public diplomacy

Acknowledging Devotion, Disrupting Recruitment

“The actions of a minority have tried to hijack [Islamic] identity and heritage,” the Sawab Center’s launch video claims about ISIS. As a joint initiative between the governments of the United Arab Emirates and the United States, Sawab aims to counter propaganda from the Islamic State. However, disrupting the Islamic State’s narrative by claiming that the group has “hijacked Islam” is an ineffective strategy because it ignores the Islamic States’ self-professed devotion to the “Prophetic methodology,” which means following the example of Muhammad to the smallest detail. If the United States wants to disrupt the Islamic State’s recruitment and radicalization efforts, the message cannot be that the Islamic State is not a place for “true believers.” A more effective narrative would reach out to “true believers,” or young people who are interested in living their lives guided by a literal interpretation of the Koran, and showing them nonviolent alternatives to the Islamic State.

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Fox News debating the Islamic foundation of the Islamic State’s ideology

In January of 2015, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimated that about 20,000 foreign fighters had traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State. The ISCR estimates that a fifth of the foreign fighters are from Western European countries. A report for the George Washington University found that as of fall 2015, about 250 Americans had traveled or attempted to travel to Iraq or Syria to join the Islamic State. About 900 active FBI investigations, in all 50 states, are against ISIS sympathizers. Of those charged with ISIS related activities since March 2014, the average sympathizer is a male around age 26. The Islamic State’s propaganda and social media tools are much more advanced than previous terror organizations, making it easier for them to reach people who may be vulnerable to radicalization.

Haroro J. Ingram describes the Islamic State’s radicalization messaging as a mix of appeals to pragmatic and perceptual factors. The pragmatic arguments promote the efficacy of the State’s political and military campaigns, citing stability, security, and quality of life under their rule. The perceptual factors create an in-group and out-group dynamic, which forces audiences to make decisions about where they identify. For literal interpreters of the Koran, and especially for converts, a message that forces them to pledge allegiance to the caliphate or identify as an enemy of Islam can be especially compelling.  The use of pragmatic factors, which is often overlooked in analysis of perceptive factors, engages potential foreign fighters in rational decision making. Offering effective pragmatic counter-narratives that are not informed by Western bias or does not cause blowback is an area in US Public Diplomacy that could still be greatly improved upon.

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Screenshot from Islamic State propaganda

Due to a combination of Western bias that is quick to dismiss extreme religious beliefs and a desire to reduce Islamophobia in our own country, American officials and leaders struggle to admit that at its core, ISIS is a religious and traditions-based Islamic group. In the past, the Islamic State called on Western Muslims to cast biblical punishments on their “infidel” neighbors, by, for example, smashing their heads with rocks, poisoning them, or destroying their crops. This medieval religious reality is problematic for public officials, however, because publicly criticizing the religious teachings of ISIS can reinforce the Islamic State’s message. Western bias of how religions should adapt to fit the 21st century, however, would make many public diplomacy officials and political thought leaders feel uncomfortable talking about literal interpretations and calls for biblical punishments in a respectful tone. Even if public diplomacy officials could be convinced to craft their own messaging with a tone that demonstrated understanding for strict devotion,  governments tend not to be the most effective agents for communicating counter-radicalization arguments.

A better way to disrupt ISIS’s recruitment message is to acknowledge the appeal of religious devotion to  the people they are recruiting and have non-government agents offer an alternative path that respects these religious beliefs. A person who finds strength from and feels devoted to the literal interpretation of the Koran is not going to be dissuaded from their entrenched beliefs because of a tweet, YouTube video, or social media campaign. In fact, attempts to dissuade them could be interpreted as waging war on Islam, which would further embolden their beliefs. So instead of trying to change their beliefs, it would be more effective to introduce them to an alternative path, such as Quietist Salafism.

Quietest Salafism is a wing of Sunnism which looks to the Prophet as the model for all behavior, “including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.” Similarly to ISIS, they follow a literal interpretation of the Koran and are committed to “Dar al-Islam,” the land of Islam, and perhaps even some of the more radical policies such as amputation or slavery in the future. However, the main goal of Quietist Salafists is personal purification and diligent religious observance. Causing war and violence that would disrupt lives and prayer and is forbidden, and for that reason, many sects condemn the Islamic State.

The Quietest Salafists’ opposition to ISIS, despite similar interpretations of the Koran and levels of devotion, make them a viable alternative for someone who could be targeted by ISIS. Graeme Wood argues that the Quietest Salafists, both in the United States and abroad, could be used as valuable voices to disrupt Islamic State recruiting efforts by making non-violent appeals to would-be recruits seeking devotion and purpose.

One way to connect the two demographics could be through virtual exchanges. By establishing communication between Quietest Salafists in America with potential recruits in the Middle East, they could create a dialogue about how to live a life of devotion based on a conservative interpretation of the Koran without violence or allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliphate. Another type of exchange could connect Quietest Salafists in the Middle East with demographics around the world that have been identified as vulnerable to ISIS recruiting. In addition to offering the same message of power, belonging, and devotion without the violence as the mirrored exchange, this arrangement would allow Quietest Salafists to bust myths about what life is really like when the Islamic State controls territory. They can attest to the lack of social services and prevalence of violence towards other Muslims. These messages, while powerful and effective in their own right, will be amplified by their honesty. By connecting the exchange participant through mosques, schools, and community organizations, the discussion will come from ordinary people. Outsourcing narratives has shown to be more persuasive and effective in the fight against the Islamic State than a scripted government press release. By facilitating discussions that not only bust the myths of the Islamic State, but also provide a non-violent alternative, we can begin to disrupt the Islamic State’s recruitment.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

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About rebeccakconnolly

Rebecca Connolly is a student at The George Washington University, studying Political Communication with a minor in Law and Society.

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