Center for 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.