By Saad Hafiz
Apart from the security challenges, the struggle against jihadi extremism is primarily a ‘war of narratives”. Extremists have been able to cleverly manipulate, promote and reinforce their master narratives, which are largely based on the west’s hegemonic designs in the Muslim world and its crusade against Islam. They have also been able to exploit, to great effect, narratives related to the weak political, social, and historical conditions of Muslims. Jihadi narratives are increasingly seen as aligned with Muslim fears, desires, and hopes. These narratives have become an asset as valuable as bombs, bullets, and recruits.
Jihadists feed off the propaganda that the Islamic world is beset by enemies from both within and without, who are inimical to the interests of Muslims worldwide. Dominant misinformation themes include, ‘Islam is in danger’ and ‘pure’ Islam must be protected at all costs from heretics and corrupting western influences. Extremists present themselves as the last refuge for persecuted Muslims, a hope for a strong Muslim response, a bastion against the ‘anti-Islam crusade’, a resistance against greedy rulers who betray Islam. Online services and recruitment have been essential to spreading propaganda and ensuring that new converts know what to believe. A result is the widening of the demographics of the jihadist community to include some young Muslim women in the west.
All in all, developing effective narratives to counter the violent extremist narrative is not going to be a simple task. The exceptional nature of the conflict requires all governments and societies to work harder to degrade public support for extremism. Peaceful and humane narratives have been hijacked and reinterpreted by extremists and militants. Humanity has to reclaim and repair these crucial narratives. The narratives on all sides need to change. Narratives from governments and religious leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim, must attack negative messages promulgated by extremist groups to delegitimise their activities. And this effort must be led by a counter-narrative of the radical propaganda and its philosophy that feeds on a distorted version of Islam, a commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about a clash of civilizations.
The content of the counter-narrative must deal with the extremists’ violent and medieval ideology, the religious misinterpretations, the certitude and arrogance, the psychological implications, the actual violent practices, and the concept of martyrdom. A moral counter-narrative can stress the immorality of killing and the use of terror. To further undermine the extremists’ religious narrative, it is advisable to point out the many civilian Muslim casualties that are caused by jihadist suicide bombers and other forms of attack. This should also be stressed in the case of a social counter-narrative, since there is nothing heroic or glamorous about killing innocent civilians and non-combatants. One could even go a step further and effectively ridicule the romantic and heroic notions of this vicious jihadi ideology, in order to undermine the extremist narrative. The fact that mass murder is against Islam and contradictory to the faith must be highlighted.
The counter-narrative can be tailored to the kind of narratives it tries to oppose. For instance, in countering the political narrative, it must be made clear that there is no such thing as a western conspiracy to dominate the world and to oppress Islam. It should point to the inclusive values of the western political process and its many investments made in the developing world. Discordant narratives should be avoided that associate violent extremism with all or most Muslims, provide no credible solutions, and escalate the fear narrative that exists between Muslims and non-Muslims. The escalation of anti-Islamic narratives, heightened security environments, and targeted operations against extremist groups increase existing tensions, build upon the fear narrative on both sides, and increase violence. These activities also increase the number of individuals who feel threatened or targeted, which enables extremist groups to recruit a greater number of individuals. But most importantly, it intensifies the schism between Muslim and non-Muslims in the world.
Extremists thrive on religious divides that have existed for centuries. This threat is becoming greater as global communications allows groups and individuals to share ideas and disseminate narratives almost instantaneously. Governments must identify and focus on the sources of instability and true grievances that reside within individual and community identities. By doing so, governments can redress existing social and religious tensions, provide alternatives to extremism and prevent future violence. This process is not quick or easy, but can provide a viable alternative to existing activities that increase fear and lock governments and disenfranchised individuals into a constant cycle of distrust and violence. An issue that needs to be addressed is that global policies that combat extremism are more tactical and less long term. The reliance has been more on hard options, where counting dead bodies of extremists was given priority rather than countering their narrative. If the pro-radical psyche cannot be purged from societies it will be difficult for states to formulate a long-term strategy to counter extremism, let alone implement it successfully. The consequence of that is only too clear.