by Emile Nakhleh
Rhetoric matters. The words our politicians and media ascribe to mass killers must change. Terms such as “radicalizers,” “radicalized,” “jihadists,” and “martyrs” must be erased from the global public space because they tend to give the killers an aura of religiosity and a sick form of spiritual affirmation.
Western governments, and Muslim governments for that matter, must jettison their traditional approach to countering violent extremism (CVE), which argues that terrorism in the name of Islam is a perversion of the religion, and focus instead on the despicability of mass murder. The so-called Islamic radical terrorists, once they commit murder, should be branded mass murderers and serial killers without any reference to religion, whether Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.
As long as politicians and the media continue to make references to Islam or any perverted interpretation of it in their coverage of bloody terrorist attacks, they inadvertently give credence to the religious interpretation, sick as it may be, used by terrorists to brainwash potential recruits. Abandoning the religious references reduces these violent acts to mass murder. Islamic radical terrorists must be deprived of the religious cover, whether obtained from Saudis, Pakistanis, or Islamic State fanatics.
President Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him realized the significance of rhetoric when talking about terrorism and Islam and responded accordingly, and correctly. They both distinguished between Islam and terrorism and stated publicly that their fight against terrorism was not a war on Islam. President Obama reiterated the same message in his address to the nation on Sunday evening.
When I was in the government, my analysts and I often counseled senior policymakers against using such terms as “jihadists,” “Islamists,” and “radicalized extremists” because repeating these terms satisfies the terrorists’ craving for religious justification of their heinous acts. We favored the use of such terms as “criminals,” “killers,” and “murderers.”
We also advised that getting involved in religious debates does not get us anywhere. We cannot possibly win the religious argument with potential converts to the cause of murder and mayhem. “Islamic activism,” we argued, should only apply to mainstream Islamic political parties that operate within the political system through elections and peaceful contestation of values. Engaging these parties should be based on their commitment, in word and in deed, to inclusion, tolerance, human rights, and transitioning to democracy.
The Islamic State also recognizes the value of rhetoric as a recruiting tool for further violence. It has used cosmic terminology, which could appeal to Muslims everywhere, including such terms as the “caliphate,” the “near enemy,” the “far enemy,” “infidels,” “apostates,” and “unbelievers” (or kuffar).
Hard Power Response
Western responses to the Islamic State, which has claimed credit for recent mass killings, should include the simultaneous use of hard power and soft power.
The hard power approach should focus on containing IS on the ground. At least four factors have underpinned the Islamic State’s resiliency: territory and resources; brutality and terror; success on the battlefield; and an overarching radical ideology, which includes referencing the caliphate. Territorial expansion and the acquisition of resources have been the most potent contributing factors to IS resiliency in the past three years.
The Western and regional military effort in Syria and Iraq should aim at shrinking IS territory and preventing it from further expansion. Its financial resources—oil fields and oil sales, banking, illicit trade, movement of capital, currency exchange, and free monetary transactions—also should be targeted and curtailed. This effort can be best accomplished by putting boots on the ground from regional states—Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, Iraqi regular army troops, and Kurdish peshmerga. More emphasis should be put on ground operations and less on air strikes.
The Saudis would help finance the operation, and Western powers would provide technical, intelligence, transportation, and weapons training. Iranian- and Iraqi-supported Shia militias should not be included in this campaign. Because of their continued support for the Assad regime, Russia and Iran should be excluded as well.
Simply put, once the Islamic State can no longer expand, and once it’s starved for cash, its aura of invincibility will begin to fade. Potential recruits will see a diminishing caliphate fighting for its survival as a losing proposition and would begin to have second thoughts about making the trek from their countries to Syria. Whereas a successful Islamic state attracted thousands of foreign fighters, a beleaguered and contained caliphate will quickly seem an insignificant cause. The promised land of idyllic Islamic rule would be reduced to territories under a reign of terror run by Baghdadi and his band of assassins.
Soft Power Response
Western countries should overhaul their approach to countering violent extremism or CVE. We don’t have the know-how, staying power, and inclination to engage in a generational public relations and propaganda campaign that focuses on theological debates within Islam. The hijackers of Islam seem to always win the social media propaganda war, and we always seem to play catch-up.
During my government service, I argued after 9/11 that we needed a different approach to radical ideology and radical so-called jihadists. This new approach is more urgently needed now more than ever. Let’s get out of the business of discoursing about which Islam is “moderate” and which Islam is “perverted.”
Instead, Western and Muslim governments should send out a new message, which simply states that radical jihadists are mass killers and criminals. The so-called caliphate is a dead-end enterprise that doesn’t create jobs, provide security, offer useful education, or promise a better future for young Muslims and their families. Malik and Farook, the mass murderers of San Bernardino in early December, and the Abdeslam siblings, the mass killers of Paris in mid-November, have not served the cause of Islam or the Baghdadi caliphate. On the contrary, many of their co-religionists will suffer discrimination, deprivation, and humiliation because of these killers’ so-called jihad.
Leaders of Muslim and Western countries, in speaking to Muslim youth, should highlight the very deceptive nature of the religious interpretation foisted upon them. Whether we are talking about child soldiers in the Sudan or Malik and Farook in California, the message should be clear: these youth have blindly sacrificed themselves, taken the lives of so many innocent people, and destroyed their families and communities. What false prophet or criminal radicalizer persuaded a mother of a six-month-old to kill herself, murder a dozen others, and leave behind an orphaned baby?
In the United States, a new partnership should be forged between law enforcement authorities and Muslims communities to prevent mass killings. Such killings are a threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike and should not be allowed to divide the society between “us” and “them.”
The recent statement by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announcing the creation of a new “Office for Community Partnerships” is a major step in the right direction. The new OCP intends to infuse a new life in the CVE campaign. Its mission is “to continue to build partnerships and promote trust, and, in addition, find innovative ways to support communities that seek to discourage violent extremism and undercut terrorist narratives.”
Unlike some European countries, America has never had a “Muslim problem.” Among Western foreign recruits fighting for IS, Americans are the smallest number. Despite the ugliness of Islamophobia and the increasing incidents of discrimination and harassment against American Muslims, especially since 9/11, the American Muslim community has integrated in society. According to a 2007 Pew poll, American Muslims have prospered economically, are highly educated, and work in all walks of life, from space science to Fortune 500 and Hollywood.
American cities have no Muslim ghettoes, and most American Muslims have rejected the false notion of Islamic utopia that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have propagated through terrorism and mass murders. America is a country for all of its citizens. Let’s keep it this way!