Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Art and Culture in the War of Ideas

Supporters of the Iraqi insurgency have begun producing Hollywood-style movie posters, most based on horror or action movies, satirizing the American military. While the precise origin of the posters is unclear, Britain's Sky News, the only media outlet to cover the matter, reported this summer that the images are proliferating on Islamic extremist websites, which attribute them to the insurgents themselves.

One blogger who picked up the story noted that the insurgents "show a native fluency in American popular culture." This indeed raises a variety of questions about culture, popular or otherwise.

Is culture the type of thing that can be used or abused?

Is art merely techne, the ability to craft something well? In that case, might we call this latest propaganda campaign by these mufsidun "good art"? Or does art necessarily have a moral dimension?

Finally, do cultures have an innate value, or are all equal? As a practical matter, should we be studying the enemy, in order to bring this sort of propaganda to his camp, or is there something inherently wrong with this, if his culture is intrinsically disordered? Is his culture so disordered?

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  • It's certainly skillfully done; it appears the muj now have a Photoshop guru in their employ. Don't know whether I'd call it "art", but that's 'cuz I've not thought much about the definition of that term. I tend to consider propaganda _techne_; and as such, I would probably call this sort of thing "good propaganda".

    As to "all cultures being created equal", no, I don't believe that is true. I'm one of those narrow-minded, provincial bigots who actually thinks Western Civilization is superior to all others, and who is sufficiently unenlightened to think multiculturalism a prelude to balkanization & civil war. And that the culture whence the muj spring is screwed up in some fundamental ways. Tribalism, shame/honor, & barbaric treatment of women, just for starters.

    That being said, I do think one can learn valuable lessons from studying even an intrinsically disordered enemy culture. For example, just because the Soviet Union was evil, it doesn't necessarily follow that the KGB was a poorly-run intelligence service. (Or vice versa.) Likewise, Nazi Germany was evil; that doesn't mean we couldn't learn a thing or two from Wehrmacht personnel policies (see, for example Van Creveld's "Fighting Power"), or from German WWII campaigns.

    War, science, engineering, foreign intelligence - these are all activities in which it is possible to excel even in the pursuit of evil ends. One can take pointers from _how_ an evil culture does some things, without detracting from one's condemnation of that culture's evil aspects. You just need to be selective.

    By Blogger Avenging Sword, at 1:08 PM, September 26, 2007  

  • Thanks for the comment. Only one pointer: I don't think you want to call our enemies "mujahideen" (or "muj"). It elevates them in the eyes of their followers. Likewise, the president's speechwriters have desperately tried to get him to quit using the term "jihad" or "jihadist." These people are not holy warriors; they are they are evildoers properly termed "mufsidun," who are engaging in a psychopathic war against society, "hirabah." Arabic has supplied us with the terms for what these folks are really up to; let's not accept their Wahhabist misuse of language.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 3:42 PM, September 26, 2007  

  • "Muj" is a holdover from Iraq; that was what we tended to call the insurgents over there. AFAIK, such usage never caused much confusion among the troops as to the nature of the enemy. It's more like the latter day version of "gook" or "kraut".

    I doubt our choice of language matters much to our enemies (or their sympathizers); even if we call our enemies "evildoers", they'd probably just write it off as "demonization of the enemy" (par for the course in any war). If we call them "mufsidun", their followers would probably just laugh at us and say amongst themselves, "Ah, stupid Americans, can't even get their Arabic right; _of course_ they're 'mujahideen', not 'mufsidun'."

    More important, I think, is the need for clarity about the nature of our enemies among _our own_ people. Here, I'm not sure it matters what sort of Arabic terms we use, so much as what _English_ terms we use. Yes, I may call the insurgents "the muj", but I have no qualms about calling them our _enemies_, and demanding that we pound them into the ground. I'd be a lot more worried about people calling Iraqi insurgents "freedom fighters" or "revolutionaries" (in English) than I'd be about people calling them "the muj". If Arabic fluency was more widespread amongst the American populace, I suppose I might have a different view.

    As to the term "jihad", well, if the President is using it to refer to "holy _war_" (emphasis mine), that's a step up from those who argue that the term has an exclusively (or largely) non-military connotation. If his use of the term "jihad" is meant to imply that our enemies seek to impose sharia upon the US via military conquest, well, that largely fits with the concept of offensive jihad (the only quibble being that offensive jihad is, classically, waged on a state level, not via insurgency). Whether our enemies are _really_ fighting for such goals, I'm not sure; but if they are, I too would have no qualms about calling it "jihad". But I'd be more likely to use the term "war of aggression and conquest".

