Crafting Counter-Narratives in Islamic Terrorism: America’s Failures and Lessons

The discourse around the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) use of social media evolves as the group continues to organize, sponsor, and inspire global acts of terrorism. Though the territorial holdings of ISIS have retracted in recent months, their ability to instigate acts of violence and recruit supporters on an international level has been a major policy concern for the U.S.—emphasizing the urgent need for an effective strategy to combat the potency of terrorist propaganda.

In “Talking to the Muslim world: how, and with whom?” Amitai Etzioni argues that the appeal of terrorist propaganda lies less in flash and more in substance. 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 centering on capitalism, secularism, and democracy have largely failed.

Globalized capitalist economics have devised the most appealing of these counter narratives not through deliberate U.S. government propaganda, but from 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 terrorism by pointing to two studies: one study by James Piazza which fails to establish a statistically significant link between poverty and terrorism; and a second by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey which demonstrates that terrorists tend to be disproportionately well-educated. However, his arguments lack nuance by failing to address that while high-profile terrorists often do 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, which has the potential to increase feelings of disenfranchisement and injustice that can inspire violence through terrorism.

Etzioni asserts that secularism is the most difficult U.S. ideal to promote in much of the Muslim world. In a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Muslims in countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia favored Sharia law. If such polls are accurate, they jeopardize the stated U.S. goals of democracy and secularism. Though Sharia law is practiced differently in different countries, support for it does indicate that secularism is not a value openly supported by some in certain majority-Muslim countries.

U.S. assumptions that democracy is universally desirable are also flawed. Etzioni argues that U.S. appeals to democratic ideals in the Muslim world have been largely unsuccessful out of the failure to recognize poor economic conditions and sectarian hatred as serious roadblocks. While Etzioni 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.

Rather than attempting to promote Western ideals, Etzioni argues that the U.S. should engage with Islamic theology 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: those already committed to religiously 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 themselves actively revolting. Therefore, it is the job of western “propagandists” to use Islamic texts and thinkers to combat violent interpretations by promoting peaceful ones.

Etzioni advises the U.S. to significantly increase funding for local NGOs in the Muslim world that promote nonviolent interpretations of Islam. However, they should do so secretly to avoid undermining any organization’s credibility by association. Additionally, the U.S. should significantly pressure regional allies like Saudi Arabia to promote moderate, nonviolent Islam rather than the radical, violent Islam they have been known to promote, albeit covertly and often through the actions of powerful individuals rather than the state.

Etzioni proposes a unique solution to the ideological fight against Islamic terror. His arguments acknowledge the undeniable reality that many Muslim communities around the world do not share the West’s values. An understanding of these flawed anti-terrorism tactics should help signal Western actors to explore alternative narratives to combat and prevent violent terrorism.

Article source: Etzioni, Amitai. “Talking to the Muslim world: how, and with whom?International Affairs 92 6 (2016): 1361-79.

Featured photo: cc/(arindambanerjee, photo ID: 105557525, from iStock by Getty Images)

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Hunter Pribyl-Huguelet

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