Some thoughts on how to change the narrative on violent Islamic extremism
Best Defense guest columnist on the troubling narratives surrounding religious extremism.
By Jim Sisco
By Jim Sisco
Best Defense guest columnist
Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, the dominant “narrative” in the news is centered on countering violent Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, the current narratives associate violent extremism with all or most Muslims, provide no credible solutions, and escalate the fear narrative that exists between Muslims and non-Muslims. Television and radio terrorism “pundits” provide their opinions on “no-go towns” in the United Kingdom (UK), radical extremist sleeper cells, terrorist networks, and al-Qaeda and ISIS influence around the world. They present ideas to counter extremism that focus on increasing security protocols, closing borders, restricting travel, and stepping up monitoring and surveillance activities against individuals and groups. This is evidenced by the recent UK and Kenyan terror laws, which are intended to counter radical extremism through heightened security measures, but also infringe on individual freedoms. These activities are reactive, lock both sides into a cycle of insecurity and conflict, and, most importantly, do not attack the root cause of the problem.
The U.S. government, which is viewed as the global leader in combating terrorism, provides similar solutions and narratives. The Department of Defense (DoD) relies on military operations, including drone strikes, to kill high value targets and bombing campaigns to support military operations being conducted by its strategic partners. At the same time, the Department of State (DoS) legitimizes extremist groups by placing them on terror lists and engaging them through social media campaigns. DoD and DoS activities fail to attack the sources of extremist ideology and send the wrong messages to our partners and the global community. Having James Tailor accompany John Kerry to France and having him sing “You’ve got a friend” to the French President—after missing the peace march attended by world leaders—is hardly the narrative the U.S. Government should be disseminating.
The issue is not violence and the primary narratives in the media are wrong. Violence is merely an expression of desire and a means to achieve an objective when other means are not possible, apparent, or rewarding. Efforts to counter violent extremism must focus on addressing the desire, particularly desires expressed by individuals who identify with an unmet expectation. Individuals targeted for recruitment are often ostracized by their communities or societies because of their religious beliefs and lack economic opportunity. Terrorist organizations understand this concept and design and use narratives and strategies to prey upon disenfranchised individuals who do not have a voice or lack a shared identity within their community. Extremists provide these individuals a sense of purpose and belonging, and convince them that there is no other choice but violence to protect their identity, which typically focuses on religion. This is important because the primary issue in most religious and ethnic conflicts is identity.
At the center of violent extremism are the identities that reside within individuals, groups, communities, and societies. Identity is the most fundamental and strongest human need, which explains why it underlies most conflicts. Identity conflict occurs when individuals define themselves in opposition to another entity, including governments, and can quickly escalate into violence. Societies are formed from communities with shared beliefs, and communities are formed from individuals with shared identities. Therefore, identity and narratives are the basic factors in the formation of violent extremism. Radical extremist groups reject the shared goals and beliefs that exist within societies because they are a direct threat to their ideology and existence.
An ideology cannot be defeated with brute force or a reliance on technology. Additionally, physical security is merely a deterrent and does not attack the root causes of insecurity or violence. Yet governments typically respond to threats or acts of terrorism by alerting its citizens, heightening security and mobilizing their security services. In response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, 88,150 French security personnel were mobilized, including 50,000 policemen, 32,000 gendarmes, 5,000 mobile police, and 1,150 soldiers as part of a Vigipirate Plan. In Belgium, up to 300 soldiers have been deployed in Brussels, Antwerp and elsewhere to guard against terrorist attacks following the recent anti-terror raids and arrests. And in Greece, police have arrested several people over alleged links to the suspected terror plot in Belgium. Frustrated individuals within Belgium’s Muslim communities say that the best long-term protection for the nation would come from improved efforts to integrate vulnerable immigrant groups, not from added security measures.
The escalation of anti-Islamic narratives, heightened security environments, and targeted operations against extremist groups will only increase existing tensions, build upon the fear narrative on both sides, and increase violence. These activities also increase the number of individuals who feel threatened or targeted, which enables extremist groups to recruit a greater number of individuals. But most importantly, it intensifies the growing divide between Muslim and non-Muslims throughout the world. This religious divide has existed for centuries but is becoming greater as global communications allows groups and individuals to share ideas and disseminate narratives almost instantaneously. For example, in response to the Israeli attacks on Gaza last year, thousands of Muslims in Mauritania took to the streets to protest. More recently, 10 people were killed, 45 churches were set on fire, a French cultural center was raided, and businesses owned by Christians were targeted by Muslim protestors in Niger. Protests were also experienced in Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Algeria. These are only a handful of examples that demonstrate how narratives and identity drive violence.
Around the world governments are engaged in identity conflicts against individuals, criminal organizations and extremist groups. At the center of these conflicts are the various ethnic, religious, and social identities that foment unrest and drive violence. Traditional approaches are not effective when dealing with identity conflict and require a population-centric approach to aid governments and corporations to identify the true drivers of instability and create effective narratives to counter their effects. By adopting a population-centric approach, governments can shape narratives to delegitimize violent extremism and develop plans to systematically solve the complex social problems they encounter.
The narratives on both sides need to change. Narratives from governments and religious leaders—Muslim and non-Muslim—must attack negative messages promulgated by extremist groups to delegitimize their activities. Governments must identify and focus on the sources of instability and true grievances that reside within individual and community identities. They need to destroy extremist groups’ credibility by demonstrating how they act in their own interests and use individuals as a proxy force to achieve their objectives. By doing so, governments can redress existing social tensions, provide alternatives to extremism and prevent future violence. This process is not quick or easy, but provides a viable alternative to existing activities that only increase fear and lock governments and disenfranchised individuals into a constant cycle of distrust and violence.
To accomplish this, the United States must first reduce its military footprint in Muslim countries. Research into the causes of suicide terrorism suggests radical Islam is not the primary factor that drives individuals—the root cause of the problem is foreign military occupation. Therefore, the U.S. Government cannot be the face fighting the global war on terrorism and should allow its coalition partners in the region to directly engage terrorist organizations like ISIS. Moreover, U.S. support for coalition governments should focus primarily on economic initiatives to drive development, not military training and advanced military weapons, which frequently fall into the wrong hands. Unemployment and lack of upward mobility within European Muslim communities is one of the most important factors driving extremism. Economic inequality has a greater influence than religious ideology in the majority of individuals who embrace extremist ideology. The promise of a better life is a difficult narrative to counter, when you have no opportunity in your current environment. Finally, the United States needs to promote and empower moderate Muslim leaders at home and abroad to delegitimize radical extremists and their narratives.
These broad recommendations provide the U.S. and other governments a foundational strategy for a long-term and sustainable approach to combat violent Islamic extremism. Policies and programs need to be developed and implemented under this framework, which are tailored to address the unique nature of the identities in specific locations, regions, and countries. Many of the recommendations are a systemic change in the approach for policymakers, but that is required to deliver lasting solutions for the dynamic social environments that exist when combating terrorism.
Jim Sisco is a former recon Marine and naval intelligence officer and is currently the president of ENODO Global, a business intelligence firm that focuses on population-centric analysis to solve complex social problems in dynamic cultural environments.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.