Muslim apocalyptic movements like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi groups are winning an information war that the West barely recognizes exists
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When I first heard in the mid-1990s about the dreams of some jihadis and Islamists to have the green flag of Islam waving over the White House and the queen of England wearing a burka, I, like so many other Western liberals, thought that these were ludicrous fantasies. But as a student of apocalyptic millennialism, I understood that however silly such beliefs might sound to outsiders, they can have devastating consequences.
Millennialists, from stone-age cargo cults to the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution in Egypt around 1350 BCE to modern secular movements including the French Revolution, Marxism, Communism, and Nazism, all imagine that in the future the world will transform from a society in which evil, corruption, and oppression flourish and the good suffer into a world without suffering and pain. The term “apocalyptic” refers to the experiences and behavior of those who believe that this millennial transformation is imminent. In my new book, Heaven on Earth, I focus on two major developments in apocalyptic movements: The first concerns those rare moments when a previously low-volume apocalyptic discourse successfully enters the public sphere and, despite its outlandish claims, wins zealous, open, converts, and the second concerns the inevitable disappointment that greets all such movements, including those that succeed in taking power and implementing their plans for perfecting the world. Of the most dangerous such movements to jell are those I call “active cataclysmic” ones that believe that only vast destruction can pave the way to the new world, and that they are the agents of that violence. Such movements have killed tens of millions of people (often their own people) before their raging fires burned out.
Two key laws of apocalyptic dynamics became relevant in assessing Muslim apocalyptic expectations, even the most curious ones attached to the advent of the year 2000: First, one person’s messiah is another’s antichrist; and, second, wrong does not mean inconsequential. Muslims observing messianic Christians and Jews who wanted to rebuild the Temple where the Dome of the Rock stands in the year 2000 predicted the Dajjal, the Muslim version of the antichrist, for that year. And given the active cataclysmic fantasy involved—“We, Allah’s agents, must destroy much of the word to save it”—I understood how devastating it might be if this movement spread, no matter how wrong it might seem to secular people in the West.
When I first began to familiarize myself with this phenomenon, I was primarily worried that organizations like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other jihadi and mujahedin movements might gain support in the Muslim world and cause damage both to fellow Muslims and to “infidels” around the world. But I did not for a moment imagine that these hateful and paranoid apocalyptic tropes—the very opposite of the notions of peace, equality, openness, and tolerance that Western progressives prized—would win supporters and allies among even the most progressive elements of the Western public sphere. Neither I nor, I suspect, the men who wrote Hamas’ genocidal charter in 1988 expected Western infidels to march in European capitals with Hamas’ flag, shouting “We are Hamas,” as protesters did in London, Athens, Paris, and Madrid in 2009.
In the course of the last decade, the Western public sphere has seen two major developments that systematically increased the strength of global jihad: on the one hand the adoption of some of the most vicious jihadi discourse—in particular the new anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism—and on the other, the equally strident attacks, often by non-Muslims, on those who try to identify the Islamic sources of the problem as hate-mongering Islamophobes. The result has been an undreamed-of success for jihadis over the past decade in a cognitive war that Westerners scarcely recognize.
Most Westerners greet the news of a global jihad against the West with derision. The vast asymmetry between Muslim and Western military forces makes any such ambition seem like a bad joke. Thus when Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1998, the Western news media scarcely mentioned it, and few even noticed. And if we outsiders ignored the battlefield jihad, we also failed to note that the jihadis were aware of their disadvantage on the battlefield and had chosen to conduct their major campaign against the West in a very different theater of war.
Cognitive warfare aims to paralyze the will of the enemy to resist attack, to maneuver that enemy into adopting vulnerable positions, and eventually to get him to give up in a conflict. In cognitive warfare, real violence (such as terror attacks) are adjuncts to the mental conflict, and the targets of such warfare are large audiences both among populations at home (recruitment and mobilization) and, still more significantly, among the enemy (paralysis). The advent of television, for example, with its highly emotive power, played a key role in the cognitive war the Vietcong successfully conducted against the United States in Vietnam.
Of course, such a line of action seems almost as unlikely to succeed as the military option. Jihadi Islam embraces values that by the normal standards of the Western public sphere are simply grotesque—misogyny, oppressive theocracy, homophobia, hate-mongering, and genocide. Yet as a collection of civil polities that prize peaceful conditions and positive-sum relations, in which public opinion has a great deal of influence on political decisions, the West is particularly vulnerable to a campaign based on appealing to our commitment to human rights, justice, and peace and against prejudice, racism, and intolerance. If jihadis can convince us—their target population—that by our standards we are in the wrong, that to think ill of them is a form or racism, or Islamophobia, then they can drain us of the will to resist and the awareness that we need to resist something.
