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Review: John Hughes' Islamic Extremism and the War of Ideas: Lessons from Indonesia
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, 10/1/2011

Review of Islamic Extremism and the War of Ideas: Lessons from Indonesia by John Hughes. Published by Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California. 128 pages, 2010.

There is much confusion and extreme sides to the debate about countering what I term militant or violent Islamist ideology.  Both extremes are useless, from an analytic standpoint and offer no viable policy options to advance America’s strategic advantage.  One unhelpful extreme is “all Islam is evil,” the other is “all Islam is peace.”  Each does not confront the reality of violent Islamists utilizing the ancient scriptural tactic of justifying a worldview or behavior by taking fragments of scripture.  Each does not delve into the nuances between violent Islamist modernist narrative, Islamist political theories, and the wider world of 1.5 billion Muslims who identify Islam as their religion of choice.  That is why John Hughes' slim volume is a refreshing read.  The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, former Assistant Director of the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs makes a compelling case to reinstate or create a new agency focused on strategic level public communications.  He uses his decades of experience to offer ideas on how America should posture itself in the debate over ideas.  The Spring Revolutions in the Middle East, were brought about by a youth yearning for representation and a fair democratic process, they were not stimulated by the ideas of al-Qaida, which leaves Usama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri scrambling for a new narrative in this fluid world of Facebook™ and Twitter™.  

Islamic Extremism and the War of Ideas: Lessons from Indonesia

Hughes begins by discussing the role and evolution of the U.S. Information Agency, the U.S. Information Service (USIS) that had centers and libraries across the world.  He is highly critical of the USIA being subsumed into the State Department, leaving no real coordination of effort.  Of note, the British Broadcasting Corporation is contrasted with U.S. government broadcasting; Hughes discusses the reputation of the BBC lies in the fact that while a government entity its reporting is critical of British government policy, giving it credibility. A chapter uses Indonesia as a case study for various competing cultures, ideas, and religious practices even within Islam attempting to co-exist in a democracy.  At the end of the book is a series of recommendations, to include U.S. public diplomacy having a deft role in international interfaith dialog and conferences arranged by such governments as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.  He quotes General Stanley McChrystal’s comment that information domain is a battle space.  Hughes highlights a discussion with a Sudanese intellectual in which he observes that shura (consultation), ijmaa (consensus), and ijitihad (interpretive judgment) are Quranic values compatible with democracy.  We need fresh and nuanced ideas to address what our adversary al-Qaida has said, that fifty percent of this war is media and perception.

Commander Aboul-Enein is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010).  He is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and teaches an elective on Islam, Islamist Political Theory, and Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding Nuance.


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