TCS Daily

The Battle of the Mosque

By Arnold Kling - July 27, 2004 12:00 AM

"But the enemy is not just 'terrorism,' some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism -- especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology."
9-11 Commission Report, p. 379

This paragraph from the 9/11 Commission Report should come as no surprise to TCS readers. It reinforces what many of my fellow columnists have been writing about the need to face squarely the role of Islamist ideology in the terrorist threat.

Unfortunately, the recommendations from the Commission do not constitute a solution that is commensurate with its statement of the problem. This essay will discuss what I believe the Commission should have recommended for fighting what one might call The Battle of the Mosque.

Distraction and Denial

In its retrospective on our pre-9/11 anti-terrorism failures, the picture that the Commission paints is one of the inability of our leaders to keep the terrorist threat in focus. Even when mid-level operatives within the relevant agencies made strong recommendations for taking action against the Bin Laden network, our top-level leadership never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Even when previous commissions told Congress that our nation needed to focus on terrorist organizations and threats to domestic security, everyday political considerations took precedence instead.

As I see it, the Commission Report does little to feed the Bush-haters' frenzy of hysteria. On the contrary, the "Bush lied" frenzy strikes me as precisely the sort of exercise in distraction and denial that the Commission believes hampered our ability to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Although the Commission's analysis and recommendations are a mixed bag, nowhere in the report does one see support for the view President Bush has exaggerated the threat or is using terrorism as an excuse to shift attention away from health care or other domestic issues.

The Report does not speak directly to the role of the war in Iraq. My reading of its concerns with weapons of mass destruction suggests that we should not set a standard of 100 percent certainty before taking steps to prevent their acquisition by dangerous leaders. My reading of its recommendations concerning the importance of encouraging democracy in the Arab world suggests that Iraq now represents an opportunity. On the other hand, the focus of the report on Saudi Arabia might be seen as vindicating the policy advocated by my wife.

Overall, the Report falls far short of offering aid and comfort to those who were hoping to see terrorism treated as something "preventable," like a forest fire or an AIDS-contaminated blood bank, provided that the responsible officials take the proper precautions. Instead, the Commission took the view that we face an ideologically-driven enemy that is determined to strike again. The solution is not some security equivalent of safe sex education, automobile emission standards, or drug-free school zones. As the Report says,

"extreme intolerance within one stream of not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground -- not even respect for life -- on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated."

To prevent future acts of terrorism, we have to kill people. This is not a good thing. War is horrible. It is repulsive. In every war, soldiers commit atrocities and die senselessly, often because of the mistakes of their superior officers.

If World War II were shown to the American people in slow-motion freeze frame, it would look every bit as ugly as the war against Islamist terrorism. Sixty years ago, the American public was spared having to confront in the media the terrible face of war, but not, as some would have it, by the patriotic restraint of American journalists. The reality is that during World War II our military inflicted a regime of censorship that by today's standards would seem politically repressive and technologically unenforceable. In her biography of war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Caroline Moorehead writes (p. 205),

Gloom, like mockery, was much frowned on...the only way to be accredited was to submit all copy to censors...with the result, as John Steinbeck later complained, that the public was given very little taste of "the crazy, hysterical mess" going on.

With or without press censorship, the American people will be sick of this war long before it is over. That is as it should be.

Errors of Commission

After articulating the threat in no uncertain terms, the Commission's recommendations for dealing with militant Islam amount to proposals for the international equivalent of midnight basketball programs. These recommendations are contained in a section of the Report called "Preventing the Continued Growth of Islamist Terrorism," on pages 391-400. The flavor of the proposals can be tasted from the following excerpt (p. 393):

"How can the United States and its friends help moderate Muslims combat the extremist ideas?...We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors."

To see what is wrong with this approach to what the Commission calls "the struggle of ideas," imagine if we had used it to fight World War II. Instead of bombing Tokyo or Berlin, we would have have tried to stop Japanese and German aggression by offering "an example of moral leadership."

In my view, moderate Muslims today are in a position that is analogous to that of ordinary Germans and Japanese in World War II. Although they may not be personally committed to the rabid ideology that is behind the behavior of the warmongers, they are in awe of it.

For all practical purposes, most of the Muslim world is undecided between Islamism and America. If we adopt a more aggressive approach, some of these Muslims will jump off the fence and onto the other side. But passivity and weakness on our part would be even worse. To regain support of moderate Muslims in the long run, we will have to take steps in the short run that risk upsetting them.

The Commission would like to see us win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims. That is certainly a laudable objective, but it could easily become an excuse for pacifism and paralysis. We could not have won World War II with "soft power," trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Germans as a way of defeating the Nazis. By 1945, we had in fact won the hearts and minds of ordinary Germans, to the point where very few of them admitted to ever having supported Hitler. But we achieved that result only after obliterating the Nazi military and, incidentally, killing a large number of ordinary Germans.

The Commission rightly says, in the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this essay, that calling this a "war on terrorism" with no mention of Islamist ideology serves to blur our strategy. But it equally blurs our strategy to say that the way to stop the spread of Islamist ideology is to "be generous and caring to our neighbors."


For a while, I kept track of news stories that included the terms "mosque," "weapons," and "cache." Some examples are here, here, here, and here. It is not so common to see churches or synagogues used as munitions depots.

Another phenomenon that you will not see outside of Islam is a religious leader recruiting suicide bombers. Yet militant Islamic clerics appear to be a major factor in mobilizing Islamic youth for terrorism.

Our tradition is to treat clerics and houses of worship with care and respect in time of war. But that is because we are used to thinking of religious institutions as seeking to avoid war and minimize violence. We need to adjust our thinking when they act as primary instigators of hatred and supporters of terrorism.

Data-gathering and Infiltration

Given the foregoing, one might argue that military action against hostile clerics and their mosques is warranted. In fact, I think that such an offensive would be premature.

Ultimately, we would want to see an end to the phenomenon of terrorist-promoting mosques. My guess is that we will have to make examples of the worst cases, arresting or killing the those clerics who most blatantly advocate terrorism. They should be given no special immunity from the violence that they preach.

However, the first step is to gather data. We would want to know which mosques are led by clerics who provide motivation, funding, or logistical support to terrorists. This would mean systematic investigations by American agents of mosques all over the world. It might not be cost-effective to visit every single mosque, but we should observe enough to develop confidence that we have the most dangerous mosques identified and under surveillance.

As someone who uses statistics, I would like to see data. What percentage of mosques in various parts of the world is radical? What proportion of terrorist recruits come from these radical mosques? How many students per year go to schools run by radical mosques? And so on. The goal would be to obtain reliable estimates as a baseline for measuring progress going forward at reducing the role of mosques in promoting terrorism.

Once the initial data are gathered, the next step would be to infiltrate the radical groups associated with the most dangerous mosques. If we were successful at planting spies among these groups, these spies could work their way into terrorist networks. From there, they could identify and disrupt terrorist activities, including financing, planning for large-scale attacks, and attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Knowledge gained from infiltrating terrorist groups via mosques could enable us to locate and kill important terrorist leaders.

Eventually, I believe that we can win over the hearts and minds of most Muslims to the concepts of peace and moderation. But not before we have eliminated most of the radicals. In the Battle of the Mosque, we have a long way to go.


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