One the most important dimensions of their cognitive war is to get infidels, even without being conquered, to behave according to the restrictions of Islam. Among the most important impositions we have seen of this phenomenon—one whose violation immediately removes any protection from harm from the head of the blasphemer—is the absolute prohibition on criticizing Allah or his prophet. Thus, a major battlefield of the cognitive war between jihadis and the West concerns tolerance for criticism of the other. Here, as elsewhere, the jihadis strive for asymmetry: Even as they criticize us virulently, how dare we criticize them?
Normally, the West would have won this fight hands down. Tolerance applies to all, and for freedom of expression and public criticism to exist one must develop a thick skin and renounce honor violence—shedding someone’s blood for the sake of saving face.
Yet the major players in our public sphere—the news media, pundits, academic experts, and even strategic policy thinkers—have systematically folded when faced with an aggressive assault from radical Islam. A number of factors can help us understand how this startling reversal came about—post-colonial guilt, moral relativism and narcissism, intimidation and cowardice, radical agendas, media malfeasance—but all of them profit from being understood in terms of a larger millennial framework.
Essentially, an apocalyptic millennial movement has declared war on the West and been able to conduct cognitive warfare on our home turf—partly because we don’t recognize the nature of the foe, partly because we are so committed to the rules and values of civil society that we have difficulty even acknowledging that a state of war exists. Most of us are too secular to appreciate the beliefs involved. And as a result of this ignorance, we misidentify and badly analyze the phenomenon in question.
Western purveyors of news are, of course, a strategic target for jihadi cognitive warriors: Journalists are the main shapers of Western public opinion, and, it turns out, they are highly susceptible to intimidation and manipulation. As a result, the mainstream news media have, surely unwittingly but nonetheless consistently, played a crucial role in mainstreaming jihadi themes in the Western public sphere, even as they disguise the source and nature of these themes. A study of perhaps the single most powerful attack in the cognitive war of global jihad and its aftermath offers a detailed insight into the ways in which this has occurred. It illustrates the weaknesses of our media, as well as the critical but obscured relationship between jihad and the so-called Israel problem.
On Sept. 30, 2000, France2 Television ran a story about Muhammad al Durah, a 12-year-old boy who, along with his father, was pinned down in a cross-fire between Israeli and Palestinian forces at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip. “The target of fire from the Israeli position, the boy was killed and the father badly wounded,” veteran French journalist Charles Enderlin reported. Enderlin distributed the footage to all his colleagues for free, and this story ran around the world in hours.
The impact in the Arab world was immediate: Arab riots in Israel, world-wide indignation, accusations of deliberate murder. Al Jazeera and PA TV ran the footage repeatedly. PA technicians inserted a brief clip of an Israeli soldier firing rubber bullets at Arabs rioting over al Durah into the footage, so that it looked like the Israeli had targeted and deliberately killed the boy. The invented footage became a major tool of incitement for the nascent intifada that targeted Israeli civilians on both sides of the Green Line and reached a climax in the October 12 Ramallah lynching of two Israeli reservists by a mob who literally tore their bodies apart and dragged the parts through the city shouting, “Revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah.”
The actual evidence, however, posed serious problems for the explosive narrative of deliberate child-murder. The footage, closely examined, contradicted every detail of the claim that Israel had killed the boy “in cold blood,” as a France 2 photographer put it, from the alleged “forty minutes of [Israeli] bullets like rain” (rather, there were only a few bullets one could identify in the brief footage, all from the Palestinian side), to the 20-minute-long death from a fatal stomach wound (no sign of blood on the ground), to the murdered ambulance driver (no evidence), to the dead boy (who moves quite deliberately in the final scene, which Enderlin cut for his broadcast).
Moreover, the al Durah footage was only the most spectacular example of a widespread practice among Palestinian cameramen of staging scenes that illustrate their framing of the conflict: the Palestinian David vs. the Israeli Goliath. Indeed, over the years, Palestinians have created a veritable cinematic industry—Pallywood—of staged scenes that Western news agencies regularly pass on to an unsuspecting public. When historians look back in future generations, the failure of the mainstream news media to catch this badly executed hoax, even a decade after its occurrence and years after the evidence was available, will stand as one of the most astonishing failures of 21st-century journalism.
In turn, the al Durah footage was merely one episode in a long-standing cognitive war Palestinians have conducted against the Israelis with growing success since the Lebanon War of 1982. A representative of PATV revealed the cognitive warrior’s mindset as he explained why they spliced in the footage of the Israeli soldier in order to make the accusation of deliberate murder: “These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth. … We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth”—in other words, weaponizing a lethal narrative in order to demonize our enemy however much such an action might violate every principle of professional journalism.
