How can a genocidal and an apocalyptic group like ISIS become a beacon of hope for segments of excluded and marginalized communities in the West and beyond? asks Kawa Hassan (above), Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the EastWest Institute’s Brussels office:
First, we live in a paradoxical era: we live at once in an age of unprecedented technological and material opportunities coupled with a deep ideological vacuum. By ideology I don’t mean totalitarian visions, but rather new narratives and charismatic leadership that impress, inspire and electrify people to commit to a cause, to challenge and change the status quo.
In his brilliant, eye-opening Aeon essay ISIS is a revolution, Scott Atran aptly asserts: “Civilizations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.”
Second, ISIS is masterful at engineering and employing the politics of fear to generate mass hysteria and turn communities against each other. … ISIS adds two new dimensions to the weaponization of fear.….
Third, ISIS is sophisticated and adept at manipulating social media to recruit supporters and foot soldiers. This makes ISIS fundamentally different from other terrorist organizations. ISIS is more than a terrorist group; it is a new creature and a marketing brand that successfully sells a utopian version of an Islamic Caliphate to disenfranchised and disgruntled youth.
What could be done to counter ISIS’s brand and messaging? was the question raised at the Real Lessons in Countering Violent Extremism session during the Global Peace Leadership Conference Belfast 2016 held at Queens University, Northern Ireland on September 12:
- First and foremost, ISIS should be de-glorified and discredited from within. The only way to achieve this daunting task is to provide a platform for ISIS defectors to share their disillusioned stories with current and would-be ISIS fighters through social media and traditional media. …. In this regard I would like to draw your attention to a useful project called the ISIS Defectors Interview Project of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
- Second, early warning and the detection of radicalization at family and community levels should be made a top priority for civil society and state institutions before it is too late. Law enforcement authorities should engage with and gain the trust of vulnerable communities. There is an urgent need to set up safe helplines and hotlines between communities and authorities to detect early radicalization at home, at school, and in neighborhoods and address the root causes that lead to radicalization. … . In short, countering violent extremism is a generational project.
“However, the real battle is the battle of grand narratives. Sadly, for the time being we don’t have the great new idea that transcends borders, cultures and religions,” Hassan contends. “Probably this candid phrase from a Muslim leader in Singapore summarizes the current poverty of ideas: ‘We don’t have many new ideas and we can’t agree on those we have’”.