American Failures in Crafting Counter-Narratives to Islamic Terrorism

The discourse around ISIS’s use of social media has evolved as the group continues to organize, sponsor, and inspire global acts of terrorism. Though ISIS’s territorial holdings have retracted in recent months, their ability to instigate acts of violence and to recruit supporters on an international level has been a major policy concern for the U.S. government as well as the broader international community, which drives the need to identify an effective strategy to combat the potency of terrorist propaganda.

In “Talking to the Muslim World,” Amitai Etzioni argues that the appeal of terrorist propaganda lies less in flash and more in substance than we often assume. Those won over by propaganda, he argues, are not deceived by alluring imagery. Rather, they are seduced by what they view as a believable narrative concerning the religiously-justified fight of the world’s oppressed Muslim populations against the West and Western-supported state actors in the Middle East. By contrast, he argues that U.S. counter narratives have largely failed. These narratives generally center on three values: capitalism, democracy, and secularism. It should be noted, however, that Etzioni’s arguments rest largely on orientalist assumptions of a monolithic Islamic world that is motivated only by religiosity.

Globalized capitalist economics have been by far the most appealing of these counter narratives not because of deliberate U.S. government propaganda but because of the inherent appeal of foreign goods and services, including international brands and American movies. However, Etzioni challenges the traditional U.S. assumption that prosperity combats the roots of terrorismby pointing to two studies. One study, by James Piazza, fails to establish a statistically significant link between poverty and terrorism. A second by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey demonstrates that terrorists tend to be disproportionately well-educated. However, his argument on this point lacks nuance: while high-profile terrorists often come from wealthy families and nations, their largest-scale operations are often in poorer countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Nigeria. Combating poverty in these nations may play a central role in preventing terrorist takeovers of regions within them. In this vein, Etzioni highlights the theory that globalization reduces “absolute deprivation” but increases inequality. This can lead to an increase in feelings of disenfranchisement and injustice which may take on violent dimensions through terrorism.

Etzioni argues that U.S. appeals to democratic ideals in the Muslim world have failed largely because of a failure to recognize poor economic conditions and sectarian hatred as serious roadblocks. U.S. assumptions that democracy is universally desirable are also flawed. Interestingly, though he claims that economic underdevelopment is a barrier to democracy, he does not believe it contributes to terrorism. However, he acknowledges that U.S. support for grossly undemocratic regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia undermine the credibility of U.S. appeals to democratic ideals. Nevertheless, Etzioni’s position ignores the immense variety among and within Muslim-majority societies as well as historically successful instances of democracies in the MENA region, such as Turkey and Tunisia.

Etzioni says that secularism is the most difficult U.S. ideal to promote in much of the Muslim World. A majority of Muslims polled by the Pew Research Center in countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia favor Sharia law. If such polls are accurate, they put the stated U.S. goals of democracy and secularism into conflict. Though Sharia law is practiced differently in different countries, support for it indicates that secularism is not a value openly supported by some in certain majority-Muslim countries.

Rather than attempting to promote Western ideals, Etzioni argues that the U.S. should engage with Islamic theology itself in order to combat the violent excesses of Islamic terrorism. Etzioni states that U.S. counter narratives ought to be directed toward the group that ISIS propaganda targets, namely those already committed to fundamentalist Islam who are unsure whether or not to translate this fundamentalism into violent action. This demographic is unlikely to be swayed by appeals to secularism and may find them actively revolting. Therefore, it is the job of western “propagandists” to use Islamic texts and thinkers to combat violent interpretations and promote peaceful ones.

Etzioni advises the U.S. to significantly increase funding for local NGOs in the Muslim world that promote nonviolent interpretations of Islam. Additionally, the U.S. should significantly pressure regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia, to promote moderate, non-violent Islam rather than the radical, violent Islam they have been known to promote in the past. This solution can be seen to acknowledge the undeniable reality that many people around the world do not share the West’s values, while simultaneously acknowledging the orientalist notion that Muslims drawn to religious narratives promoting terrorism may be more successfully deterred by appeals to religion.   

Article source: Etzioni, Amitai. “Talking to the Muslim World: How, and With Whom?International Affairs 92 (2016): 1361–1379.

Featured photo: cc/(zabelin, photo ID: 170228323, from iStock by Getty Images)

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Hunter Pribyl-Huguelet

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