Countering the ISIS narrative is crucial
On July 8th, the United States and the United Arab Emirates announced the launch of the Sawab Center, the first multinational online messaging programme to counter the propaganda of the Islamic State (ISIS).
“All of us share a responsibility to raise our voices online and in our communities in opposition to Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIS] and in support of the right path,” wrote Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, and Richard Stengel, US under-secretary of state, in a joint opinion article published in USA Today.
This initiative is a welcome addition to the international efforts aimed at countering the ISIS narrative and its lethal consequences.
That destructive narrative has had a strong impact not only because of the content it peddles but also because of the volume of the messaging flow that backs it up. Globally accessible and cost-free modern communication technologies are intensively used by online jihadist armies. Supporters of the Islamic State are said to use as many as 90,000 social media accounts.
To the thousands of vulnerable young men and women in the Middle East and North Africa region and beyond, ISIS provides a fare of attractive lies that have never been adequately challenged. Through its distortion of Islamic history, ISIS offers impressionable minds the utopia of a golden age that will restore the lost valour of Muslims and provide marginalised and frustrated youth with the false rewards of heroic missions. Even though ISIS only delivers death and destruction, its narrative continues to attract young people from many nationalities.
The success of the ISIS narrative is a reflection of the failure of competing narratives. If states in the region could not maintain the hope for a better future, Western nations were too often associated with the use of military power rather than betterment of lives.
Then there are facts on the ground. As abhorrently shocking as they are, ISIS snuff videos are reinforced by battlefield developments to give jihadist sympathisers the perception of ISIS fighters as triumphant conquerors. Daesh’s string of military successes in Syria and Iraq, as well as its expansion to other parts of the Arab world, do give credence to the organisation’s claims of faith-driven superiority over its Western-allied enemies of Islam. Such victories give ammunition to proponents of false flag and other conspiracy theories and spread doubt about the resolve to combat ISIS. No counter-narrative will get traction as long as ISIS’s military successes are not seriously reversed.
The role of Western governments in the counter-propaganda campaign is important. But more pertinent is the role to be played by local populations. Civil society, political parties, grass-root groups and artists in the Arab world must take ownership of the counter-messaging effort. Peer-to-peer communication is key. The recent Saudi TV series Selfie is a courageous project that could help deflate ISIS’s pompous rhetoric. More such artistic expressions of disdain for ISIS are needed.
The effort to counter the ISIS narrative must also reach out to audiences outside the Arab and Muslim world. Local initiatives are needed in the West to debunk the myths that attract young Muslims or recent Muslim converts to jihadism.
The Sawab Center is a step in the right direction provided it will create a global momentum that involves Arab and Muslim young men and women in combating ISIS’s nihilistic narrative.