The Explainer: The battle of ideas

That was a scene from the controversial documentary, “Fahrenheit 91” Critics of American foreign policy often allege, that the country’s destiny is being decided by a small band of intellectuals in the corridors of power.

They’re often referred to –and refer to themselves- as “neoconservatives.”

In turn, their policies find justification in the War on Terror: that is, fighting Osima bin Laden, al Qaeda, and their goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate.

But what is neoconservatism? And what is the idea of an Islamic caliphate? These are two ideas –some say, a clash of civilizations.

An introduction to these ideas in conflict is our task tonight. I’m Manolo Quezon, the Explainer.


I. American trauma


The 1950s for America was a conservative decade. Wealthy and confident, Americans exchanged the social liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for anti-Communism at home and abroad.

Then the Baby Boomer generation, born in the wake of American victory in World War II, began to emerge. At first their rebellion was in the form of James Dean and Elvis Presley: like the movie, they were rebels without a cause, unless sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll can be considered a cause.

All of this took place during the Cold War and the fight against Communism.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was an ambitious man, and aimed at a political agenda that would succeed where Roosevelt’s New Deal…


Truman’s Fair Deal…


… and Kennedy’s New Frontier hadn’t succeeded.


Johnson vowed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice by force of legislation and lavish government spending. A large and ruthless man, Johnson quickly secured landmark legislation: four laws on civil rights; affirmative action and Federal assistance to public education, formerly strictly a responsibility of states; Medicare, Medicade, and public funding for the arts, culture, and environmental laws.

But Johnson’s ambitions were frustrated by events. If John F. Kennedy’s assassination shocked America, two others shook American society: Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy sent shockwaves that provoked riots in major American cities, because of racial and economic tensions. And a riot in Chicago over the Democratic Party convention of 1967.

And there was Vietnam, which further divided American society, and ended in defeat and humiliation.

These  events shook American assumptions about their society and role in the world to their foundations. They pitted the liberally-inclined, against the conservative-minded. Perhaps most surprising of all is that some conservatives were young –even younger than the liberals they increasingly questioned.

These young critics of the Great Society believed that Johnson’s policies smacked of social engineering: government was beginning to resemble the behavior of Socialist countries. They also resented American liberalism at the time as unpatriotic and soft on Communism. Young thinkers like Irving Kristol began to publish magazines in which a new kind of conservatism, they argued, was called for.

Kristol himself, writing three years ago, says neoconservatism is best understood as a “persuasion.”


In domestic affairs, he says necons believe that:


  1. Democracy becomes turbulent when the destructive element of class struggle is introduced. Only a property-owning and tax-paying population can resist what Kristof calls “egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals.” Only a society respectful of property and hard work can apréciate what he calls the “fundamentals of economic reckoning”.
  2. Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services.
  3. Resistance to what they consider the steady decline in democratic culture, on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government’s attention, has resulted in an understandable alliance with traditional conservatives.


In foreign affairs, neocons have four basic theses, or ideas:


  1. Patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions.
  2. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny.
  3. Statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies.
  4. The United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.


But it was under Ronald Reagan, conservative, charismatic, but unconcerned with the details of government, that these thinkers were put in a position where ideas could be acted upon.

The difference between neoconservatives and conservatives in America is best demonstrated by American policy shifts with regards  to Ferdinand Marcos.  The 1950s and 60s saw American policy supporting any leader, as long as he was effective in fighting Communism. Neoconservatives, particularly in the wake of the collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam, argued that American interests were best promoted by being hostile to dictators.

In 1982, Paul Wolfowitz became Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Wolfowitz said the best antidote to Communism is democracy. As he explained it, “You can’t use democracy, as appropriately you should, as a battle with the Soviet Union, and turn around and be completely hypocritical about it when it’s on your side of the line.

It’s said Reagan felt America owed Marcos some sort of loyalty; Wolfowitz and others argued American support for Marcos was endangering American interests. If the Philippines was to be prevented from turning Communist, he argued, a democratic opposition had to be supported, at the expense of Marcos.

Reagan, during the Snap Election, would cling to the old ways, horrifying Filipinos by saying both sides cheated. But Wolfowitz and like-minded people claimed they were able to engineer things, so that America ended up supporting People Power, which threw out Marcos and which the Communists had boycotted. Marcos became one of many old American friends who found themselves abandoned by Uncle Sam.

By 1989, neoconservative thinkers were in a celebratory mood. The Soviet Union collapsed. Democracy seemed triumphant.

The end of the Reagan era and the term of George Bush, Senior, however, ended up in disillusionment for neoconservatives. Bush and his advisers weren’t neoconservatives. And they stopped short of regime change in Iraq during the First Gulf War. Worse, Americans rejected Bush at the polls. The Democrats came back to power for two terms.

