In the fight against terrorism, it is essential to know the enemy. In a recent presentation about his new book Battle for Our Minds, Michael Widlanski spoke about a collective “Islamyopia,” fueled by academia, elite media, and many government officials, that is blind to the political ideology of Islamism.

Widlanski explained how experts such as Edward Said perpetuated misconceptions that we are not threatened by Islamist extremism. Said, for instance, despite the fact that he was an English professor and spoke no Arabic, became American academia’s favorite Middle Eastern scholar. Prior to 9/11, The New York Times published his opinion pieces stating that Ali Khomeini wasn’t an extremist, Saddam Hussein wasn’t a tyrant, and the U.S. wasn’t threatened by terrorism. These views colored intelligence and defense decisions despite opposing reports from field agents. Widlanksi said that the media, and by extension the American public, chose to listen to scholars like Said rather than those with actual on-the-ground insight into these movements. Adherence to this “doctrine of willful ignorance” has already cost thousands of lives.

While we cannot fall into the trap of assuming the problem to be Islam itself, refusing to criticize the political ideology of Islamism is itself a dangerous ideology. According to Widlanski, the best way to evaluate the threat of terrorism is not reading the works of an Arabist who can’t even read Arabic. We need to listen more to what terrorist leaders are writing and what they are saying to one another—especially when they think no one else is listening. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has stated he wants to destroy America. Hamas’s mission is to destroy Israel. We need to take people at their word instead of choosing to ignore their not-so-subtle hints at their intentions. Instead of trying to be politically correct, we need to be factually correct. Al-Qaeda had a clear record of following through on its threats against the U.S., but many were still surprised by 9/11. With innocent lives on the line, there is no excuse for ignoring or belittling known threats to our safety and security.

Caitlin Kincaid is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: