The Americans sometimes speak of ‘public diplomacy’; in British English this is usually rendered as waging a ‘hearts and minds campaign’. The Soviets used to practice agitprop, which means agitation and propaganda, something they did, it has to be said, rather well, in that their constant stream of disinformation and downright lies often had a veneer of plausibility about it. The same could be said for Dr Goebbels, the evil genius of Nazi propaganda, and the Ministry of Propaganda in Fascist Italy, which was probably the only ministry that really worked well.
Years ago, after the fall of the Twin Towers, I wrote an article about how the struggle against Islamists had to be won on the plane of ideas, and that a purely military solution was delusional. The late Osama bin Laden clearly saw the value of propaganda and disinformation, for he said, and it was one of his most revealing pronouncements: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” This is of course breathtakingly cynical, for it presupposes that people are never swayed by moral arguments: they do not prefer the good horse to the evil horse; all they care about in the end is to be on the winning side, the strong side. It is an argument that Nietzsche would have appreciated.
It is in this context that we need to see the murder of Western hostages in Syria at the hands of ISIS. The taking of life in this manner is a reminder to us all of the strength of ISIS. They can kill as and when they feel like, and no one is safe. That at least seems to be the propaganda message behind the videos of the murders. We can kill you, and we will kill you, if we like: therefore be afraid. This use of purely arbitrary execution was a tool of the original scourges from the East such as Genghis Khan and Tamberlane; it has always been part of the arsenal of the terrorist.
But if you look very carefully at the article, you see that there is no real evidence of any such conversion. It all rests on the testimony of one man, a Mr Bontinck, a Belgian jihadist turned hostage, though we are told that there are other witnesses as well, but these witnesses have no names. Not only does it seem pretty incredible that Mr Foley would want to become a Muslim; and not only is there no hard evidence that he did; one must also remember that any conversion of a prisoner would be a tremendous propaganda coup for ISIS. Why?
IS has shown that it can destroy our bodies. That’s frightening. But if the conversion stories are true (and I am sure they are not) IS can go one sinister step further: it can show domination not just over bodies but souls as well.
George Orwell, no friend of religion, in 1984 talks of the few square inches inside your head that the all-seeing Party cannot dominate. Big Brother cannot, in the end, get inside your brain. Again, the Catholic Church teaches that conscience is an inviolable sanctuary (something no member of ISIS would accept, and most mainstream Muslims too would reject.) If Mr Foley converted (and I stress I do not for a moment believe he did) this is ISIS’s way of saying that they will conquer not just our bodies but also the inner sanctum of our consciences as well.
Recently ISIS used a Photoshopped picture to show the obelisk in St Peter’s Square flying their sinister black flag. The message was clear: they aim to conquer the foremost Christian sanctuary in the world. By spreading this story of the conversion of Mr Foley, they send out a similar message: we will conquer the sanctuary that is inside everyone who believes in conscience and freedom of religion. We have been warned.
But a question remains. The propaganda and agitation spread by the Islamists ought to be clear to all. What are we in the West doing to counter such lies and to promote our own values, above all the values of freedom of conscience, which is at then heart of Western civilisation? Bombs alone won’t do it. We need ideas, public diplomacy or a hearts and minds campaign of our own.
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