand responded by stating that Islamic totalitarianism and extremism were only able to embed themselves into Islamic society through the presence of legitimate grievances. He explained that Islamic extremism has since become a cultural mindset in many cases, and many of the extremist groups resemble cults. Dr. Streusand believes that since the ideology used is an interpretation of a religion, it possesses the psychological characteristics of a cult. Consequently, it is difficult for Islamist extremists to distance themselves from their beliefs. He reminded listeners, though, that people are capable of changing their beliefs.
The Importance of New Initiatives
Dr. Harmon then entered the conversation and discussed a series of new global initiatives that have proven to be an effective means of combating terrorism. He criticized Americans who promote the idea that “everyone needs to be on the same page,” as he said it discounts the diversity within America while limiting and narrowing the possibilities of responses and initiatives. Dr. Harmon advocated for a holistic approach that includes a variety of people within affected communities to help combat attacks and recruiting efforts. Dr. Streusand added that he hopes to help facilitate mainstream spokespeople within communities. He believes that the debate between extremist Islam and the West needs to be redefined. Dr. Streusand continued to say that Islamic totalitarianism wants to define the struggle as between Islam and the West, which broadens the definition of the enemy. The United States should seek to narrow the definition, effectively decreasing the recruiting pool. He added that these totalitarian extremist groups are vying to create a perfect Islamic state. This Islamic state though is not a remembered past as they would like you to believe. It is a “utopian vision of society projected into the past.”
Dr. Harmon cited the importance of having discussions with people within the communities as another key element in a comprehensive initiative. He went on to state that talking to people who have been a part of these movements themselves provides key insight. He stressed the importance of having a variety of people as a part of the discussion, as their differing backgrounds and perspectives create a more comprehensive overview of the issue. Additionally, he stated that people who are talented with keeping the U.S. out of war need to be prioritized within society. Instead of additional money being thrown at the situation, the U.S. needs emphasis, imagination, and new energy to combat Islamic extremism.
Positivity, Peace, and Success
Again, referencing the similarities between Islamic extremist ideologies and the Soviet Union’s Marxist-Leninist ideologies, Dr. Harmon told the audience not to underestimate the power of positivity. He cited President Reagan’s positivity during the Cold War as a key element of the United States’ eventual success. Dr. Harmon added that he would prefer to see an emphasis placed upon using weapons of rhetoric to combat extremism over weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Maibach then asked the panelists if they thought that Islam, as a whole, was a religion of peace and whether totalitarian ideologies have twisted its overall perception of the West. Both panelists agreed that while they denied the claims that any religion can be classified as fundamentally peaceful, most would define it as such.
Mr. Maibach concluded the webinar by summarizing both panelists’ thoughts and stating that totalitarian Islam is using the religion of Islam to further a specific agenda. Dr. Harmon ended by stating that derision from combating forces could be an effective means of marginalizing extremist groups.