New Third Way Narrative Poses Challenge to U.S. Strategic Communication

by Bud Goodall

There is a new narrative responsible for the success of the uprisings that spread from Tunisia through Egypt and now are heard in the streets of Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere.  It is a secular narrative generated by young Muslims who recognize that older jihadist forms of “telling their resistance story” by linking them to Islamic Master Narratives were largely responsible for the binary oppositions that divide them, and Islam, from the West and modernity.

As Jacqueline O’Rourke, a communication consultant working in Qutar and writing in Z Magazine sees it:

This new communications plan is a direct attempt to create a counter-narrative to the predominant one which has dominated Western discourse for the past decade. That narrative runs roughly like this: Muslims are jealous of the freedom and technological advantages of the West. Their society has been in decline after their scientific advances of medieval Europe. Instead, they try to use the West’s technology against itself. Whether airplanes, viruses, or chemicals, Muslims have appropriated science for the purposes of terrorism.

As Thomas Friedman and others have pointed out, the existing “anti-technology/science” narrative is often coupled with Zionist-American conspiracy tales, and together they have fueled the extremist “New Jahiliyya” master narrative developed by Sayyid Qutb.  It depicts a Muslim world in chaos and disorder that can only be made righteous again by a vanguard of True Believers who rise up and seize power by any means necessary, and who essentially return their culture and people to a 7th Century CE way of life.

Clearly that old religious narrative has been either silent or silenced in the face of these new uprisings by young Muslims throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  Not even the Muslim Brotherhood is calling for an Islamic state.  Instead, the young Muslims and their new leaders are pressing for reforms that offer more freedom, more opportunity, and more control over their own choices, not a return to Sharia law or the reestablishment of a Caliphate.  More importantly, their call for reform is accomplished without challenging the sanctity of the Five Pillars of Islam, which places obedience to God before any other duty or goal.  In this way, young Muslims have opened up a “Third Way” narrative that balances respect for religious traditions with progressive political reforms designed to improve their ability to live well and to compete in a global economy.

But as good as this new secular narrative may sound to Western ears, O’Rourke explains the outcome is unlikely to be one that accepts Western “hypocrisy and condescension”:

One critical reality is that this revolution is not only a revolution against Arab dictators, but a revolution against the humiliation Muslims have been facing in the post-9/11 global landscape. The Arab/Muslim people are not just enraged with political, social, and economic oppression, they are also angry with their rulers’ complicity with imperialism, particularly American and Israeli. In short, the revolution has erupted from Muslim societies as a result of internal oppression and as a response to political, economic, and cultural imperialism, with which the post-9/11 youth are intricately familiar. In this regard, the international community must get the message that this revolution is as much against its hypocritical and condescending manner of dealing with Muslim societies as it is against Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Qadaffi.

One way to think about how all of these narrative tensions may play out is to consider that across this region people are not so much interested in trading one way of life for another, but instead creating a new way of life—a new language for governance—that avoids the pitfalls of either the old jihadi ideological worldview or one that values free market capitalism via oil revenues in exchange for continued support for dictators, particularly if the latter alternative carries with it unquestioning support of Israel.

What might that new narrative be?  One possible story is a hybrid combination of socialism designed to better distribute the wealth and opportunities afforded by revenues (however they are derived) with a progressive Islam dedicated to improving human rights and building communities that are based more on Islamic scholarship and nonviolence than on free market capitalism or extremism.

In this brave new narrative the system of stories would be all about more openness and tolerance, as well as more democratic reform, but there would be no good reason to expect that U.S. corporate or political interests would enjoy any special status in it.  There are other emerging markets—from China to India to the EU—and the political landscape that was once dominated by American foreign policy backed by an unlimited military budget is not what it once was nor do we have the will to wield power in the old fashioned way.

The speech given in Cairo by President Obama last year set in motion a storyline that may well have influenced young Muslims to go ahead with their uprisings.  The president’s late intervention in Libya—and that only with international backing and cooperation—further provided evidence that our intentions are no longer driven by revenge, as they have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, but instead by a steely pragmatism that weighs in on the side of those fighting against oppression but leaves outcomes to those who must then forge a new society.

In general, this new secular narrative is all about accepting this post-uprising/revolution responsibility.  It is thankfully free of the old Islamist rant.  It is so far mostly free from violence, except in Libya.  We should begin to expand our conception of how secular narratives are producing political and social change and rethink our approach to strategic communication as a result.  We don’t want to make the old Pentagon mistake of preparing for the last war, in this case the jihad drawn from master narratives of Islamist extremism, while a whole set of new strategic communication challenges that has nothing to do with those old stories takes shape.

4 Responses to “New Third Way Narrative Poses Challenge to U.S. Strategic Communication”

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  1. goodall says:

    For further listening, I highly recommend this 10-minute talk by Wael Ghonim, the Google exec in Egypt … it illustrates my point nicely:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/wael_ghonim_inside_the_egyptian_revolution.html

  2. jcg says:

    If Americans have just discovered this narrative, that does not make it new. What has happened is that, for too long now, we have confused the ideology of extremism with the Arab grievance narrative that terrorist and other extremists have incorporated into their ideology and exploited for recruitment and support. This is a natural reflection of our concern with the factors in the Arab world that affect U.S. national security most immediately, not those that may be more central to the peoples of the region.

