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Is It Possible to Defeat ISIS Ideology With Committee Reports?

The United Kingdom and the UAE announced two very different approaches on Monday to tackling violent extremism.

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While it is unclear whether their statements were coordinated, on Monday the governments of the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom — allies in the fight against the Islamic State — announced measures designed to combat the extremist ideology of the organization. Speaking in Birmingham, England, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to defeat the “poison” of Islamic State ideology through a varied campaign, which includes tackling segregation and championing liberal values. Meanwhile, the Emirati government announced that stoking religious hatred is now considered a criminal act, punishable by a 10-year prison term and perhaps even execution.

Taken together, the divergent approaches offered by the two measures illustrate the enormous challenges governments face in combating something as nebulous as an ideology. In his address, Cameron offered a broad defense of liberalism, referring repeatedly to the need for an amorphous “we” to stand up to conspiracy theories and hatred and to promote liberalism as a key part of the effort to combat the Islamic State. The main thrust of Cameron’s speech was that no one “becomes a terrorist from a standing start,” meaning that radicalization is a process — and a gradual one at that. The key, then, according to Cameron’s announcement, is in fighting intolerance early on — though the prime minister offered few concrete details on who in the United Kingdom would be fighting this battle for liberal values and tolerance and how.

The proposals offered by Cameron in his speech Monday show how far the government has to go in figuring out how to fight that battle. Cameron wants new powers for British communications regulators to shut down channels broadcasting extremist messages. Victims of forced marriage are to be granted lifetime anonymity so that they can feel safe going to the authorities. Soon, parents will be able to petition the government to cancel their children’s passports to prevent them from traveling abroad and joining extremist groups. Louise Casey, a serial problem-solver inside the British bureaucracy, will lead a review on how the government can better integrate its minorities into society. A new “community engagement forum” will be set up to promote moderate voices within Islam. Cameron also demanded that “internet companies to go further in helping us identify potential terrorists online.”

After spending most of his speech offering an impassioned defense of liberal values, these proposals go to show how difficult it is for a government committed to freedom of speech to throw its weight behind an ideological project without trampling on its own commitments to intellectual freedom.

The UAE’s approach of tossing the ideological offenders in jail almost begins to sound appealing by mere virtue of its simplicity.

The United States has also grappled with this ideological struggle to unsatisfying results. “This broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort,” U.S. President Barack Obama said earlier this month. “Ideologies are not defeated by guns. They’re defeated with better ideas — a more attractive and more compelling vision.” The best-known aspect of the U.S. government approach is the oft-maligned Twitter account “Think Again, Turn Away,” a social media campaign that highlights Islamic State atrocities and trolls jihadi social media users. That effort has been harshly criticized by analysts, who argue that it has frequently backfired and mostly provided a bigger audience to jihadi Twitter users.

Nonetheless, the idea that the government can serve as a decisive player in an ideological conflict remains deeply enticing to world leaders. In his Monday speech, for example, Cameron argued in favor of “empowering those moderate and reforming voices who speak for the vast majority of Muslims that want to reclaim their religion.”

Statements such as these are evocative of the last time the West found itself in what it considered an ideological conflict with an implacable enemy. During the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies saw the cultural battlefield as a key part of their effort to undermine global communism. The CIA, for example, funded anti-Communist newspapers and magazines. The agency also aided in the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

But there is a key difference between that propaganda war and the one being waged with the Islamic State today. In the case of the Soviet Union, the publication of Doctor Zhivago was meant to reveal the turmoil and hardships of life under Communist rule and that the image of a communist utopia was a lie. While some Islamic State recruits might be deceived about the role they will play once they arrive in Syria or Iraq, the nature of the organization is clear. The use of brutality is one of the Islamic State’s key recruiting tools.

When he addressed this ideological conflict earlier this month, Obama was skeptical that the United States should be the one waging this war with the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL. “This larger battle for hearts and minds is going to be a generational struggle,” Obama said. “It’s ultimately not going to be won or lost by the United States alone. It will be decided by the countries and communities that terrorists like ISIL target.”

On Monday, at least one of those countries decided they’d be better off fighting extremism with jail time.

Photo credit: PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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