Friday, November 13th 2015
“The Islamic State isn’t succeeding because of the strength of its narrative. It’s succeeding because it can mobilize a microscopic minority.” This headline summed up the November 11, 2015, article by J. M. Berger of the Brookings Institution, “ISIS Is Not Winning the War of Ideas,” in The Atlantic.
The first half of Berger’s essay reviews the concept of the “war of ideas” from the American Revolution through the Civil War and the wars of the twentieth century. Berger notes “This refrain feels modern, but it has echoed through most of American history. The argument that the U.S. is losing a war of ideas or narratives to ISIS is only the latest iteration.” Those who focus on the origins and history of Public Diplomacy will want to learn more from Berger’s review. Here are other quotes:
- The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population, even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.
- ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.
- That reach, and the group’s disciplined approach to social-media incitement and online recruitment, allow ISIS to hunt among hundreds of millions of people and find a precious few thousand who are receptive to its message. It can identify and mobilize minute percentages on the margins of society; because society is massive, these numbers can sound impressive, out of context.
- ISIS is accomplishing some of its objectives in the ideas war, but that is not the same as winning on the merits. As Will McCants writes in The ISIS Apocalypse, “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” Instead, the focus should be on disrupting the process ISIS uses to mobilize its minority.
- The ideology of ISIS will eventually meet its end like that of the Nazis did. Ideas are all well and good, but wars are won in the material world.
- Like the Nazis and the Soviet Communists, ISIS does not exist in an ideological vacuum. The ISIS insurgency emerged from and continues to be empowered by the wildly dysfunctional politics of Iraq and Syria, and the related machinations of regional and global powers.
- And like Nazism and Soviet communism, ISIS’s brand of jihadism will not be vanquished by ideas alone. ISIS will continue to pose an ideological threat for as long as it holds territory and exists as a cohesive entity. The most decisive defeat of its ideas will almost certainly coincide with its defeat on the battlefield.