U.S. Commanding Gen. Douglas Stone just completed a year-long mission to improve detention centers in Iraq. His focus, though, was not only on prison conditions but on instituting programs that isolate Muslim extremists and empower moderates. The programs
feature Islamic civics courses, a directory of radical refrains with responses from moderate passages of text, and religious discussion groups, run by imams who teach from what Stone calls a “moderate Hadith.” It’s all part of a viral marketing campaign, designed to get the detainees and their ilk to spread Islamic moderation by word-of-mouth.
In reality, this is what we should expect. The amorphous war on terror is a war that can only be won on the ideological battlefield, even if the physical battlefield is so bloody. But, as Andrew K. Woods writes in Slate, what is surprising is just where Stone chose to wage this war:
Rather, it is remarkable that the Pentagon would have the chutzpah to locate what Stone calls the “battlefield of the mind” in its own detention centers.
Prisons are where so many Islamist identities are born, nurtured, and plugged into violent networks. It was in Cairo’s prisons that Sayyid Qutb crafted an intellectual framework for modern Islamist terrorism, and Ayman al-Zawahiri underwent the transformation that would lead him to launch al-Qaida. Or think of our own little “jihad university” on Guantanamo Bay. Detention centers present a second-order problem, too, in how the global public receives them. The torture at Abu Ghraib may have been the best thing the United States ever did for al-Qaida. And now, along comes a Marine reservist from California, hard as hell, McKinsey-savvy, who claims he can turn detention facilities into a strategic asset. Can it possibly work?
Looking at similar programs in other countries, the answer seems to be “maybe,” but only if the focus is on fulfilling basic human needs rather than interpreting Islamic texts. Any mention of religious doctrine will make the project look more like a war on Islam than a war on terror. And after our Christian president invaded and destroyed Baghdad, our legitimacy on that front isn’t great.