Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Satire, shock, ugly facts—since 9/11 the U.S. has tried practically every psychological approach to discourage young people from joining up with Al Qaeda and ISIS, according to Greg Miller and Scott Higham in the Washington Post.  

A Tale of Failure

The consensus is that nothing has worked.   Young men by the hundreds,  and even some young women, are leaving Europe, the U.K and the U.S., to qualify for the high honor of being martyred for Islam.  Non-Muslim Westerners (and many Muslims, for that matter) are not only mystified, but horrified by the boldly flaunted beheadings and the systematic slaughter of unbelievers and members of rival Muslim sects.  Scenes of gore and brutality are regularly posted in what we might call ISIS selfies.    

And yet, given the bloody hell that’s war anywhere, anytime, these would be legitimate questions: is performing pitiless jihad categorically worse than murder from a safe distance via drones or patriotically swearing to give one’s life for one’s country? is the ISIS onslaught so much worse than the cruel goings on during the wars of religion in Europe?  Didn’t Christians wreck ancient Greek temples?

The Negativity Trap

Devising propaganda to counter ISIS has been complicated by the fact that its cohorts fight under the banner of Islam, using methods that appear to be advocated in one way or another in the Koran, which is said to have been dictated by Allah to the Prophet.  I’ll be reviewing Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s very interesting exploration of this matter in her Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now in the near future.  This presents the West with a serious problem.   How can outsiders criticize ISIS without criticizing Islam itself?  

The larger tactical problem, I think, is related: the tendency to rely on just such criticism, criticism, criticism, an entirely negative approach.  Direct verbal attacks are as likely to strengthen jihadi commitment as to weaken it, unfortunately.  Satire or ridicule, though amusing to outsiders, may have equally unintended consequences.

Underestimating the Enemy

Another naive and much too frequent aspect of U.S. propaganda is the tendency to underestimate the knowledge and  intelligence of ISIS recruits.  Assuming the improbable, that susceptible young people are ignorant of ISIS brutalities, the US has recycled the very social media material that attracts fervent young Muslims to the cause.  At this point, it might be useful to recall an axiom that was once in common use in the State Department.  You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.  ISIS is definitely breaking eggs.  Is it possible that ISIS is also making an omelet?  Whether it’s to our taste is basically irrelevant.

No doubt some ISIS recruits are thoughtless and  immature adventure seekers with, like bullies on the playground and or little boys kicking down Lego towers or sand castles.  No doubt a certain primitive, chest-beating, purely destructive ecstasy is as vital to some jihadis as the solemn commitment to destroying graven images and reminders of false religions to others.   The profit motive must also be given its due.  Snatched for personal gain or ISIS benefit, stolen treasures fetch a good price on world markets.  But is that all?  Is ISIS itself only about negativity and destruction?  

Recruits from All Classes

Westerners have often comforted themselves with the notion that only losers find ISIS attractive.  Neglected, ignored, maltreated, unsuccessful, lacking money, education and opportunity, if they can’t make it in America or France or the U.K., they can, at least, get in on the ground floor of a restored Caliphate.  

But wait!  Well-educated young men from good families are also gravitating to ISIS. Not only are they masters of technology.  They are masters of  propaganda because they know the enemy from the inside out, which is more than we can say of American propagandists trying to compete with ISIS.  Techies we have.  Insight we clearly don’t have.

Blind Idealism

So let’s try to look at the problem from another angle, a historic angle.  Communism in the Soviet Union was not a pretty system.  Propagate dissent and you ended up in the gulag or dead.  Belong to the wrong class and you might be starved to death, as were the kulaks in Ukraine.  And so on.  Yet, for years, many Americans and Western Europeans persisted in calling themselves communists.  How could that possibly be?  The short answer is this: hating selfish, capitalistic materialism, believing in the dream of cooperative egalitarianism, they overlooked the reality of totalitarianism. Seeing the imperfections of Western democracy, they grasped at the fantasy of something better.  If they glimpsed disturbing things, they looked away and said, “You can’t make omelets, etc.”

Something like this is happening today within Islam.   Governments in the Middle East have been almost universally horrible.  Now, perhaps, there’s a chance of radical change consistent with moral principles aka sharia law, even if it’s enforced viciously.  Most of the earnest Muslims who sympathize with ISIS or join up to fight the good fight probably have a good sense of the messiness of the process,  while hoping that the worst is only an unfortunate but necessary prelude to something better.  No doubt there are cynics within ISIS who delight in taking advantage of such blind faith, but without the hope there would be no one to coopt.  With each ISIS victory, the dream in both cynical and idealistic versions must seem ever closer. And so even more recruits pour in.  Winners are popular.

America the Once Admired

Coming from behind in the contest for hearts and minds, is there any way for the U.S. to regain the initiative and neutralize an incredibly successful ISIS propaganda offensive?  There is a way, a very promising way. But the only way to conquer a dream is with a better dream—or better yet, an inspiring reality.  And what would that be today?

Once upon a time the U.S. had a reality that seemed like a dream.  Democracy.  Prosperity.  Education for everyone.  Good jobs.  Upward mobility.   The freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.  And this, too: civil rights legislation had brought to an end the legal protection of racial inequality.

What was there not to like about that America?   Of course, there was some carping and criticism.  America was too materialistic, too self-indulgent, too preoccupied with sex, too imperialistic.  Sayyid Kutb, a U.S.I.S. -sponsored visitor from Egypt was one such critic. He was disgusted with what he called America’s pervasive licentiousness, among other things, and his writings continue to inspire Islamist thinking today.  

American diplomats didn’t pay much attention to Kutb’s ilk back in the good old days.   Most of the foreigners who spent time in the U.S. reported great enthusiasm for what they had seen—or so they said, perhaps only out of politeness, though that quaint idea was unlikely to enter our minds back when we ourselves had more faith in America.  We were rich, powerful and secure, which may be another word for smug.

Needed: A Better Reality, A Credible New Vision

Things are more complex now.  The U.S. is so divided ideologically  it’s practically paralyzed politically.  The financial system is  dishonest.  Money warps the electoral process.  And irony of ironies, considering the fate of the U.S.S.R,, overspending on the military deprives education, research, infrastructure and everything else of sufficient sustenance.  Even the judicial system is under-funded.  This is not the place for a thorough critique of contemporary America, but the decline is so great that the U.S. struggles to maintain its influence in world affairs.     

Such being the case, it’s easy to see why American propagandists have drifted into fruitless negativity.  So, the big question is this: what credible aspirational dream (or better yet—reality) can the U.S. match against the powerful dream of an invigorated Caliphate?  Is there a way to include all Americans, meaningfully, comfortably, and soon within that attained vision?   And does that vision for America allow for a better, less militarized vision of how to get along in our fractured unhappy world? 

Lacking convincing and inspiring answers to these questions, there is no way the U.S. can compete with ISIS.