How much do words matter in fighting the Islamic State?
In last week’s summit in Washington on “countering violent extremism,” critics dumped on President Barack Obama for his refusal to use terms like radical Islam or jihadi terrorists.
The president argues that labeling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or al-Qaida crimes as “Islamic” would defame 1.5 billion Muslims and confirm the claims of ISIS terrorists that America is at war with the entire Islamic world. In the conference, which focused on how to prevent these groups from inspiring more recruits, the White House went to pains to avoid any term connecting terrorist attacks to Islam.
This ignores the facts.
The president is correct that ISIS and al-Qaida terrorists represent only a tiny fraction of Muslims, and that proclaiming a war between the West and Islam would play into the story line ISIS is promoting. But refusing to define the problem accurately undercuts any effort to design an effective response.
The global terror threat revolves around al-Qaida and ISIS, whose ideologies draw on a radical version of Islam that has powerful backers in the Middle East and South Asia.
So there’s no use playing word games. You can’t counter a radical Islamist ideology without first admitting its religious roots. But, as I discussed in a fascinating conversation with global terrorism expert Clint Watts, a viable strategy to counter ISIS’s appeal to disaffected Western youths may have less to do with religion than White House critics admit.
“I think it’s fine to call it Islamic extremism, but don’t tackle it in terms of religious ideology,” says Watts, a former executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and a senior fellow at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The United States and the Europeans don’t have the appropriate message to do that.”
As Watts points out, there are two separate issues: how to dampen ISIS’s attraction to youths in Muslim countries, and how to undercut the flow of Muslim volunteers from the West. (The issue of how to degrade and defeat ISIS militarily is food for other columns.)
In the Mideast, the appeal of radical Islam has more to do with failed politics than with the Quran. Dictatorships and would-be democracies have failed to deliver prosperity or justice, so Islamic extremists present themselves to disaffected youths as the only alternative.
The nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood movement was elected to power in Egypt but was overthrown in a coup – bolstering the radical claim that parliamentary democracy is useless. The Washington summit, attended by authoritarian regimes like Egypt, didn’t touch on such thorny issues.
Nor did it address the trickiest issue of all when it comes to the spread of radical Islam in the region: the role America’s allies play.
Saudi Arabia, America’s close friend under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, is still financing religious schools throughout the region and the Muslim world that teach the harsh Saudi brand of fundamentalist Islam. This ideology does not condone jihadi violence but still provides the baseline for ISIS thinking. (Saudi Arabia has beheaded nearly 40 people this year, notes Watts, compared with ISIS’s two dozen.) Radical preachers from the Arab Gulf still preach this harsh variant of Islam over satellite stations and in Internet chat rooms.
“How do you counter Islamic extremism without dealing with its underpinnings, which come from our allies?” Watts asks.
Washington should keep pressing Arab allies to block any funding that promotes radical Islam. And it should encourage the emerging debate in the region over distortions of the religion: The burden of discrediting ISIS’s grim interpretation of Islam rests mainly with the Muslim world.
In the meantime, says Watts, the West must rethink its campaign to discourage young Muslims in the West from joining extremists in the Middle East.
This problem is far more acute in Europe, where thousands of volunteers have left for Syria, than in the United States, where the number is around 150. But, adds Watts, the strategies promoted at the Washington conference, such as community engagement and the promotion of “moderate” Muslim voices, “are unlikely to keep three guys with guns from killing people in the streets of Paris.”
The motivation of today’s Western ISIS recruits stems more from social and psychological reasons than religion – “the idea of adventure, a peer group, ego, fighting ‘evil Assad’ “ – and even the appeal of violence to that male age group.
“The religious authority of the ‘moderate Muslim voice’ will not likely register with the foreign fighter recruit more motivated by the conduct of violence than (by) the Quran,” Watts says. Moreover, these days more fighters are recruited via online chat rooms than in the mosques.
Watts recommends a far more nimble Western engagement on social media, where ISIS is a virulent presence. Instead of putting out messages like, “You are wrong about your religion; democratic values are best,” says Watts, the West should enlist disillusioned returnee fighters who talk about the criminality and ugly violence ISIS uses against Muslims.
High-quality videos (like ISIS presents) and constant Twitter feeds should be injected into jihadi social-media sites. “We could do it with film students and a credit card and put it into the right conversations,” Watts says. “We just have the wrong people.” The U.S. counterterrorism communications program, he says, is crippled by bureaucracy and aversion to risk-taking: “There is a fear of a bad tweet, that someone won’t like it.”
In other words, though ISIS extremism is rooted in radical Islam, combating it requires much more than inserting the word Islamic before terrorism. It requires a strategy far more attuned to realities on the ground.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.