The other day I posted a link to Andrew Woods’s article in the Financial Times about Major General Doug Stone’s minds and will campaign in the detainee facilities. Two days ago, another article in the same vein by Andrew went up on Slate. I recommend you read it.
What is striking here is not that the United States is waging an ideological battle with Islamic extremists. As Robert Wright elegantly argued in 2002, the war on terror is a semiotic war, and religion provides many symbolic and narrative weapons. Rather, it is remarkable that the Pentagon would have the chutzpah to locate what Stone calls the "battlefield of the mind" in its own detention centers.
Prisons are where so many Islamist identities are born, nurtured, and plugged into violent networks. It was in Cairo’s prisons that Sayyid Qutb crafted an intellectual framework for modern Islamist terrorism, and Ayman al-Zawahiri underwent the transformation that would lead him to launch al-Qaida. Or think of our own little "jihad university" on Guantanamo Bay. Detention centers present a second-order problem, too, in how the global public receives them. The torture at Abu Ghraib may have been the best thing the United States ever did for al-Qaida. And now, along comes a Marine reservist from California, hard as hell, McKinsey-savvy, who claims he can turn detention facilities into a strategic asset. Can it possibly work?
To say that the United States should play no role in religious deradicalization programs while its tanks roll through Baghdad is not to say they shouldn’t exist. It’s just that heavy hands don’t wield soft power. As the Crisis Group concludes in their review of Indonesia’s deradicalization programs, "economic aid … is ultimately more important than religious arguments in changing prisoner attitudes." This won’t be the case for everyone—"bad men" from well-to-do families, like Zawahiri, will never be bought off. But even Zawahiri can be defeated if his audience has something better to believe in. They won’t condone his violence if it seems as unilateral as our invasion of Iraq; most of them already don’t.
One of the sharpest Cold War thinkers, George Kennan, argued that the way to win the hearts and minds of the unaligned countries was through social and economic development programs—not military action. In our better moments, we even funded art programs and literary journals that were explicitly anti-American, under the theory that free speech itself is more important than the contents of that speech. Kennan’s thinking has resonance today. Rather than make appeals directly to the detainees’ faith—which may or may not work, and are offensive regardless—we ought to seek to empower people with economic and social opportunity. Open societies, after all, become liberal societies, even when they begin in detention centers.