Reclamation: new Arab discourse empowers civil actors


ISIS may be defeated and devoid of territory, but its ideology continues to spread, The [London] Times reports.

Jihadi fighters are not necessarily driven by religious ideology, disenfranchised or lacking opportunity, and show little interest in suicide missions, according to a new study:

The 40-page study, published by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in conjunction with the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London, looked at 759 Saudi recruits who joined the Islamic State group mostly between 2013 and 2014.. ….In contrast, issues of disenfranchisement, poverty and criminal pasts factored heavily in IS fighters hailing from European countries like France, Belgium and the U.K., to name a few.

An AP analysis of some 3,000 leaked IS documents found that most of the recruits hailing from a range of nationalities, or around 70 percent, came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam — the lowest possible choice on the forms.

Credit: Arab Center

What drives Arabic discourse in today’s diffuse informational environment, and what causes it to change? The answers lie in large part with the teachers, preachers, and media voices that shape it, according to a new analysis.

In the major Arab institutions they work for, most still controlled directly or indirectly by an autocrat, these figures tend to choose their words based on four often contradictory considerations, notes Joseph Braude, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and senior advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Studies and Research in Dubai:

  • The first is what they believe the leader of the country wants them to say.
  • The second is their own convictions, informed by their upbringing and life experience.
  • A third is their concern about the judgment of colleagues and superiors, who bear convictions and constraints of their own.
  • The fourth is their need to build trust with the audience, whose loyalties vacillate between the establishment, its opponents, and popular sensibilities that many influence but no one controls.

Though these factors can also apply in a democratic society, the media, schools, and religious endowments of an autocracy are different in that employees must ultimately find a way to accommodate the ruler, Braude writes in Reclamation: A Cultural Policy for Arab-Israeli Partnership.

A new opportunity has emerged to roll back generations of antisemitic and rejectionist messaging in Arab media, mosques, and schools, says Braude. He explains how to engage Arab allies in a coordinated communications reform effort, support independent Arab champions of civil relations with Israel and Jews, expand the “outside-in” capacities, and degrade Iranian and jihadist channels of indoctrination within the region.

The post–September 11 drive to counter toxic messaging inspired an alternative U.S. approach to strategic communications in the region, he notes:

Though it did not confront the demonization of Israel and Jews head-on, it presented the possibility of doing so more gradually— and accordingly bears assessing. The “partnership approach” began with a theory that crystallized in a landmark 2003 report on U.S. public diplomacy from a bipartisan group of policymakers led by Ambassador Edward Djerejian. At a fraction of the cost of maintaining a regional satellite channel, the report found, the United States could reach a larger Arab audience by collaborating with more popular, indigenous media outlets. ….Such work would likely differ from the assistance that groups like the National Endowment for Democracy gave to nascent democratic media ventures. In order to reach the largest possible audience, it would be necessary to engage outlets owned or dominated by authoritarian establishments. Doing so became feasible after Arab states set out to enact positive cultural reforms to ensure their own stability.

The author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (see below), Braude will discuss these issues with Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, on Monday 11 February, 12-2pm, at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1111 19th Street NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC, 20036. RSVP It will also be broadcast live on the WINEP website.

Haaretz analyst  questions the assumption of a “dichotomous division [which] puts reformists on the side of the West in general and the United States in particular, while conservatives are anti-Western, reject democracy and oppose human rights”:

But how does one define a leadership that executes drug dealers and gay men, imprisons human rights activists without trial and persecutes women whose headscarves aren’t put on “appropriately,” yet has developed a widely praised film industry, lets Western music be played and maintains an excellent education system?

How can a radical Islamic state celebrate the New Year holiday, Nowruz, which has pagan origins, or portray the 1953 ouster of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh by American and British intelligence as a national event that proves the West’s vileness, even though Mossadegh wasn’t religious and the very idea of nationalism is controversial in radical Islamic discourse?

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