Joe Johnson, publicdiplomacycouncil.org
ISIS-related image from
A number of recent articles in the American press have shed light on whether and how the flow of young people into the so-called Islamic State can be abated. My colleague Don Bishop has chronicled most of them in his “Quotable” series on this blog. Four writers have captured my attention; anyone interested in this should take the time to read them.
· Jane Harman, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and former congresswoman, seemed to start the debate with her Washington Post op-ed “Combating a Digital Caliphate.” She asked: why has the birthplace of the Internet been so ineffective in combating Daesh? "We've failed to mobilize tech and messaging talent" against "tens of thousands of Islamic State boosters ... Amplified by bots that get propaganda trending. … We shouldn’t need computer lessons from 7th Century thugs."
· Richard Stengel, the State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, countered with a fact-filled opinion piece a few days later. "Only 1 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide support [Daesh's] actions, while only about 5 percent support their goals." ISIS propaganda occupies a minuscule share of overall social media activity, and anti-Daesh comment is growing, Stengel claims. He doesn't deny that ISIS is attracting a lot of adherents, but points out: "Let's be clear: ISIS is cynically exploiting a vast, existing market, not creating a new one." Stengel calls for Muslim allies to point up the misery, injustice and barbarity of ISIS, but he also quotes Jordan's information minister: "’The Arab culture of shame and honor contributes to the appeal of ISIL, which portrays its cause as a noble and heroic journey and the fulfillment of the search for honor and meaning.’"
· James Glassman, one of Stengel’s predecessors, agrees that voices of opposition are growing and cites with approval the State Department’s messaging campaign “Think Again, Turn Away” (which has evolved since that writing.) In three online articles titled “Time to Whip ISIS on the Internet,” Glassman says “countering” ISIS’ narrative will not suffice. “The bottom line is this: the United States has little chance of beating ISIS on the Internet until it can believably 1) say that ISIS is losing and 2) offer a plausible and attractive political goal, rooted in human rights, freedom, and democracy.”
Glassman and Stengel seem to agree that the United States is not the right messenger or the right author of that alternative vision. Political and Islamic religious authorities in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia are the only credible voices.
A fourth article, found in last Sunday’s Washington Post, casts a shadow of pessimism about the ability of traditional sources of authority to create that vision. Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, writes of a fellow madrassa student who steered him away from Islamist politics when they were young, but who – after serving for decades as an imam in South Africa -- recently moved to Raqqa and joined the Islamic State.
How could this have happened? Moosa asserts: “Islamic orthodoxy, which controls mosques and institutions worldwide, is out of step with the world in which the majority of Muslims live.” He adds: “Mainstream theologians, who cater for the majority of lay Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, are unable to address such critical moral and theological challenges as evolution, gender and sexuality, or the role and meaning of sharia in a modern nation. That’s because theological education is steeped in ancient texts with little attention to reinterpretation.”
The imam joined ISIL because he believed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to be the new Caliph and felt obliged by his literal interpretation of Sharia to move there. “Ordinary clerics are reluctant to replace the medieval rulings on blasphemy, apostasy and captives with new interpretations of Islamic law based on current realities,” Moosa observes.
The United States and its allies can perhaps overturn ISIS’s propaganda by defeating it militarily and creating facts on the ground. It can work with others like the Right Path Center with United Arab Emirates, launched a few months ago, to challenge Daesh propaganda. The national security apparatus is surely doing more than we read about in the papers.
But where is the positive vision of democracy and opportunity in the regions that are losing the most young people to ISIS?