About ten years ago, I led a group of students on an art-viewing tour through Morocco. On the last day of the trip, I went to the marketplace in Marrakesh, where I found a beautiful, hand-crafted writing journal with only the first few pages written on in a beautiful Arabic script. I was still unclear about the currency, so I ended up paying more than a hundred dollars for it, which, my guide later told me, was ridiculous. But I was satisfied because it was beautiful, and it has been on our mantle ever since.
A week or so ago, Dr. Sid Hamete Benengeli, my colleague from the university, came to dinner. He was immediately taken with the journal, and he opened it up and said, “why do you have a book called “Letter to a Young Jihadist” on your mantel? I was shocked. I had no idea what was written in the journal, but I figured it was pretty ordinary. That night, Dr. Benengeli translated the whole text, which turns out to have been a letter from an uncle to his infant nephew. I am reproducing it here because of the potential interest in the topic and the author, though I have no way of knowing if it is a genuine letter or just the doodling of an idle child.
September 10, 2001
My dear nephew,
If all goes as planned, by the time that you receive this letter, something wonderful will have happened in the world and I, your uncle, will have been a part of it. It is something that we have been planning for years, and when it happens, there will be a new force in the world that the Western nations will barely understand. Our success will also mean that I won’t get to see you grow up. This letter will be the only part of me that you ever know. In it, I want to tell you why I did what I did and what you must do to ensure that I did not do it in vain.
The most important thing for you to know is that we are at war with the decedent West, but it is not like any war that has ever been fought before. It is a war of ideas, not of arms, and the battleground is the hearts and minds of more than a billion Muslims in the world, most of whom do not follow our path. The West wants to assimilate these Muslims, the way that it has assimilated every other culture that it has encountered, into its corrupt societies. We cannot let that happen.
The primary weapon that the West will use to try to assimilate us is called “the Enlightenment.” This is a powerful set of ideas that includes things like the freedom to choose one’s political affiliations, the right to participate (or not participate) in any religion, and the right hold (or not hold) any values you choose, safe in the knowledge that the state will never compel you to think or act otherwise. Enlightenment values make no distinction between men and women, between rich and poor, or between Muslims, Christians, or atheists,
Make no mistake about it, these are powerful ideas. They seduce many of our people by telling them that they can live any way that makes them happy, as long as they are willing to let everybody else do the same. They will point to our society and say that we compel belief and rigid behavior where they allow people freedom and self-determination. And as long as the question is phrased this way, we will lose.
But we will win because we do not have to frame the question this way. And here’s why: the Western nation’s don’t really believe in the “Enlightenment values” that they pretend to believe in—or, at least, they are not willing to act on those values when it is hard. Our job is to make it so hard to live up to the values that they profess that they abandon them and pick up our values instead. This is how we win hearts and minds.
If we attack the United States and other Western nations in the name of Islam, they will respond by attacking Islam in the name of Enlightenment values. They will invade Muslim countries, bomb Muslim children, and destroy Muslim lives while talking about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our people, who would be tempted to believe such things in any other circumstances, will never believe them again. The more we provoke them, the more they will overreact, and the more people will see that Westerners do not consider all life precious, only their own.
This is why I had to do what I have done. If we tell Muslims that Islam is incompatible with Enlightenment ideals, they will not believe us. They will say that we are lying, that we just want to hold power by demeaning those who would liberate them and make their lives meaningful. However, if we can get Westerners to say that Islam is incompatible with Enlightenment ideals, everybody will believe them. They will have no choice.
And, ultimately, this is how you win a war of ideas. Our job is not to defeat the West with military force. It is to demonstrate that our ideas are superior to theirs by causing them to abandon their ideas and adopt ours when times get tough. Imagine, if you will, a future United States of America in which Muslim citizens are harassed on the street, in which community’s band together to prevent the building of mosques, and into which Muslims from other countries are forbidden to enter. Imagine a US president openly attacking Islam as a religion of violence and empowering openly bigoted Christian fundamentalists who vow to “make America a Christian nation.”
I hope, dear nephew, that you live long enough to see all of this come to pass, for, when you do, you will know that we have truly won the most important war of our age.