from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Challenge of ISIS is Not Only Military

October 25, 2014

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The military challenge posed by ISIS (or the "Islamic State") is grave, as we have seen in both Syria and Iraq. It has destroyed the border between those two states and roams over both at will. It captured Mosul and threatens Baghdad; its forces defeated the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Pesh Merga easily in several battles. The threat was sufficient to force an extremely reluctant President Obama to pivot to the Middle East, use American forces, and work to build a coalition of states that would bomb the ISIS forces.

I’ve long been in favor of such steps and wish the president had taken them years ago. But I believe it’s essential that we also understand the ideological appeal of ISIS to many young Muslims. Two recent New York Times articles are suggestive of why. A story entitled "Europe Tries to Stop Flow of Citizens Joining Jihad" reported on efforts to persuade young Muslims in Belgium, France, and the UK from joining the fight in the Middle East. Then "New Freedoms in Tunisia Drive Support for ISIS" noted that more young people from Tunisia had joined ISIS than from any other Arab state--despite Tunisia’s small population and its nascent democracy. Why?

One young man is quoted as saying “The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful.” Another says “The division of the countries is European. We want to make the region a proper Islamic state, and Syria is where it will start.” A third adds that “Maybe when the war is over, we will all be in an Islamic state, for all practicing Muslims, under Shariah."

The point is that ISIS holds an ideological appeal for some young Muslims, and we need to identify and counter it to defeat the group. We see it as a despicable, medieval group that engages in beheadings, uses women as sex slaves, and embraces endless violence. Such facts are often denied by young Arabs attracted to ISIS, who believe these accounts of ISIS brutality are manufactured by Western governments. Instead they see something very positive. In part it is simply an escape from poverty or a life without opportunity and purpose. But it’s also more, as those quotes suggest: ISIS represents for them an opportunity to build a true Islamic society and state. In this ideal state, shariah would be the law of the land, Muslims would make their own way, foreign powers would be excluded, and justice would prevail. Government would not allow European or American interference, and the state and society would truly be theirs and would reflect their own values more purely. Instead of being marginal, lost figures in European societies or Arab states, they would be at the heart of an historic effort to build a new and just society.

Of course this is all false: like the Taliban, ISIS would be brutal in power. But the image of a truly Islamic society built on faith and justice attracts all too many young Western Muslims, and the struggle against ISIS must disabuse them of their illusions as well as use police action to prevent them from being recruited.

We can see how to do this. One young lawyer quoted in the Times story "estimated that as many as 60 percent of those who come back profess disappointment at the strife between the Islamic State and its former partner, the Nusra Front, the Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel group. ’They never thought there would a fight between Muslims,’ she said. ’They find that they have been deceived and sold like mercenaries.’” Another young man "who said he backed the Islamic State, acknowledged that friends had returned dismayed. ’They thought it would be like joining the side of the Prophet Muhammad, but they found it was divided into these small groups with a lot of transgressions they did not expect, like forcing people to fight.’"

It seems incredible to most of us that anyone can see anything positive in ISIS, but obviously some young people do--at least until its internal contradictions are revealed. That is, the best arguments will come not from our perspective but from theirs: the proofs that ISIS leads people and indeed forces them into murderous fights with other Muslims. There are by now plenty of disillusioned returnees whose testimony will be extremely useful in dissuading other young Muslims from buying the ISIS propaganda. Our own disgust with ISIS should not blind us to the appeal it holds, and to the need for a broad and skillful propaganda effort of our own to reach young Muslims with the truth. Police and military action are essential--but so is organizing a professional, persuasive effort in all the relevant languages to show young Muslims that ISIS plays upon and betrays their ideals.

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