Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a story titled “ISIS and the Lonely American.” Alex, the subject of the story, made “a new group of friends online” — “the most attentive she ever had.” They were part of ISIL’s robust social media presence and worked diligently to push her to accept their ideology and join the group in Syria. They told her Islam required it.
But when the newly converted Alex found a mosque miles from her home, her online contacts turned sullen. They dissuaded her from visiting the mosque, insisting American Muslims were “persecuted” and urged her not to reveal her new Islamic beliefs to other Muslims.
Alex’s experience is similar to many others that ISIL has targeted for recruitment from both within the Muslim world and outside of it. Alex wasn’t radicalized inside of a mosque. She was radicalized because she never went to a mosque.
Her ISIL recruiters tried to keep her from any mainstream, widely accepted expression of Islam because they feared it might thwart their brainwashing attempts.
That’s because mainstream Islamic values and the ISIL world-view simply do not match up.
This is presumably why time and again, both studies and expert opinion demonstrate that those with a strong understanding of Islam are amongst the most resistant to radicalization.
That was the conclusion former National Security Council Director Quintan Wiktorowicz reached after interviewing hundreds of Islamists in an attempt to uncover key drivers of radicalization.
A 2008 briefing note on radicalization prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit noted “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization” and that many terrorists “lack religious literacy.” It should have come as no surprise to find that would-be ISIL recruits Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed purchased books like Islam for Dummies before trying to join ISIL.
These facts point to a simple reality ISIL routinely exploits. Those with a poor or superficial understanding of Islam make good recruiting candidates.
That’s why the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s second largest inter-governmental body after the UN with 57 member-states, is in the process of launching an anti-extremism messaging center that connects leading Muslim-world religious scholars with the latest social media tools and strategies.
The Center’s first priority is to work to discredit ISIL’s perceived religious legitimacy. To this end, the OIC has partnered with its subsidiary organ the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA), a body of senior Islamic scholars from across the world specializing in Islamic jurisprudence and knowledge.
As it is, Fiqh (jurisprudence) happens not to be one of ISIL’s strong suits. A proper exegesis of the Quran and Hadith (the reports of actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the purpose of inferring a legal injunction is a complex and considered process. ISIL diverges from it constantly.
For instance, under normative Islamic practice, a legal judgment cannot be passed without referring to all mention of that issue within religious scripture. An understanding of the conditions of revelation for each verse is also required: Some verses are limited in their application to 7th century Arabia, the place and time when these verses were revealed.
There is also a tradition of abrogation in Qur’anic exegesis where certain verses overrule others, not to mention centuries of jurisprudential commentary that informs how legal injunctions are applied. The Hadith that ISIL so wantonly cherry-pick relate to hundreds of thousands of reports of varying degrees of reliability, some deemed credible, but others deemed fabrications. Indeed, within certain contexts, learned scholars can use the same methodology and arrive at different but equally valid conclusions — such is the complexity of scriptural exegesis.
But the good work of Islamic scholars in highlighting ISIL’s failure to conform to such Islamic principles simply hasn’t been communicated in ways likely to resonate with those who need to hear this message the most. After all, a body of scholarly work discrediting the religious legal basis for ISIL’s extremism already exists.
The Fiqh Academy, for example, has endorsed the Amman Message, which establishes preconditions for Islamic legal rulings and actually forbids apostasy charges, like the ones that ISIL has infamously issued. And a 17-page open letter to al-Baghdadi from 126 Islamic scholars and leaders from across OIC countries refers to religious legal precedent and scripture to meticulously dismantle the authenticity of the “Islamic State.”
Connecting such religiously authoritative critiques of ISIL with cutting-edge social media strategies offers real scope to disrupt ISIL’s online messaging. It could discredit their self-portrayal as an authentic, modern-day Caliphate, something that’s central to their appeal.
Counter-extremist narratives must also focus on broader messaging. There’s no single route to extremism, and ISIL understands this. The group tailors its messages to different audiences that are motivated by different things, from those who long for a sense of belonging and purpose, to those drawn by the glamour of the so-called “Islamic State.”
But ISIL hijacks religion for an especially dangerous purpose as well: to aggravate a sectarian hatred that has long plagued the Middle East.
Here too, religious-based messaging can help counter the sectarian sentiment ISIL both stokes and exploits during the radicalization process. So too can the human narrative. Personal accounts and stories of victims of sectarian violence is a powerful tool for humanising the “other,” making it difficult to colour ethnic, religious and sectarian relations in simplistic binary terms.
Perversely, the human narrative is among the most powerful tools in ISIL’s PR arsenal. ISIL recruitment videos directed at a particular nation often include recruits from the same communities telling their stories in ways that ordinary people can understand and relate to.
ISIL knows the power of humanising its message. So must any counter-response.
The OIC messaging center will ensure that the defeat of ISIL’s ideology works hand-in-hand with promoting the narratives of the group’s victims, as well as those who have become disillusioned with ISIL, or have experienced and witnessed the depravities of the group first-hand. The center will build the capacity of civil society voices on social media as well.
Volume will be a challenge. ISIL disseminates an extraordinary amount of social media content, driven by a vast support network. According to Brookings, between October and December 2014, there were 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIL narratives.
Any effective response requires a support network of our own. That means engagement with civil society partners already operating in this space. Such a diverse collaboration means there won’t be agreement on every issue. But it is precisely this ability to acknowledge difference while uniting against violent extremism that must distinguish the Muslim world from ISIL’s narrow, divisive ideology.
Indeed, the very existence, structure and mission of the OIC embodies that principle. Its fifty-seven member-states span four continents, many different types of governments, various ethnicities and sects, and numerous approaches to Islam. It represents the diversity of Muslim life and practice that sectarian extremists like ISIL fear and despise.
Whether that diversity survives or fractures depends on the outcome of a battle for hearts and minds that’s taking place across social media and in the wider world. It is an ideological battle the Muslim world has a unique responsibility to confront and it requires a pan-Muslim transnational response. This project is an important step in that direction.
Amanul Haq is a Director in the Cabinet of the OIC Secretary General and Head of the OIC’s Peace, Security and Conflict Resolution Unit. Prior to joining the OIC, Mr. Haq served as Consul in the Consulate General of Bangladesh in New York.
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