As I alluded to in last week’s look at Lieutenant General Flynn’s Military Review piece on ISIS, there was another article in MR that stressed the idea that we must fight ISIS not just militarily, but also fight their ideas and values. This is a theme I’ve seen more and more recently in articles and interviews, and it’s a hard thing to argue against. It’s not likely you will find someone willing to argue that ISIS’ ideology and value system are something to admire. Because of this, when someone says we should fight their values and ideas, it goes unchallenged.
A more important question though, is how? How do we challenge them? And is our goal to persuade them (ISIS) to denounce their own ideals or is it instead an argument towards the masses who might be attracted to their vision and worldview?
In her piece in Military Review titled How Daesh Uses Language in the Domain of Religion, Major Theresa Ford explores some of the “words and ideas” ISIS uses in their propaganda as they relate to religion.
The article is a good primer on some of the tenets of Islamic theology and history. Unlike others who fall short of saying “how” we are supposed to counter the ISIS narrative, Ford offers “what”; that we should challenge them head-on in their own language and realm. In her conclusion, she writes:
Bombs and bullets alone cannot defeat Daesh. To defeat these terrorists, we must engage them in the domain of deen (religion) where they maintain freedom of movement, and we must counter words with words. We need to use the same weapons, including knowledge of Islam, Islamic history, and language, to defeat them. Unfortunately, U.S. soldiers are seldom, if ever, instructed on the proper use of these weapons, and until they are, Daesh will continue to dominate the domain of deen—its primary source of power.
While it’s refreshing to see someone offer something up in the “what” realm, and as Ford writes, it is indeed rare for US soldiers (or policymakers) to hold an intelligent and working knowledge of Islam, I disagree with the idea of this “head on” approach.
There is nothing wrong with knowing and understanding the theological underpinnings and sources of motivation of the enemy, but to suggest – as many do – that there is a special combination of socio-cultural or religious “hacks” that we can unlock that will turn the tides of the conflict is a fantasy.
This is seen in the oft-cited idea that we don’t call them ISIS but instead use the Anglicized Arabic acronym, Daesh. Ford writes “the group’s leaders consider the world insulting,” and cites an article that attributes this to a group of anonymous Iraqis who fled Mosul – the only source I’ve been able to find for this claim. Over the past year, I’ve seen interviews and articles urging us all to use Daesh because “they hate that.” First, there is scant evidence to suggest they really care – just one anonymous source claiming ISIS would “cut the tongue” out of anyone who used the acronym. Second, even if they did truly hate the acronym, what is the chief goal of urging others to use it in lieu of ISIS or ISIL? The idea that if only we all used a term that made the group angrier would have any effect on how the group operates is a little absurd. I’ve usually seen urging others to use Daesh as more of an attack on others domestically. Those who use Daesh claim to understand the true nature of the threat, whereas the rest don’t quite get it.
Agonizing over what to call them doesn’t do much in terms of halting their military progress in the Middle East or dissuading others from joining them.
Ford argues that “our messaging should expose the abundance of religious fraud in Daesh’s jihadist propaganda, most of which justifies fighting based on religious authorities.” Like most religions, the theological texts and traditions can be interpreted and manipulated to justify many things. Scholars argue over minutiae that can potentially have great meaning. For anyone who has tried to convince someone over the internet that they’re wrong, imagine the chasm that exists between a US-sponsored Islamic theologian and a potential ISIS recruit. Citing hadiths and obscure fatwas will likely not persuade someone from leaving ISIS or another from joining. Trying to engage ISIS in an area where they hold the ideological high ground is as wise as them trying to engage a US infantry platoon in open combat.
Ford’s most important point is that there is value in understanding the theological underpinning’s of ISIS’ appeal and growth. That understanding should absolutely be integrated into messaging to counter ISIS and dissuade others from joining. Those who are engaged in this important work would be well served by a robust understanding of Islamic history and theology. However, in the same way that the “strategic corporal” often effects events negatively rather than positively, a “strategic messenger” can do the same. US-sponsored theological debates may be more counter-productive than the author suggests.
Lastly, there is a danger in trying to industrialize the understanding of theology for the rapid use in messaging or counter-messaging. It’s something I addressed on this blog back in 2012. As Andrew Exum writes:
“Plenty of U.S. military officers and troops were inspired by their service in either Iraq or Afghanistan to learn Arabic or Dari and study the peoples of the region. I left the Army in 2004, as a matter of fact, to pursue a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut,” says Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “But plenty of other officers and troops began their own amateurish studies of Islam and now, like Lt. Col. Dooley, peddle claims to know the truth about the violence and hatred at the heart of Islam. Pope’s warning that a little learning can be a dangerous thing is certainly relevant here. These hucksters, like the Robert Spencers of the world, know just enough to make themselves sound credible to an uninformed audience and hide their prejudices under a thin layer of amateurish, ideologically motivated scholarship.”