But the neocons, as they’re called, went back to the drawing board. They felt that Bush’s failure to kick out Saddam had been the worst of all worlds. Fundamentalist Muslims were outraged over American bases in Saudi Arabia, and American support for the dictatorships of the Middle East seemed a continuation of the self-defeating old American ways.

The election of George Bush, Junior, brought the neocons back to power. But it wasn’t until 911 that they seized the momentum.

In 1989, one of the leading minds, Francis Fukuyama, wrote an influential article, “The End of History.” He argued that with the fall of Communism in Europe, and China’s adopting capitalism in all but name, the struggle of ideas between varieties of dictatorship and democracy was over. Liberal democracy’s dominant, because it’s fundamentally better, since all other ideas divide humanity between masters and slaves. Only democracy offers a system that avoids the master-slave relationship; because of this,  liberal democracy will continue to prove it’s better and more attractive in the future. Finally, this also means some kind of capitalism will also accompany most democracies.

In 1993, Samuel Huntingdon published a different idea. In “The Clash of Civilizations.” He said,


It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.


That despite the end of the Cold War, conflict along cultural or economic lines would continue, based on certain great world civilizations that would now challenge each other.

The result has been a kind of intellectual split, with Fukuyama lately stating he’s no longer a neocon, and Huntingdon’s thesis gaining ground.

If the Cold War had led to the idea of deterrence, where nuclear arms threatened both sides of the Cold War with mutually assured destruction, acting as a brake on dirfect conflict, neoconservatives argued a new policy was required in an age where civilizations sought alternate means to challenge American dominance. They advocated something later adopted by our own government: we know it as calibrated, preemptive response. Neocons called it the Bush Doctrine. It meant going beyond bombing Afghanistan. It required regime change in Baghdad.

And since Communism in its Cold War form only survived in places such as Cuba, North Korea and rebellions in Nepal and the Philippines, neocons seized on the theme that the new Communism was what they called “Islamofacism.”

But what does Osama bin Laden and his followers believe? What are they fighting for? An Islamic Caliphate, bin Laden says. What that is, when The Explainer returns.


II. Searching for a Saladin


That was from the “Lion of the Desert”, in which Anthony Quinn plays Omar Mukhtar, who led Bedouins in their resistance to Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Libya.

Let’s  go back to the map of civilizations that Huntingdon says will clash.

Here are the civilizations he describes:


Western Christendom, in teal on the map.

Orthodox World, in brown.

Latin America, in dark green.

Muslim World, in yellow.

Hindu civilization in light green.

Sinic, or Chinese, civilization, in pink.

Sub-Saharan Africa,in blue.

Buddhist areas, in purple.

Japan, in peach.

Former British colonies in the Caribbean in light brown.

Note that by his account, the Philippines is partially teal and partly yellow.

The West has its heroic myths going back to the time of the Middle Ages, in which Christians attempted to reclaim the Holy Land from Islamic occupation…

The British general Allenby, upon seizing Jerusalem in 1917,  entered it on foot.

But for Muslims, they have their own legends and their own view on the Crusades and of Western occupation.

Their hero is Saladin… chivalrous, and victorious, pious and magnanimous…

And they have no patience for romanticizing Winston Churchill playing with maps after World War I, creating, among others, the nation of Iraq out of the provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire…

Or Benito Mussolini trying to create a new Roman Empire in North Africa in the late 20s and during the 1930s…

Or the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in 1979…

This invasion inspired people like Osima bin Laden to travel to Afghanistan. To Muslims like him, the Soviet invasion was objectionable on many levels. It provoked a nationalist opposition, being an invasion and occupation.

It provoked a cultural response, being perceived as a Slavic attack.

It provoked an ideological and religious response, both in opposition to Communism as a system, and its perception as an anti-religious attack on Islam.

These guerrillas called themselves the Mujaheddin. That is, fighters waging Jihad, or Holy War.

In Islam, Jihad has been interpreted in different ways. Today there are many Muslims who  reject jihad as armed conflict. Instead, they take a mystical attitude, saying Jihad is the means by which Muslims withdraw from the worldly concerns, in order to achieve spiritual depth.

But the interpretation of those who think along bin Laden’s lines is that Jihad is fought to defend the territory of the people of Islam. But it doesn’t end there. They not only believe that Jihad must be waged against non-believers, but also Muslims who interpret their faith differently; they too, are infidels and therefore legitimate targets of jihad. (This is why the Pakistani and Jordanian governments and people, for example, have been targets of terror attacks.)

For those like Osima bin Laden jihad is a just war,  it’s compulsory for Muslims, and requires a communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims.

When the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1988 to 1989, the United Status, which had supported the Mujahedin, shifted their attention elsewhere. The Mujahedin ended up fighting each other. A group with a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam eventually won. They were called the Taliban.

