Understand why ISIS messages are so powerful in order to develop effective counter narratives. See an earlier blog in this series. ISIS Internet recruiting pitches present a radical, fundamentalist, anti-West, apocalyptic vision that is extremely attractive to many Sunni Muslims, particularly those who are desperate and disenfranchised. The messages start by being warm and welcoming, with stirring imagery and professionally produced footage. They are expertly targeted to appeal to a potential recruit’s sense of adventure, and to offer an attractive cause worth fighting for. The pitches are designed to produce and support a virtual community of ISIS fans, an echo chamber reinforcing the description of ISIS as a social movement devoted to protecting Muslims, to fighting an unfair global system and to returning Islam to a position of power and respect in the world.
The low-hanging fruit for ISIS Internet recruiting are people who feel inadequate, disrespected, full of unfulfilled ambitions, angry at real or perceived injustices, and who are blaming other people or institutions for their woes. ISIS supports their grievances and reinforces their belief that the cause of their frustration is an unfair world. To some of the losers they attract, ISIS appears to offer all they lack—the glitz and glamour of guns, women, and glory, and the feeling of being part of something big and utopian. ISIS offers them purpose on earth and paradise to come.
As Graham Fuller has recently noted, we cannot avoid mentioning Islam in this context—not because Islam is an inspiration for murder, but because radical Islam has become the ideology of preference for some individuals seeking out a “higher cause” by which to justify their frustrations, resentments, fantasies, and even savagery. There will always be deranged individuals filled with hate, compensating for their failures and hopelessness. They will always seek higher justifications, trying to lend dignity to their own wretched state of mind and acts of rage. For many such people, that higher justification is a religion.
By drawing potential recruits into a fantasy world on the Internet, ISIS channels their rage toward “anti-Islamic forces” that dominate the world and keep Muslims down. The only way to alter their dismal situation, ISIS tells these people, is to join the battle to establish a caliphate and transform the world.
Enlist moderate Muslims to develop and broadcast an effective counter narrative to ISIS messages. Why does ISIS demand the existence of a caliphate? Why do they believe it is necessary to kill or enslave those they regard as infidels? Why does its apocalyptic ideology appeal to recruits from all over the world? Questions like these need answers, and the way to start is by examining the origins and convictions (and contradictions) of ISIS ideology. This examination must come from within Islam itself.
In justifying even their most brutal actions, ISIS leaders are proud to quote texts from the Koran and/or cite actions condoned or urged by the Prophet during that bloody period when Islam was surrounded by enemies and fighting for its life on the Arabian Peninsula.
By far the majority of Muslims, however, oppose ISIS and do not interpret the Koran the way ISIS does. They already have an alternative narrative, a narrative of peace, love and tolerance, based on completely different interpretations of their holy writ and on other actions by Muhammad, especially in the early period just after, as Muslims believe, the holy texts were handed down to him by God. Muslims following the ISIS interpretation of the Koran is as if Christians and Jews decided to base their spiritual practices on the most violent and intolerant parts of the Old Testament and ignore everything else.
Extremist ideology, however, has spread within some Muslim communities, especially in Europe. It's a grave problem that Muslims must confront without excuses. Moderate Muslims need to redouble efforts, begun after 9/11, to ensure that their vision of a more tolerant and inclusive Islam prevails. Their leaders must take up the sensitive and complex role of monitoring aberrant speech and behavior in their own mosques and speaking out against not just acts of violence, but also against those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the Islamic values accepted and practiced by the vast majority of Muslims.
We need to find ways to discreetly support Muslim leaders who are already reaching out to their communities to confront the problem of young people attracted to violent extremism. Low-key government support is already in place for pilot programs in cities such as Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles to forge connections among community-based groups, schools and public agencies for everything from soccer leagues to job-training programs. Much more can be done.