Sunday, November 1, 2015

Quotable: Jennifer Jefferis on state narratives

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Friday, October 30th 2015
“If we accept that violent extremist messaging is effective when it presents a good story and when that story is coupled with a plan for action, it is only logical to conclude that our efforts to counter it must do the same. It is easy for governments to get caught up in the day to day of clear and present threats, so much so that they fail to articulate a narrative of their own.”  This was among the conclusions of Jennifer Jefferis, Associate Professor at the National Defense College in the United Arab Emirates.  Her article, “A Fight for Narratives in the Battle Against Extremism,” appeared in the Summer, 2015, issue of IO Sphere, the journal of the Strategic Command’s Joint Information Operations Warfare Center.

. . . without a narrative, states are often inclined to take an ad hoc approach to countering extremism. This is not to say that an operational and tactical plan is lacking, but it is to say that it is easy to forget where these plans ought to fit into a broader state purpose. When states focus exclusively on what they are fighting against, it is easier to justify actions that ultimately only feed into the extremist narrative. To provide an example -– the use of drones for targeted killing is a very effective means of stopping individual terrorists, and occasionally of hampering the advance of terrorist organizations. However, as was mentioned earlier, it is also a very effective tool used by the extremist groups themselves to support the narrative that decries the moral depravity of their enemy.

But this can be applied in the reverse as well. When states are making great strides to empower their citizenry and enhance the conditions within their borders, it is crucial to include these actions within a narrative that highlights and explains them.

The second problem is that without a narrative it is hard to identify who the enemy actually is. All too often “good” is defined as who is in power, and “bad” is defined as those who contest it. In fact, a good state narrative will have little to do with who is in power at any given time, and much to do with what principles that state exists to uphold. Those principles can help maintain the boundaries around threats real and threats imagined. When a state sees a threat from anyone who questions its decisions, it will be hard to justify its narrative, much less inspire action on behalf of it.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a review of programs to counter Violent Extremism and the review demonstrated that solutions to violent extremist messaging cannot be the work of government alone, but must be a partnership between states, civil society, and the international community. It is only when state and non-state organizations to make a deliberate effort to explain their actions in light of a strategic narrative that they can make effective strides in countering extremist messaging. Doing anything else leaves a powerful stage open to actors who do not deserve the spotlight.

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