Talal abu Rahmeh, the cameraman who shot the staged scene, boasted that he too was a warrior in the struggle of his people. When caught in a lie about having collected Israeli bullets from the scene in an interview, he explained unapologetically, “We have our secrets. We can’t give anything, just everything.” For Palestinian “journalists,” news was a theater of war. Western journalists acknowledged this even as they broadcast these lethal narratives to their publics at home: “They’re the weapons of the weak,” one French journalist explained of the broadcasts.
Indeed, the al Durah footage was such a powerful image that it became not merely an emblem for the Palestinians but, through Al Jazeera’s constant use of the image, a symbol for the entire Muslim world. Within months of the incident, Osama Bin Laden, who had declared jihad on the United States only two years earlier, featured the Palestinian conflict and specifically al Durah in a global recruiting video. Bin Laden immediately understood the value of the footage not only as a lethal narrative aimed at Israel but also at its supporters, like the United States, or those who failed to avenge the boy’s “death,” meaning cowardly Arab leaders. “In killing this boy, the Israelis killed every child in the world,” as Osama Bin Laden is said to have put it.
Paris, October 2000.
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
Like the medieval blood libel, the story of the deliberate murder of an innocent Muslim child was framed as a symbol of cosmic Jewish malevolence. Far from exercising any kind of due diligence, the European media ran the footage almost as frequently as Arab media, mainstreaming the longstanding Palestinian claim that the Israelis were the new Nazis. Within a week of its first appearance, demonstrators across the Western world massed in the streets to protest Israeli “murder,” some of them carrying signs equating the Star of David with the Nazi swastika and others carrying the banners of terrorist organizations like Hamas. The fact that Western viewers are hardly surprised by such images anymore is a measure of the success of a larger campaign of cognitive warfare by a millennial cult, whose dreams of the end of days may be preposterous but who pose a clear and continuing danger to Western democratic values and practices.
Israel became openly reviled. One diplomat referred to the Jewish state as that “shitty little country,” and more than one prominent world figure compared Israel to the Nazis. It was as if the restraints on criticizing Israel placed on Europeans since the Holocaust had been lifted. As one respected anchorwoman for Europe1 put it: “This death annuls, replaces, erases the picture of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.” In other words, al Durah was a get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free card.
Here we see the diabolic genius of the jihadi cognitive war against the West. Having borrowed extensively from the depraved archive of Western anti-Semitism, jihadis played on the scarcely repressed anti-Semitism of the West and reintroduced it via anti-Zionism. Even as Europeans insisted that anti-Zionism was not the same as anti-Semitism, they used anti-Zionism to free themselves of the restraints that decent guilt about the Holocaust had placed on their desire to heap abuse on Jews: Hatred of Israel, they claimed, had nothing to do with Jews, even as Israel’s behavior showed that Jews with power were no better than Nazis.
Swept with a wave of moral Schadenfreude, European audiences eagerly devoured the lethal narratives the Palestinians fed their press about an evil Israel. The blood libel worked: For many, Israel was above all a serial murderer of children. In 2007, when I gave a talk in Budapest about Muhammad al Durah, one of the organizers interrupted my presentation to insist that, “Everyone knows that the Israelis kill Palestinian children every day.” The same year, Canadian pro-Palestinian activist Mary Hughes-Thompson, who to this day recalls the importance of what she called seeing Muhammad al Durah “shot and killed before my very eyes,” wrote: “It’s … horrifying to know that Palestinian children are killed every day by bombs and bullets from Israeli occupation forces.” In the cognitive war, the al Durah lethal narrative was a nuclear bomb; while the explosion has died down, we’re still breathing in the radioactive waste.
Western journalists, especially Europeans, made three critical mistakes in their handling of the al Durah episode. First, even as they rejected any narrative supportive of Israel as unreliable “communautarisme,” or partisanship, they embraced any Palestinian lethal narrative no matter how incredible. Second, they represented the Palestinian hostility to Israel as that of a secular, national liberation movement hostile only to Israel rather than an Arab-Muslim jihad in search of honor lost on a global scale. Third, they therefore assumed that by siding with the Palestinians, they would gain their favor. Instead, as the Arab-Muslim street that took root in Europe in the last decade has illustrated, European infidels were every bit the target of jihadi malevolence.
Thus, as European journalists replayed endlessly the images of al Durah and reported every Palestinian claim that the Israelis murdered children, the journalists had no idea that they were waving the flag of jihad in front of their own Muslim immigrant populations, and no idea that they too were the target of jihadi hatred. In 2002, in response to unconscionably irresponsible reports from the European press about a massacre of hundreds if not thousands of innocent Palestinians in Jenin, self-styled progressives poured into the streets in support of the very terrorism that had prompted the Israelis to defend themselves. As Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote at the time:
In Italy there [is] a procession of individuals dressed as suicide bombers who spew vile abuse at Israel, hold up photographs of Israeli leaders on whose foreheads they have drawn the swastika, incite people to hate the Jews.
