Barack Obama’s decision to order limited air strikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq must be the first salvo in a coordinated, long-term and broad campaign by a large, even if undeclared, coalition to attack and ultimately break this monstrous evil. A key target must be Islamic State’s powerful messaging and aura of success.
Arab states cannot afford to be bystanders while Americans, Kurds and the Iraqi government confront this deadly menace. A broad campaign is required, involving many states working, independently if necessary, towards the same goal: a determined effort to degrade, discredit and ultimately eliminate this cancer.
Arab governments should put their differences aside, recognise that the Islamic State is an unprecedented threat to their interests, societies and futures, and act accordingly. If it is allowed to continue to grow in prestige and power, the danger is that it could become a defining feature in an evolving Arab political landscape. Its strength must be systematically degraded and its mystique shattered.
Challenging the Islamic State’s marketing is crucial. The group has a clear, simple and readily digestible ideological message that taps into its target audience’s deepest fantasies with alarming precision. It’s basically just another regurgitation of standard Salafist-Jihadism. However, it’s not the novelty of the ideas, but the slickness, simplicity and accessibility of Islamic State online propaganda that has been uniquely effective with its target audience.
These messages have succeeded in drawing thousands of foreign fighters, first to Syria and now to Iraq, to pursue a goal that is explicitly anti-Syrian and anti-Iraqi. Islamic State propaganda is not just well-calculated and produced, it has successfully popularised the mythos of an “Islamic success story”.
By coupling extreme rhetoric with apparently stunning battlefield successes, the Islamic State has captured the imagination of an international constituency of young fanatics hungry for “martyrdom”.
Fighters enthusiastic about dying are formidable enemies who strike terror into the hearts of their foes. By promoting this theme to both its own cadres and potential enemies, the Islamic State has greatly magnified the effectiveness of its relatively small forces.
Their line is so simple that it might be, and in many ways actually is, aimed at children. Muslims everywhere, they say, are besieged by everyone else. Muslims suffer these abuses because they have not been sufficiently rigid, literalistic and merciless. The restoration of a “caliphate” is a religious duty – as are the draconian laws and vicious terrorism – that the Islamic State practices. It presents a diagnosis for real and imagined Muslim woes and a prescription: to embrace its assault on Syria, Iraq and, eventually, all other Muslim states. “Syria does not belong to the Syrians and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis,” thunders self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Instead, the Islmaic State offers the vision of a utopian Muslim universalism in an undifferentiated and gigantic caliphate across the Islamic world, without distinctions among individuals except their degree of zealotry.
This simple message resonates because it is coherent, idealistic and fills a void. But most of all, it promises, and appears to be delivering, tangible and striking political and military successes. All that is required, Islamic State rhetoric implies, is unrelenting extremism and patience. It’s the political equivalent of clerics who preach that giving money to them or their institutions will prompt God to reward the credulous faithful with even greater income in recompense. It’s a familiar and dastardly scam.
But the Islamic States’s message taps into deep-seated ideals among some Muslims, including enraged young men, such as restoring the long-lamented caliphate; radical Muslim egalitarianism (but only for those who embrace its most extreme iteration); an alleged return to purported originary Islamic virtues; and a supposed purification of religion and society.
Its vision of replacing the current state system with a putative re-created pan-Islamic empire is utterly preposterous. But it resonates deeply with some who are disgusted with the present circumstances and yearn for a return to what they imagine had been a golden age. This propaganda is not being sufficiently challenged by other, more healthy narratives and success stories about how Sunni Muslims can defend their rights and protect their interests.
Breaking Islamic State’s narrative spell requires two key manoeuvres.
First, because in society and culture something will always beat nothing, this message must be countered with alternative models of empowerment. This answer cannot be “less radical” forms of Islamism such as the Muslim Brotherhood, since their ideology has provided a crucial conceptual basis and a prime training and recruiting hub for Salafist-Jihadist groups.
Second, serious measures to attack the Islamic State both from the air and on the ground by its enemies in Syria and Iraq, must be promoted and supported with urgency and intensity in order to debunk the Islamic State’s promises of divinely ordained success.
There is no excuse for failing to act now. As things stand, if a sufficient kinetic and ideological campaign – the elements of which are all in place – is pursued with indispensable determination, the Islamic State and its mystique can be broken, perhaps more quickly than most imagine. But if it is allowed to continue to grow, not only will the cost and difficulty of opposing it multiply, the damage it does before it is finally destroyed may be unimaginable.