Today, violent Islamist groups such as the Islamic State presents a poisonous worldview by diffusing sets of ideas and norms. A multi-pronged strategy is vital to effectively neutralise these ideas.
Neutralising the diffusion of violent Islamist ideology upheld by groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda is not a conventional one; rather it is a war between wholesome norms versus a poisonous worldview driven by a diffused and radical Islamic insurgency. By employing religion as its ideology, violent Islamists had attained a surprisingly wide base of support throughout the Muslim world. Hence, to win this war entails not just winning on the ground or in the air but to successfully engage a free flow and exchange of ideas and information to refute the dogma of the radical poisonous worldview.
To counter violent Islamism, it is imperative to comprehend how these violent ideas or norms emerge and become institutionalized? In this war on ideas, how do we effectively compete with these ideas and norms presented by the violent Islamists? And once these norms are identified, how do we sustain norm compliance?
The Spread of a Poisonous Worldview
Terrorists’ networks such as IS and Al-Qaeda represents a shift in the way terrorists operate, a shift made largely possible by the changing rules of the New World Order. Former Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden once claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union has led the US to assume the role of “a master of this world and establishing what it calls the New World Order.” Ironically, it is precisely the end of the Cold War that brought more open borders, thus enabling groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS to flourish.
These groups successfully disseminated its ideas by capitalizing on the open, global society in the post Cold War era. Over the last two decades, a sophisticated public relations and media communication campaign was conducted by these groups using a series of faxed statements, audio recordings, video appearances, and internet postings.
These ideas in the form of hate speech and conspiracy theories directed at the West, particularly America and its allies spread globally throughout innumerable newspaper articles, books and publications, websites and homepages, cartoons, crossword puzzles, TV news items, educational broadcasts and music videos.
The ideas were not only communicated through certain mosques or Islamic schools but also via independent satellite television networks such as Al-Jazeera. In an increasingly globalized culture, these ideas are influencing the beliefs of young minds and actions of militants from Yemen to Kenya to England with a speed and reach unimaginable two decades ago.
Countering Violent Ideas and Norms
Norms are generally defined as standard appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity. In the context of countering terrorism, norms are not simply moral guidelines but powerful ordering principles with very practical implications. A consensus among states has already emerged that terrorism is of universal concern and in direct violation of the principles of international community. This convergence in strategic interests has helped to bridge the divide between the west and the developing world.
In the war of ideas, it is equally important to understand the terrorists other target audience; that of the group of aggrieved populations they claim to represent. This group extends to a broader, less radicalized population that has the power to confer a degree of legitimacy on the terrorists, simply by responding positively to their tactics. This group mainly consists of diffuse or loosely aligned supporters who welcome the news of a terrorist attack or do not object to the extremists claim to represent them.
Extremists’ real war is not primarily against their adversaries, but a struggle for the soul of Islam within the Muslim world. Hence, the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims is paramount to dry up the pool of potential recruits to extremism. Winning the hearts and minds of the Muslims cannot be achieved by western-style television or radio stations, which appeal to only tiny, secular, westernized minorities. It can only be done through the authority and legitimacy of Islam itself. In that respect, there is a dire need to reinforce the traditional checks and balances on the interpretation of Islamic scriptures.
To tackle violent Islamism at the grassroot level, a parallel bottoms-up approach should compliment the state-driven initiatives. This is necessary as top down initiatives are limited because state diplomacy is often at odds with the value systems of a states’ citizenry. For instance, while a number of states have chartered a decidedly pro-Western course (Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey), significant segments of their populations hold very different political and cultural sensibilities. In addition, bottoms up approach will circumvent the assumptions of complete state sovereignty as well as states unhindered ability to project their authority.
However, the bottoms-up approach is more difficult to implement compared to the state-driven initiatives. This is because while a process of coercion whereby the strong can compel the weak state to submit to their will can expedite the propagation of norms in the international system, norm creation at the subnational level will have to appeal to the community’s self interest or to the inherent legitimacy of the norms themselves.
Hence, to expedite the emergence of norms against violence at the community level, governments should find creative means to support the effort of local norm entrepreneurs. For instance, in Singapore, government supports community-based initiatives like the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), an Islamic scholar initiative to reach out to the Muslim community. This may reach sections of the community that might be missed by state-driven counter-extremism policies.
Governments could also contribute to the development of local institutions that promote norm convergence with Western values. Another way is to bring scholars and students to the West to be groomed as norm entrepreneurs in the form of intellectuals and activists.
Violent extremists’ ideology has taken on a life of its own. What is unknown is the extent to which this ideology has taken hold throughout the Muslim world. In this war of ideas, the independent roles of norms are seen to affect international and domestic policy outcomes, a belief adopted by the constructivists’ school of thought in international relations. It should be realized that the war of ideas is largely a struggle within the Muslim world and the best chances for winning the war lies in supporting and aligning with the true religious authority and legitimacy of Islam itself.
*Dr Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is also a counsellor with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) in Singapore.