The evening of 13 November was a night of terror. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) massacred hundreds of innocent civilians in Paris. People from all around the globe expressed indignation. How should we counter violent extremism?
Obviously, the use of hard power is the main way to cope with the problem in the short run. There are also people who suggest increasing spending on military attacks. It seems that taking down ISIS is ultimately a military issue. Vigorous attacks targeting ISIS have successfully reduced ISIS territory by 25% since its peak. But this cannot eradicate ISIS because it does not tackle the root of the problem.
What differentiates ISIS from all the other major terrorists groups? It is the fact that ISIS has an alluring narrative that bewitches many of its followers. The ability to recruit and inspire people around the globe with a destructively alluring ideology makes ISIS immensely threatening.
One way in which ISIS achieves this is by social media platforms. Through the ISIS’s Al-Hayat Media Centre, its ideology has been spread globally in different languages. The centre targets not only fighters, but also other talents such as accountants, engineers and doctors. Many youngsters are bewitched by ISIS’s propaganda; they perceive the West as an “evil” force trying to kill all the Muslims and take their territories. To these unsophisticated minds, the extremists are heroes defending their religion.
This is why France’s recent retaliation is ridiculous. It only reinforces ISIS ideology and makes the followers more persistent. It validates the ISIS hypothesis about the “Evil West”. The airstrikes serve as a public statement, but what kind of public statement is it? Does it create a positive impact? Or does it merely make France feel better, and at the same time make things worse?
Rather than military attacks, counter-narrative programmes are of utmost important in curbing the growth of ISIS, especially its influence over vulnerable youngsters. There are a lot of things that can be done in these areas, both online and offline.
Admittedly, a government is not the best candidate to implement such programmes, because people are likely to resist government propaganda and more likely to listen to what local voices say. But governments cannot evade their responsibility. They should support such programmes and the NGOs providing them.
An intriguing example of a counter-narrative programme is Aranim Media Factory, a media enterprise based in Jordan that spreads the idea of human rights, tolerance, liberty, and equality, by creating comics books, cartoons and games, targeting at Arab youth. The company has published many comic books that aim at counterbalancing the extremists’ influence.
Currently, we lack thorough research on what works and what does not. More innovative counter-narrative programmes should be encouraged. Analysis of their performance should tell us which are the most effective approaches.
While both hard power and soft power are important, it is unfortunate that most resources have been allocated to military measures. This is obviously disproportionate. More funding and innovative approaches must be adopted, to eradicate the ideologies that are posing a serious threat to humanity.