Facing ISIS

There are an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If one knows nothing else about Islam, that number alone provides sufficient reason to understand why there is no intrinsic relationship between Islam and terrorism. If Islam did indeed breed terrorists, how could there be so many Muslims and so few terrorists?

To view ISIS as revealing the true nature of Islam makes no more sense than believing that a small fundamentalist sect might define Christianity.

Fundamentalists of all stripes see themselves as the standard bearers of “true” religion in a wider context which, by definition, they view as corrupt. Pure religion only needs to be promoted where impure religion supposedly runs rampant.

As soon as we enter into debates about true or false Islam, good or bad Muslims, we are granting ISIS one of its key claims: that Muslims need to defend Islam by policing who does or does not have the right to call themselves a Muslim.

Both ethically and practically, it should be sufficient to recognize that anyone who identifies themselves as a Muslim, is a Muslim — no litmus test required.

In the following interview, Bernard Haykel addresses the question of whether ISIS is truly Islamic.

In Washington, conceding the fact that ISIS probably can’t be bombed out of existence, there is much talk nowadays about the need to challenge the group’s ideology.

Whoever came up with the slogan, “think again, turn away,” must have been a graduate of the Nancy Reagan school of psychology.

Just say no to terrorism.

Right! That’s sure to work — just like a program to pacify violent urban ghetto gang members by recruiting them to the Boy Scouts of America.

It should be axiomatic that in the art of persuasion you will never make a connection with your target audience if you treat them like vulnerable fools, susceptible to being led astray.

Such an approach is bound to be ineffective and likely rests on a false premise: that ones adversary is engaged in willful deception.

The threat from ISIS derives less from deception than it does from the fact that its leaders actually believe what they are saying.

In his closing address at the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama yesterday referred to the “false promises of extremism.” In using that phrase, he echoed a widely held belief that the leaders of extremist organizations do not genuinely believe in the ideologies they promote — that their intent is to dupe naive recruits.

This is all part of the prevailing narrative that emphasizes the importance of de-legitimizing terrorism. In the same vain, ISIS is described as having perverted Islam, for which reason it should not be called Islamic.

This is a wrong-headed approach because it disregards the foundation of radicalization: the rejection of what are perceived as inauthentic expressions of religion, corrupt political systems, and failed societies.

The radical believes he is tapping into the pure root of something that has in its wider manifestations lost its authenticity. Those who don’t share that perception are themselves seen as having no legitimacy and no capacity to distinguish between authenticity and inauthencity.

When an American president, attempts to engage in PR on behalf of the global Muslim community, those Muslims with whom ISIS’s message resonates, will most likely respond to Obama’s words with howls of scorn.

In Congress last week, as the New York Times reported, there was a rare note of realism from an unlikely source who provided a reality check on the ability of the U.S. government to challenge ISIS ideologically.

“Unfortunately, as we all know, the government is probably not the best platform to try to communicate with the set of actors who are potentially vulnerable to this kind of propaganda and this kind of recruitment,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.

“We try to find ways to stimulate this kind of counternarrative, this kind of countermessaging, without having a U.S. government hand in it,” Mr. Rasmussen continued. “People who are attracted to this don’t go to the government for their guidance on what to do, not the U.S. government and certainly not their governments in the Middle East.”

Neither do they go to their parents, or their imams, or other community leaders.

Obama suggested, among other things, that we need to: “lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like ISIL firsthand, including former extremists.”

That could be useful, but I wouldn’t overestimate the power of such voices. The disaffected have a tendency of being perceived as dropouts — people who didn’t have what it takes, whose commitment wasn’t deep enough, and whose fears undermined their faith.

What would cut the ground from under the extremists’ feet is not a counter-narrative that deligitimizes their claims, but instead a vision that is even more radical than the one ISIS offers.

Obama said:

When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent, or marginalize ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over others, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence. It makes those communities more vulnerable to recruitment. Terrorist groups claim that change can only come through violence. And if peaceful change is impossible, that plays into extremist propaganda.

So the essential ingredient to real and lasting stability and progress is not less democracy; it’s more democracy. It’s institutions that uphold the rule of law and apply justice equally. It’s security forces and police that respect human rights and treat people with dignity. It’s free speech and strong civil societies where people can organize and assemble and advocate for peaceful change. It’s freedom of religion where all people can practice their faith without fear and intimidation. All of this is part of countering violent extremism.

The trouble is, these are all observations that have been made many times before, and especially coming from Obama’s lips they sound like nothing more than a wish-list.

For decades, the United States has consistently undermined democracy in the Middle East. Even after the Arab Spring erupted, Obama was only halfhearted in his support for grassroots democracy movements.

The United States does not have it in its power to deliver democracy to the region. What it could do is set expiration dates on the support it provides to its many corrupt allies.

Ultimately it is the choice of these governments to either continue concerning themselves exclusively with their own survival, or to collectively construct a new Middle East in which its people matter more than its rulers.

Right now, the only choices on offer are between two forms of managed chaos. On one side the institutionalized violence of authoritarian and corrupt rulers and on the other the savagery of ISIS.

Neither side has a vision of the future in which the dignity and respect that ordinary people deserve is even being offered.

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