How to destroy ISIL in the battle of ideas

Since June 2014, ISIL’s Twitter traffic has dropped by 45 per cent, and pro-ISIL Twitter accounts have fallen by 80 per cent. AP Photo
Since June 2014, ISIL’s Twitter traffic has dropped by 45 per cent, and pro-ISIL Twitter accounts have fallen by 80 per cent. AP Photo

News reports flood in daily from the front lines of the war on ISIL, from the battlegrounds in northern Syria to the long drive towards Mosul. But the true war on ISIL is not being broadcast in traditional media.

Amid the media scrutiny of sorties and militias in Iraq and Syria, the true war is being waged in mosques, social media platforms and communities across the world.

It is the voices of brave men and women from the region against ISIL and its poisonous ideology that are the greatest weapon against the nihilistic group. It is this quiet war that will ultimately determine if the group is defeated for good.

For the past three years, the ideological war on ISIL has been largely a disjointed effort with various community leaders, imams and activists working on their own to stop the group’s spread and undermine its false religious claims.

While the terrorist group has been unified in its deadly message, its opponents have been the exact opposite – they are struggling to find the right platforms and people to counter the group’s claims. But this is beginning to change.

In a partnership with the United States, the UAE launched in July 2015 the Sawab Centre to confront ISIL’s ideology point by point and broadcast the voices of those who oppose extremist violence. The number of views of its campaigns has surpassed 420 million.

The US also stepped up its efforts by establishing the Global Engagement Centre, an inter-agency department that coordinates with Muslim governments, civil society and community leaders across the region to speak out against ISIL and undermine its claimed ties to religion.

Many regional and local community-based organisations have also begun to focus on countering violent extremism, while countries including Jordan and Saudi Arabia have launched drives aimed at undermining ISIL.

Online, the campaigns have borne fruit. Since June 2014, ISIL’s Twitter traffic has dropped by 45 per cent, and pro-ISIL Twitter accounts have fallen by 80 per cent. Data shows a 6:1 ratio of anti-ISIL content online, compared with pro-ISIL content and the flow of foreign fighters has dropped from 2,000 a month to about 500.

Yet as the successes accumulate online, the battle is far from over on the ground.

Imams, who are on the front line of the theological war on ISIL, often rely on “stipends” of a few hundred dollars a month, and are overworked and under-recognised. Many of them have to pay for petrol from their pockets to drive to remote villages that are prime targets for militants.

Many mosques in countries such as Jordan and Tunisia, where thousands of young men have joined ISIL, remain unmonitored and outside the state’s reach.

Meanwhile, community-based organisations lack government support for their efforts to expand their programmes.

Families whose members have gone to die under ISIL’s banner remain an untapped resource. Their powerful stories could go a long way in dissuading young men and women from falling prey to extremism. Unfortunately, they remain stigmatised.

Defectors, perhaps the most potent tool to counter ISIL’s myths and false narratives, remain largely silent due to security concerns and legal red tape.

These impediments ought to be overcome if the ideological battle against ISIL is to be won.

However, this war needs more than words and tweets. To effectively counter the group’s apocalyptic narrative, the global community needs to provide an alternative for young men and women. In some Arab states where resources and job opportunities are few, many young men are left without a future – unable to complete their studies, work or marry.

This waiting generation feels more and more marginalised, left behind by the state and their community. This makes them an easy target of ISIL recruiters, offering them a new identity, social cohesion and economic security.

Civil society, governments and imams must try to do the seemingly impossible: provide a better life to those who have few options and instil hope and patience in those who have no clear future.

It is difficult enough to create job opportunities in resource-starved and economically weak countries such as Tunisia, Jordan and Iraq. It is harder to instil confidence in the younger generation that should they make the effort, they can achieve their goals.

A coordinated effort is needed to convince at-risk men and women that they have a future that can be jeopardised by extremist groups such as ISIL.

The exclusion of ISIL rhetoric must be met with the inclusion of marginalised persons into the state.

Bombs and bullets may degrade ISIL, but it’s hope and the truth that can defeat it.

Taylor Luck is a political analyst and journalist in Amman

Published: August 23, 2016 04:00 AM

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