Self-Inflicted Ideological Wounds
Why Such a Shallow Bench of Experts on Islam?
By Michael Tanji | January 9, 2008
Readers of ThreatsWatch and related sites are probably not strangers to the controversy surrounding the firing of Stephen Coughlin, late an Islamic law scholar on the Joint Staff. Reportedly he was sacked for his "extreme" opinions on radical Islam, which included such radical ideas as not affiliating with Islamic groups with known, or suspected, ties to terrorist organizations.
The impetus of his ouster was apparently triggered by Hesham Islam, advisor to Deputy SECDEF Gordon England. Based on what little we know about Mr. Islam we are hard pressed to label him an apologist for Islamists and his dedication to this nation and its principles is perfectly clear. Still, Mr. Islam is the driving force behind the Pentagon's Muslim outreach effort, which includes reaching out to some groups with ties to terrorist organizations.
Put more simply: Mr. Coughlin is not a Muslim who is considered an expert on Islam and Islamic law; Mr. Islam is a Muslim, but as far as we know is not a theologian or scholar of Islam.
The fact that Mr. Coughlin's work is not in the public domain is a problem for those conducting outside analysis because we have no way of judging for ourselves the quality or nature of his work. While it may not be a fair assessment, your author viewed a short extract of Mr. Coughlin's work and was not overly impressed.
Not knowing who else Mr. Islam is working with (besides groups like ISNA, which is not exactly a bastion of moderates) and lacking more detailed information on his qualifications are also problems. Like any other bureaucracy, the Pentagon is not immune from picking "experts" using disputable means.
Let's assume for the time being that both men know their business and a reasonable, well thought out assessment of the situation led Pentagon leadership to decide that the best course of action would be Mr. Islam's. All well-and-good except for this one nagging question: why does the most powerful war-fighting apparatus in the world – one that is currently engaged in battle with extremists fueled by their interpretation of Islam – have such a weak bench of expertise in this critical warfighting domain? Why after six years are we bearing witness to a cat-fight between two – TWO – differing opinions on these issues?
Contrast our efforts to combat Islamic extremism with the cryptologic battle against Japan and Germany. We have no parallel to this effort today. Pockets of expertise, yes. But a concentrated, concerted effort to counter the ideology of our current adversaries does not exist as best as can be determined.
The absence of a deep bench of expertise, on Islam and on the jihadiyun's interpretation of Islam, means that regardless who triumphed in the internal political battle; the death or departure of either individual would bring an effective end to our ability to provide any meaningful, real-time guidance to senior defense officials on the Muslim mind, how radical Islamists think and preach, and how we might best counteract their efforts. That's unfortunate in the extreme because at last accounting, radical madrassas weren't hurting for students and radical Imams weren't declining in significant numbers.
Absent a substantial cadre of scholars of Islam's cultural, theological and legal systems advising our defense and intelligence organizations, we cannot hope to win this war of ideas. Rather than abating the spread of hateful ideologies that ferment future generations of would-be jihadists, we will allow myths to perpetrate and falsehoods to go unchallenged. Our best-but-ill-informed intentions will become time and money sinks. Worse: our inability to successfully prosecute this aspect of the war guarantees that the balance of the conflict will have to contain a primarily kinetic component, when we should be striving to take our citizens out of harms way.