How the world's second-largest global organisation plans to win the war of ideas against ISIS

The world stands in solidarity with France, after a horrifying attack on November 13th that left at least 129 people dead.

In the face of so much bloodshed, we must not forget that terrorism cannot be defeated by bombs and bullets alone.

Terrorism wins the hearts and minds of potential recruits before those recruits go on to kill and die for their cause. Unless we find a way to stop this recruitment and radicalization, success in the fight against terrorism can never be guaranteed.

At times like these, we are liable to fall back on biases, stereotypes and assumptions, rather than what the evidence tells us about why people become violent radicals. After events like the Paris attacks, the hardest questions become the most urgent as well: What factors contribute to the radicalization process? What role does religion really play in that process? And what more can be done to dissuade marginalized or disaffected youth of today from becoming the extremists of tomorrow?

Terrorists versus Muslims

Earlier this year, the New York Times published a story titled “ISIS and the Lonely American” which offers some interesting answers to these questions, even as it challenges our expectations.

Alex, the subject of the story, made “a new group of friends online,” a cohort described as “the most attentive she ever had.” They were part of the social media presence of Daesh (the more pejorative Arabic term for ISIS) and worked diligently to push her to accept their religion and their ideology — and to join the group in Syria. They told her Islam required it.

But when Alex, who was a recent convert to Islam, found a mosque just miles from her home, her online contacts turned sullen. They strongly dissuaded her from visiting the mosque, insisting American Muslims were “persecuted.” Under no circumstance, they stressed, could she reveal her new Islamic beliefs to other Muslims.

ISIS Islamic StateNashirAn ISIS militant with an ISIS flag.

Alex’s experience is similar to many others that Daesh 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 Daesh 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 Daesh worldview 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 among the most resistant to radicalization.

Former National Security Council Director Quintan Wiktorowicz reached this exact conclusion 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 Daesh recruits Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed purchased books like “
Islam for Dummies” before trying to join the group.

These facts point to a simple reality that Daesh routinely exploits. Those with a poor or superficial understanding of Islam can often 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.

A major Muslim response to Daesh

The Center’s first priority is to work to discredit the perceived religious legitimacy that Daesh believes has given it the authority to order and inspire abhorrent acts of violence, like those committed in Paris. If Islam is falsely peddled as the justification for these acts, it must be the Islamic world that corrects this misconception.

ParisGetty ImagesA memorial for victims of the November 13th attacks in Paris.

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 Daesh’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. Daesh 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 as some are limited in 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 Daesh so wantonly cherry-pick to justify their violence 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 Daesh’s failure to conform to basic Islamic legal and moral 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 basis for Daesh’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 Daesh has infamously issued. And a 17-page open letter to al-Baghdadi from 126 Islamic scholars and leaders from across the world refers to religious legal precedent and scripture to meticulously dismantle the authenticity of the “Islamic State.”

Connecting such religiously authoritative critiques of Daesh with cutting-edge social media strategies offers real scope to disrupt Daesh’s online messaging. It could discredit their self-portrayal as an authentic, modern-day Caliphate, something that’s central to their appeal in the eyes of impressionable young potential recruits.

But scholarly messages on religion alone are not enough.

Daesh hijacks religion for another dangerous purpose as well: to aggravate sectarian and religious hatred. Here too, religious-based messaging can help counter the sectarian sentiment Daesh both stokes and exploits during the radicalization process.

The human narrative can also be of invaluable help. Personal accounts and stories of victims of sectarian and terrorist violence are a uniquely powerful tool for hindering the dehumanization of the “other,” making it difficult to colour ethnic, religious and sectarian relations in simplistic black-and-white terms.

Perversely, the human narrative is among the most powerful tools in Daesh’s own PR arsenal. Daesh 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.

Daesh knows the power of humanising its message. So must any counter-response.

That’s why the OIC messaging center will ensure the defeat of Daesh’s ideology works hand-in-hand with promoting the narratives of the group’s victims, as well as those who have become disillusioned with Daesh 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.

There are other challenges too. Marginalization and disaffection can create ideal conditions for radicalization to occur. This is in part why Daesh’s vision of success is so resonant for some. Wider socio-economic action is undoubtedly needed to address some of these deeper root causes of radicalization. This is all the more reason a better alternative to Daesh’s narrative is needed in any counter-messaging strategy.

That counter-narrative is something the OIC messaging center, in conjunction with the Islamic Fiqh Academy, will work to formulate and promote. In the present and throughout history, religion has unfortunately been hijacked for violent, perverse ends all over the world.

But it has also offered hope, been a source of solace and peace and given those who suffer pain, marginalization and distress the patience to overcome those challenges. The vast majority of the world’s believers derive meaning form religion without resorting to anger, hate and violence.

It is that message of peace, tolerance and pluralism that the OIC’s messaging center will stress through credible, authoritative reading of scripture. It is a far cry from Daesh’s narrative of conflict, retribution and immediate gratification, grounded in Deash’s dehumanising of all who do not share their beliefs.

The Scope and the Scale

Volume will be a challenge. Daesh disseminates an extraordinary amount of social media content, driven by a vast support network. According to the Brookings Institution, between October and December 2014, there were 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting Daesh 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 Daesh’s narrow, divisive ideology.

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 Daesh 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. In the aftermath of the November 13th attacks on Paris, it is an ideological battle the Muslim world has a unique responsibility to confront, one that requires a pan-Muslim and transnational response.

Mr. Amanul Haq is a Director in the Cabinet of the OIC Secretary General and Head of the OIC’s Peace, Security and Mediation Unit. Prior to joining the OIC, Mr. Haq served as Consul in the Consulate General of Bangladesh in New York.

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