    The narrative described in the article is, in fact, the latest chapter in the historical grievance narrative broadly shared in the Arab world for over a century and a half of relations with the West, and the U.S. most recently. It can be found in every mode of communications: folk poetry, songs, literature, popular culture, textbooks, newspapers and the placards held in demonstrations for that long. In recent years, it has also been expressed on-line, in blogs and social network sites. It has been articulated in the vocabulary of each period, from early anti-colonial nationalism to de-colonizing populism. In each period, it mirrored the narratives of people elsewhere in the Third World.

    In recent decades, the anti-American element in this narrative centered on specific grievances that were clearly cited in polls and focus groups: U.S. support for corrupt local dictators who were ruining their countries, failure to find a just peace with Israel and U.S. military occupation of Arab and Muslim lands. All these factors, combined with Islamophobia in the West, led many Arabs and other Muslims to the conclusion that there was a specific animus towards them. However, the main emotive frame has remained one of dignity versus humiliation, justice versus tyranny.

    While Islam, like Arabism, was central to this braodly-held narrative, it did at times and in some places have a more specifically Islamic rhetoric. There has also been, from the 1920s, parallel Islamist movements that incorporated the same historical experience and grievance into their ideology to support their proposed solutions. These groups have grown in size and influence. The most extreme version of Islamism led to the terrorism we have suffered for over a decade. This, however, this was never the dominant narrative. We in the West have often confused popular Arab and Muslim support for militant Islamist actions against Western interests, such as Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel, with support for the aspirations of those organizations. Most people in the Arab world, as we can now see more clearly since these uprisings, have sought not an “imagined past-cum-future or mass destruction. What they have sought is a better society for the 21st century.

    What IS new? This is the most exciting rupture with the recent past: the loss of fear and the decision to create the society of the future by themselves; no longer waiting for a charismatic leader like the ones that have failed them so many times. What should be new for US: a] to understand that stability does not lie in stasis, but in orderly change, b] to analyze these recent events in a global context, not within the narrow, assumed specificities of Islamic societies and c] to understand that these changes will profoundly alter the way we do business in the region.

    We must accept and reflect in our strategic communications the fact that, should these democratic initiatives succeed in producing publics with a voice in domestic and foreign affairs, we will have to deal with a situation in which the nations’ policies will reflect their own interests as they see them. This will require sensitivity with regard to the tone with which we address them, something President Obama has already put into practice himself.

  3. Bud Goodall says:

    Thanks for your post, jcg. I agree.

    What is “new” is less a narrative that the “success” of large numbers of people organizing for freedom, dignity, and justice without using extremist rhetoric. Yet as much as I think President Obama “gets it” I’m not sure that “sensitivity” and “tone”–while absolutely important–are likely to carry us very far. Actions do speak louder than words, especially when those words come from the U.S. these days, but that lack of credibility shouldn’t prevent us from continuing to work with our allies around the world to promote peaceful reform and economic opportunities.

    Yes, it is true that these nations’ policies will reflect their interests, but a strong partnership is better than a distant relationship, even when differences are part of the mix. So I am in support of a strategic communication plan that values open engagement and friendship.

    I’d also like to see more dialogue about how best to engage the not-so-new narrative. I think it is important to think about how our words and actions might be received in the interpretive schema being forwarded by reform leaders rather than focusing more narrowly on countering extremist narratives, as if they were the only narratives in circulation. Not that those extremist narratives aren’t still important, just that they are not the only narratives we should be paying closer attention to.

    What is apparent to me is that the key terms and themes of this emerging discourse are ones that we can embrace and promote globally. Secretary Clinton is right: unless there is broad international encouragement for reform along those thematic lines, the Arab Spring may become a “mirage in the desert.”

  4. Mark Laity says:

    A few brief comments:
    – Are we not seeing something of a return to the kind of narrative that was more common in the Arab world in the ear of Nasser? Beyond the socialism was also the familiar themes of justice, opportunity and overcoming the backwardness and humiliation felt by the Arab world vis a vis the West
    – That narrative failed because it didn’t deliver, leading to the rise in the religious narrative with its appeal to an idealised past.
    – That narrative in turn has stalled because it is so anti-aspirational, and the Arab Spring is nothing if not aspirational.
    – I agree that Islam is too inherent to the Arab world for religion not to be critical to any new narrative, but at the same time I note how secular the Nasser/Baath narratives were, and I would attribute their failure not to being non-religious but not delivering on modernity and opportunity.
    – I also put in a note of caution about being too US-orientated here. Secularism apart, the social democracies of Europe, actually offer a very appealing model to many young Arabs, because they seem to offer a mix of prosperity, opportunity and social safety net that the US system doesn’t.
    – Finally, if we put aspiration and overcoming humilitation as the drivers for any new narrative then we may end up with the same problem as before, with disillusionment at a failure to deliver – leading to a return to extremism. Breaking that cycle in nations with poor delivery mechanisms and vast populations of young people with high expectations may undermine any positive narrative.