Mainstream foreign policy analyst John Hannah recently wrote that “both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama understood that we wouldn’t be able to just kill our way out of the conflict with radical Islamists. Each devoted considerable resources to what’s been called the ‘battle for hearts and minds.’” But does this really work?
The idea was to show that the Americans weren’t as bad as jihad propaganda claimed, and were ready to be helpful, generous friends. This effort was predicated on the assumption that goodwill gestures would be appreciated and reciprocated. Yet as I show in my new book The History of Jihad From Muhammad to ISIS, these assumptions were wrongheaded from the start, and doomed to failure.
This is because the jihadis generally know the Qur’an, and know that it teaches warfare against unbelievers, including unbelievers who are kind to the Muslims. An example: in the 830s, the Byzantine emperor Theophilus asked the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun for a peace accord. Al-Ma’mun responded:
I should make the answer to your letter cavalry horses bearing steadfast, courageous and keen-sighted riders, who would contend with you over your destruction, to seek Allah’s favor by spilling your blood….
Over a millennium later, this lesson has still not been learned. Back in early January 2005, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Banda Aceh, Indonesia to bring U.S. aid to the victims of a devastating tsunami. Speaking on NBC’s Nightly News, Powell said that he thought American aid to Indonesia would “show to the Muslim world the nature of our society. But we’ve done a lot for the Muslim world. I mean, we rescued the Muslim people from the tyranny of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We rescued them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. We rescued Muslims in Kosovo some years ago.”
Powell added: “So I think if people will look at our actions and look at the subsequent results of those actions, and we see a democracy in Afghanistan and hopefully one in Iraq as well, people will judge us by what we end up accomplishing, and the anti-American feeling that we have seen in various parts of the world over the past year and a half will start to dissipate.”
Thirteen years later, we know that no democracy was ever established in Afghanistan and Iraq, and anti-American feeling never dissipated. Powell could have foreseen this; over a year and a half before he went to Indonesia, the South African Mufti Ebrahim Desai, the authority behind a popular “Ask the Imam” feature at a Muslim question and answer Internet site, was asked (spelling and grammar as in the original): “The west is often criticised by Muslims for many reasons, such as allowing women go to work. But shouldnt the west also recieve praise because its always them who intervene when muslims r being tortured, they stopped Milosovic kiling Muslims and sent their own troops to the country, they r usually the first to send aid when there is a flood, they r also intervening in Isreal and condeming them killing Muslims, so should we appreciate their efforts or not?”
Desai’s answer: “In simple the Kuffaar [unbelievers] can never be trusted for any possible good they do. They have their own interest at heart.”
This opinion has deep roots in Islamic tradition. The Qur’an contains a warning against those who turn “in friendship to the Unbelievers….If only they had believed in Allah, in the Prophet, and in what hath been revealed to him, never would they have taken them for friends and protectors, but most of them are rebellious wrong-doers” (5:80-81). It also tells Muslims that “never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with you unless you follow their form of religion” (2:120).
Such teachings lead large numbers of Muslims to regard relief efforts by non-Muslims not as a sign of American goodwill, but as part of a larger plan to subvert Islam. It is a recurring phenomenon of Islamic history, as I show in The History of Jihad: when disaster of any kind strikes, it is all too frequently interpreted as having been caused by a failure on the part of the people to be Islamic enough. So the result is a renewed fervor, and new miseries for non-Muslims inside and often also outside the Islamic state in question.
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