After all, at this point, the only victims of suicide bombing were Israelis and Americans, both (still) the objects of astonishing European hostility. And yet, in so doing, Europeans both fueled the worst of the intifada and prepared their own paralysis in the face of jihadi threats. Suicide bombings, and the threat of them, have blighted, and will likely continue to, the new century. As a French friend told me in 2003: “The Arabs act as if they have a knife to our throat, and we act as if they did.” And that invisible knife was suicide terror.
Throughout this process, the press played a key role, both by concealing the genocidal incitement of the Palestinians (and other jihadi forces) and by broadcasting every lethal narrative produced by Pallywood. Thus al Durah triggered a wave of violence and vituperation against the Jews in Europe, and the very press that broadcast the false footage fell silent when it came to reporting its real effects. Anyone who had the nerve to denounce this explosion of Muslim anti-Semitism was tarred as a Zionist Islamophobe.
When Charles Enderlin, the reporter for France2, saw the footage his cameraman had sent him, if instead of rushing to broadcast and sharing it freely with his colleagues, he had exercised due diligence, fired Talal for faking the footage, and had run an article on Palestinian incitement via fake “reporting,” the Second Intifada would have had a very different trajectory. When European elites, hit with a wave of anti-Semitic speech and deeds by their Muslim populations in response to al Durah and similar reporting from the intifada, if instead of excusing it as an understandable response to Israeli crimes and concealing its full force from the public, had instead responded by making clear how unacceptable such behavior is in a civil society, the wave of European Islamic aggression might also have had a different career. Instead, the apocalyptic fires of genocidal hatred were stoked, often by people who thought they were advocates for peace.
Lest one think this was merely a problem of European anti-Zionism (coupled with its twin brother, anti-Americanism), consider the emblematic response of the New York Times to the problem of Palestinian incitement. The day after the savage lynching in Ramallah, two key events occurred: The Israelis in retaliation bombed a Palestinian radio station because, according to the IDF, the broadcaster was guilty of the same kind of genocidal incitement that led to the atrocities in Rwanda less than a decade previously. The same day, PATV broadcast a sermon by Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabiya live from Gaza:
The Jews are the Jews. Whether Labor or Likud, the Jews are Jews. They do not have any moderates or any advocates of peace. They are all liars. They must be butchered and must be killed. … It is forbidden to have mercy in your hearts for the Jews in any place and in any land. Make war on them any place that you find yourself. Any place that you meet them, kill them.
New York Times reporter William Orme came to investigate the Israeli claim of incitement as a major contributor to Palestinian violence. After giving ample and unchallenged space to a Palestinian spokesman who insisted, in an allusion to al Durah, that “we have no fabricated pictures, and no fabricated stories,” and that Israelis think anything is incitement, Orme offered this quote as his only example of Palestinian incitement:
Israelis cite as one egregious example a televised sermon that defended the killing of the two soldiers. “Whether Likud or Labor, Jews are Jews,” proclaimed Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya in a live broadcast from a Gaza City mosque the day after the killings.
One could excuse the uninformed reader for sympathizing with the Palestinian claim that the Israelis are hyper-sensitive.
Those aware of the full text might have difficulty imagining how this is not news fit to print. Unfortunately, this censored statement constitutes just one example of a vast industry of hatred and incitement to violence that characterizes the most aggressive forms of apocalyptic jihadi Islam not only in Palestinian circles but the Muslim world over. And Orme’s silence has been the rule, not the exception, in mainstream media coverage of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and global jihad since 2000.
Ultimately, Orme himself must explain his lacuna (which, so far, he has refused to do). I suspect that it has something to do with a widespread sentiment among journalists and intellectuals that if you broadcast such information, you put wind in the sails of the right-wing warmongers. The less said, the better.
Alas, from the perspective of cognitive warfare against an apocalyptic millennial foe, such a silence is wind in the sails of genocidal warmongers. And when joined to a systematic mainstreaming of jihadi lethal narratives into our information system as news, those winds wax ever stronger.
When will we stop losing, and even start winning, a cognitive war we should have won from the beginning? When will we use weaponry we have—like the jihadis’ honor-shame sensitivities—instead of allowing jihadis to bully the West into backing down for fear of provoking them? It’s entirely a matter of imagination and will. This one really is in our hands. And it begins with a prise de conscience. As Stuart Green, the author of Cognitive Warfare and the Role of the Media, remarks, “You can’t win the Battle of Midway if you don’t know you’re in a battle.”
Richard Landes, a professor of history at Boston University, blogs at The Augean Stables. His new book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience treats a variety of apocalyptic movements, including global jihad.
Three cemeteries belonging to Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, are tucked away in Manhattan, a visible legacy of New York City’s long-ago Jewish past