    By Blogger Avenging Sword, at 7:51 AM, September 27, 2007  

  • Well go ahead and accept their Wahhabist misuse of language. Tell all those Muslims out there who don't buy their radicalist understanding of jihad that they're wrong and the terrorists have got it right.

    The war of ideas is lost.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 8:17 AM, September 27, 2007  

  • Was it the Wahhabis who gave "jihad" a war/military connotation? IIRC, the notion of "jihad as warfare" predates them by several centuries.

    I suppose I should've been clearer. My acceptance of Bush's use of the term "jihad" was a conditional: If most Muslims understand jihad to have a war/military connotation (I'm not sure if they do - I would welcome any data on this question); and if our enemy's goals correspond to what, as I understand it, constitutes "offensive jihad" (i.e., the imposition of an Islamic regime & sharia law upon foreign lands via conquest); then calling enemy actions "hirabah" rather than "jihad" would not be very advantageous, since most Muslims would simply write off our terminology as nonsensical. Like me calling a tank a car, on the grounds that both are means of transportation. If the aforementioned conditions do not apply, then perhaps you're right, in that we ought to employ the term "hirabah" in lieu of "jihad".

    My other point, which I probably should've been clearer about, is that whether or not we use the term "hirabah" rather than "jihad", I don't think it's wise to forget that the military connotations of the latter. I've run across many people - and I'm not saying you're one of them, as I'm pretty sure you're not - who completely deny that "jihad" has _any_ military connotation. On the basis of this, they assert that because this is so, our enemies' use of the term "jihad" is must obviously be mere window-dressing, our enemies' _real_ motives are probably something else entirely (e.g., colonialism, imperialism, globalization, poverty). Denying "jihad" its military connotation may be useful for propaganda purposes (i.e., as part of fighting a war of ideas), but not when trying to understand our enemies.

    By Blogger Avenging Sword, at 4:32 PM, September 27, 2007  

  • Thanks for the follow-up. Several well-made points. It's past my bedtime, so further comments will have to wait, but check out Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War, by J. Michael Waller. (You could be generous and support the author by buying a copy, but he also put the whole thing online at And he's more interested in winning the war of ideas than making money, so don't feel bad about reading the PDF.) It's a quick and interesting read.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 9:57 PM, September 27, 2007  

  • Hmm... Not sure that address is totally visible. Let's try it again: _of_Ideas_Waller.pdf

    By Blogger Aaron, at 9:57 PM, September 27, 2007  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Paul, at 10:06 PM, September 27, 2007  

  • If one can't make a distinction between friend and foe by making an effort to use correct terminology, one ends up making enemies out of friends.

    Fundamentally, it's a question of respect. You disrespect good Muslims by lumping them in with the terrorists. And you lump everyone together by refusing to consider that there are proper uses of Islamic terms an in proper ones.

    Perhaps and example: Let's say you consider yourself Pro-Life in that you oppose abortion. And then number of individuals who also oppose abortion begin strings of violent attacks on abortion clinics, doctors, pro-choice advocates, basically anyone who works for the other side (sound familiar?)... and so the media makes quite a lot out of this and there is public outcry. People begin to speak of the evil actions of Pro-Lifers and how they must be stopped, brought to justice, etc. Do you see the point I'm making? From a certain angle, you could say it doesn't matter if you call these anti-abortion terrorists Pro-Lifers; but then it's immediately obvious who would find this usage offensive.

    If I spent more time thinking about this, I could find a better linguistic example, but you get the idea.

    "Jihad" does not necessarily have a military connotation, and even a visit to Wikipedia will show that. In fact, in a just a few minutes important distinctions in what certain terms mean can be made. The willful malice of so many politicians not even trying to get this right is really quite astounding

    By Blogger Paul, at 10:08 PM, September 27, 2007  

  • Aaron - thanks for the link; I'll be sure to check it out. It's encouraging to see others taking the war of ideas seriously.

    Paul - Greater jihad vs. lesser jihad...yes, I'm aware that jihad doesn't _necessarily_ have a military connotation. I don't think I ever denied that jihad could have a non-military connotation; but if I did, rest assured it was unintentional.

    As for politicians' sloppy Arabic terminology being "willful malice"...if I understand the phrase correctly, that would seem to imply that such sloppiness is deliberate, and done with the intent of undermining our prospects for victory, our national security, etc. I realize that this is (unfortunately) not beyond the realm of possibility - fifth columns & all that - but in the absence of clear evidence to that effect, I'm inclined to suspect that ignorance and/or intellectual pride are the more likely culprits. As Napoleon said, "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence."

    By Blogger Avenging Sword, at 9:53 AM, September 28, 2007  

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