But it was the First Gulf War that cemented the ties between the Taliban and Osima bin Laden.  As part of the preparations for the war, American troops were given bases in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden viewed it as a desecration of Islam’s holy lands:


The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.

* Statement in al-Quds al-Arabi (23 February 1998)


And from there on, his main enema was the United States and anyone in alliance with it. Bin Laden viewed most Middle Eastern governments as degenerate and corrupt, following the wrong kind of Islam or worse, secular status. As he explained,


We have not found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance that it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings.

* Videotape broadcast on Aljazeera and CNN (29 October 2004)


A fugitive in the wake of previous terror attacks against the West, bin Laden has pledged his loyalty to Mullah Omar in Afghanistán.

As Osima bin Laden sees it, theirs is a religious obligation to make possible a hegira, the journeying of Muslim fighters to train for offensive war against the West. Hegira is a reference to the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from his enemies; Bin Laden’s aims are and the elimination of “kuffar” or infidels.

The political and religious objective of all this is a Caliphate. Bin Laden once said, “the pious Caliphate will start from Afghanistan.” The Caliphate is a reference to an institution that existed from the time of the death of the Prophet, to the abolition of the Caliphate by the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s.

A caliphate would be the political union of all territories ruled by Muslims, where the shari’a, Islamic holy law, reigns supreme, thus guaranteeing the union of Church and State and the brotherhood and strength of the faithful.

If you recall our episode on Lebanon, these are ideas with their foundation in the history of Islam, and the history of the Middle East in the face of Western colonialism and home-grown dictatorships. What is different is the use of terrorism to achieve these aims.

If you have a chance, watch a documentary titled “The Power of Nightmares.” Originally aired on the BBC, it’s been shown in other countries and is available on line.

The documentary argues that bin Laden belongs to a group of Muslims who are similar to the neoconservatives in that they are dissatisfied with what society and reject some of the pragmatic accommodations leaders have made in the past.

These Muslims believe that the moral center of Islamic society is starting to decay. They are against individual desires outweighing the needs of society. In response, they’ve formed a movement that requires that a vanguard of Muslims to lead the way back to a moral life through a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran.

The Islamic world, if you recall our episode on Lebanon, is divided in large part, between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority. The Sunni represent the followers of Abu Bakr as the elected khalifa, or political successor, of the Prophet. The Shias chose to support Ali, the son –in-law of the Prophet as the khalifa.

Sunnis in general being less strict in their interpretation of Islam in comparison to the Shia. Bin Laden is a Sunni, but an ultraconservative one. There are four schools of Islamic law in Sunni Islam: the Hanafi,; the Maliki,; the Shafi’i,; and the Hanbali, to which bin Laden belongs.

Briefly, the older and more liberal Hanafi interprets Islamic law according to four sources: the Koran, the Word of God; the sunna, or customs practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest companions. Where these are not enough, the Hanafi school permits resort to qiyas, or analogical deduction-as the Koran forbids wine , then by analogy other intoxicating substances may be forbidden, even if they are not specifically mentioned in the Qur’an. The fourth plank of Hanafi jurisprudence is ijmaa, or consensus of the ulama or learned.

Most Muslims are Zuñís and follow the Hanafi framework; but in Saudi Arabia, the Hanbali jurisprudence dominates. It admits only the Koran and the sunna, and rejects  consensus, opinion or inference. It is very strict, and one variety, Wahhabism, to which Bin Laden belongs, is particularly strict, in Western views, it’s to Islam what Puritanism is to Christianity.

Therefore bin Laden wants to purify Islam, the majority of whose believers, he believes, are in error. He wants to liberate the three holy cities of his faith –Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, from occupation by governments he views as corrupt, impious, and allied with Israel and the United States, the chief enemies of his faith. To accomplish this, traditional battles are impractical; terrorism, on the other hand, is not only to be justified, but glorious because it provides many opportunities for martyrdom.

When we return, we’ll discuss not only this idea of a clash of civilizations, but the clash of ideas.




Here at home, the battle for survival has led to old ideas being challenged. And yet, few new ideas are finding fertile ground. What is happening, though, is that old antagonisms in the Philippines are now being expressed in terms of this clash of new ideas. For centuries, Muslims and Christians in the Philippines have fought out the crusades. Now the West and Islam’s confrontation finds one of its front lines in Mindanao. New layers have been added to an old conflict.

Whether expressed in old or new terms, all struggles claim not only foes, but those who consider themselves friends. An irony of history is that the director of the “Lion of the Desert”, Moustapha Akkad, died in the suicide-bomb blast of a hotel in Jordan last November 9.

Barry Goldwater, senator and presidential candidate against Lyndon Johnson, once famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Tolerance in the face of tyranny is no virtue.” But he said that before the era of suicide bomber.







Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.