Thursday, December 24th 2015
“Jihadis,” explained “Bint Emergent” -- an “apparent ISIS fangirl” -- “look cool—like ninjas or video game warriors—gangstah and thuggish even—the opposition doesnt.” . . . . “By contrast, ‘Team CVE [a reference to Coubntering Violent Extremism, or Anglo-American counterterrorism entrepreneurs whose role, state- or self-appointed, is to challenge “extremist” narratives],’ consists ‘mostly [of] middleaged white guys with a smidgin of scared straight ex-mujahids [ex-jihadists] and a couple middleaged women.’”
Simon Cottee so opened his December 24, 2015, article, “The Challenge of Jihadi Cool,“ in The Atlantic. “If you want to get a sense of what attracts westernized Muslims to ISIS, you could do worse than listen to one of its sympathizers, as opposed to its legion of opponents, who are liable to pathologize the group’s appeal as an ideological contagion that infects the weak, instead of taking it seriously as a revolutionary movement that speaks to the young and the strong-minded,” he added.
- “Jihadis have cool weapons. And cool nasheeds [a cappella hymns],” she continues. They also have “young fiery imams that fight on the battlefield,” whereas Team CVE “has ancient creaky dollar scholars…”
- [S]alafi-jihadism made being pious cool. It became cool to quote aya [verse] and study Quran. And CVE has absolutely no defense against this. … I love jihadi cant—dem, bait, preeing, binty, akhi [brother]… its like Belter dialect in the Expanse. And it borrows from all languages—because jihad draws from all races and ethnicities. The voice of youth counterculture and revolution for an underclass. Like ghetto culture in the US—the inexorable evolution of cool.
- . . . Bint Emergent’s words, and especially her reflections on ISIS’s countercultural appeal to young people, are worth considering. “The bottom line,” she asserts in one blog entry, “is that the Islamic State is the classic scifi underdog battling a seemingly all powerful Evil Empire America against impossible odds—and in the very best scifi tradition—they are winning.”
- She is scathing about U.S. counterterrorism efforts against ISIS, and dismisses the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign as “the most utterly clumsy and doomed propaganda effort since sexual abstinence campaigns.”
- In a chapter on “Warrior Values” in John Archer’s edited collection Male Violence, the psychologist Barry McCarthy cites the Japanese samurai as the most obvious exemplar of this idea: He is “unflinching in the face of danger, strong and energetic, cunning in tactics though honorable, proficient with his weapons as well as in the arts of unarmed combat, self-controlled, self-confident and sexually virile.”
- The cross-cultural appeal of this figure is hard to deny, as Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen make clear in their study Culture of Honor: “The world over, men are sent out to sacrifice and to die, not for such purely instrumental purposes as deterrence; rather they are motivated by what they and the community expect good, honorable men to do.” “There is,” indeed, Nisbett and Cohen remark, “a romance and an allure to the Masai warrior, the Druze tribesman, the Sioux Indian, the Scottish chieftain…”
- The genius of ISIS propaganda is how skillfully it imbues the idea of jihad not only with traditional notions of honor and virility, but also a strong undercurrent of oppositional, postmodern cool.
- CVE practitioners can’t possibly hope to challenge the glamor, energy, and sheer badassery of violent jihad as an ideal, still less the wider emotional resonance of the warrior ethos on which it draws. But they can reasonably hope to subvert ISIS’s claim to embody that ideal.
- What isn’t yet clear is at precisely whom CVE programs should be targeted, how their counter-messaging should be framed and delivered, and, crucially, by whom. Vague references to those “at risk of” or “vulnerable to” radicalization, and to “credible voices” who can offer alternatives, do little to help in this regard.
- The bigger challenge—as Alberto Fernandez, the former coordinator of the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted when I interviewed him earlier this year—is how to create a counter-narrative that is not merely negative but boldly affirmative, offering a vision that is just as exhilarating and seductive as that of jihadists. “The positive narrative,” he said, “is always more powerful, especially if it involves dressing in black like a ninja, having a cool flag, being on television, and fighting for your people.”
- The problem for CVE is that in an ironic age in which few “grand narratives” remain, no one—except perhaps for the jihadists and their supporters—really knows what that narrative is anymore.