How to De-glorify and Discredit ISIS

News | October 08, 2016

EWI's Kawa Hassan addresses the topic at the Global Peace Leadership Conference in Belfast as part of the panel on "Dialogue & Trust: Real Lessons in Countering Violent Extremism" on September 12. The conference is organized by the Global Peace Foundation. Hassan's presentation starts around the 2:43 mark. 

I will talk about how we can de-glorify and discredit the narrative and message of ISIS. I think we all agree on the need to provide counter narratives and counter messaging to the barbaric ones propagated by ISIS. But before we think about actions to generate and implement these counter narratives, first and foremost we need to have a deep understanding, going beyond conventional wisdom, of ISIS and its global appeal. Misreading and superficially analyzing the political, economic, social and above all ideological structural reasons behind the rise of ISIS will prevent us from taking advantage of a unique, unprecedented opportunity and an historic moment to produce alternative progressive ideas, and maybe even an alternative social order.

Ever since the emergence and expansion of ISIS, one question has been haunting me: How can a genocidal and an apocalyptic group that turns disgruntled people into beheading machines, that makes sexual slavery the new norm in the 21st century, manage to attract and recruit 38,000 foreign fighters from over one hundred different countries, and thus become the beacon of hope for some segments of excluded and marginalized — whether in reality or perceived — communities in the West and beyond? 

These are my answers.  

First, we live in a paradoxical era: we live at once in an age of unprecedented technological and material opportunities coupled with a deep ideological vacuum. By ideology I don’t mean totalitarian visions, but rather new narratives and charismatic leadership that impress, inspire and electrify people to commit to a cause, to challenge and change the status quo. In his brilliant and eye-opening essay ISIS is a revolution, Scott Atran aptly asserts: “Civilizations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today”.

In short, when it comes to the space of ideas, and I know I am simplifying, we have two choices: either the Neo-liberal order or the Caliphate of Abu Bakr Albaghdadi. Not all of those who join ISIS are motivated by strictly religious reasons. Some even don’t speak Arabic and as such don’t understand and don’t know Islamic texts and scripts. For them, becoming a soldier of ISIS is like being reborn, gaining a new identity and being part of a holy and glorified cause. In the words of Eric Hoffer, they are the “true believers”. 

Second, ISIS is masterful at engineering and employing the politics of fear to generate mass hysteria and turn communities against each other. But to be sure, fear as a weapon and sheer terrorism are not inventions of ISIS. As a matter of fact, they are as old as human history. But ISIS adds two new dimensions to the weaponization of fear. ISIS meticulously documents and broadcasts barbarism with a showcase of pride. In this process, sometimes modern media is providing an inadvertent and unconscious helping hand. Hyper and sensationalized coverage of acts of terrorism creates a hyper reality that at times could be more influential and have more of a lasting impact than terrorism itself.  One very recent example is the Munich attack by a German-Iranian teenager who killed nine people and eventually himself. Once the dust was settled, it turned out that the murderer, Ali Sonboly, was a bullied teen loner obsessed with mass murder. 

Third, ISIS is sophisticated and adept  in manipulating social media to recruit supporters and foot soldiers. This makes ISIS fundamentally different from other terrorist organizations. ISIS is more than a terrorist group; it is a new creature and a marketing brand that successfully sells a utopian version of an Islamic Caliphate to disenfranchised and disgruntled youth.   

What could be done to counter ISIS’s brand and messaging? 

ISIS is suffering serious military defeats, but military means alone will not end it. ISIS is losing territorially but remains winning ideologically. 

First and foremost, ISIS should be de-glorified and discredited from within. The only way to achieve this daunting task is to provide a platform for ISIS defectors to share their disillusioned stories with current and would-be ISIS fighters through social media and traditional media. We need to hit ISIS where it has supremacy, namely social media spaces, by creating and distributing video interviews with ISIS defectors who tell of the horror they witnessed in ISIS-held territories. These should be distributed online but also offline to vulnerable communities to show the real face of ISIS to disgruntled youth. These videos should be slipped into ISIS sites so that would-be defectors hear counter-messaging from real defectors. In this regard I would like to draw your attention to a useful project called the ISIS Defectors Interview Project of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. 

Second, early warning and the detection of radicalization at family and community levels should be made a top priority for civil society and state institutions before it is too late. Law enforcement authorities should engage with and gain the trust of vulnerable communities.  There is an urgent need to set up safe helplines and hotlines between communities and authorities to detect early radicalization at home, at school, and in neighborhoods and address the root causes that lead to radicalization. These are all useful approaches, but they will not yield immediate results. Therefore there is a need for strategic patience, persistent hard work, and funding. In short, countering violent extremism is a generational project. 

However, the real battle is the battle of grand narratives. Sadly for the time being we don’t have the great new idea that transcends borders, cultures and religions. Probably this candid phrase from a Muslim leader in Singapore summarizes the current poverty of ideas: ” We don’t have many new ideas and we can’t agree on those we have”. Ending up with this sober quotation is not a call for pessimism and apathy. On the contrary we should maximize our intellectual and activism work to generate compelling and progressive ideas to reach and mobilize vulnerable individuals and groups and change status quo.