Why ISIS has the potential to be a world-altering revolution: Scott Atran

A really good in-depth and lengthy analysis of some of the problems with current strategies against ISIS and similar movements. A necessary if not encouraging read:

The 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the US and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even Bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so. Herein lies the full measure of jujitsu-style asymmetric warfare. After all, who could claim that we are better off than before, or that the overall danger is declining?

This alone should inspire a radical change in our counter-strategies. Yet, like the proverbial notion of insanity being the repetition of the same mistakes while expecting different results, our side continues to focus almost exclusively on security and military responses. Some of these responses have proven hopelessly ineffective from the outset, such as relying on the Iraqi, Afghan or Free Syrian armies.

ISIS manages 70,000 Twitter and Facebook accounts, with hundreds of thousands of followers, and sends approximately 90,000 texts daily

By contrast, there is precious little attention to social and psychological needs. I don’t mean to suggest that we solve things by offering potential jihadists better jobs. A still-unpublished report by the World Bank shows no reliable relationship between job production and violence reduction. If people are ready to sacrifice their lives, then it is not likely that offers of greater material advantages will stop them.

Instead, we must meet their psychological and aspirational needs. In just one example of how we fall short, the US State Department continues to send off-target tweets through negative mass messaging in its ineffectual ‘Think Again Turn Away’ campaign. Compare this to ISIS, which can spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals. Through its social media, the sophisticated Islamic State learns how personal frustrations and grievances can fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and then translates anger and unrealised aspiration into moral outrage. Some estimates have ISIS managing upwards of 70,000 Twitter and Facebook accounts, with hundreds of thousands of followers, and sending approximately 90,000 texts daily. ISIS also pays close attention to the pop songs, video clips, action movies and television shows that garner high ratings among youth, and use them as templates to tailor their own messages.

By contrast, the US government has few operatives who personally engage with youth before they become a problem. The FBI is pressing to get out of the messy business of prevention and just stick to criminal investigation. ‘No one wants to own any of this,’ one group from the US National Counterterrorism Center told us. And public diplomacy efforts don’t quite get that hackneyed appeals to ‘moderation’ fall flat on restless and idealistic youths seeking adventure, glory and significance. As one imam and former Islamic State facilitator told us in Jordan:

The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided. We have to give them a better message, but a positive one to compete. Otherwise, they will be lost to Daesh.

Local grass-roots approaches have had better luck in pulling people away. The United Network of Young Peacebuilders has had remarkable results in convincing young Taliban in Pakistan that enemies can be friends, and then encouraging those so convinced to convince others. But this will not challenge the broad attraction of the Islamic State for young people from nearly 90 nations and every walk of life. The lessons of local successes must be shared with government, and ideas allowed to bubble up before they boil over. To date, no such conduit exists, and young people with good ideas have few institutional channels to develop them.

Even if good ideas find ways to emerge from youth and obtain institutional support for their development to application, they still need intellectual help to persuade the public to adopt them. But where are the intellectuals to do this? Among Muslim leadership I’ve interviewed around the world, I listen to PowerPoint presentations intoning on ‘dimensions of ideology, grievance, and group dynamics’, notions that originate exclusively with Western ‘terrorism experts’ and think tanks. When I ask: ‘What ideas come from your own people?’, I’m told in moments of candour, as I was most recently by a Muslim leadership council in Singapore, that: ‘We don’t have many new ideas and we can’t agree on those we have.’

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone

And where among our own current or coming generation are the intellectuals who might influence the moral principles, motivations and actions of society towards a just and reasonable way through the morass? In academia, you’ll find few willing to engage with power. They thus render themselves irrelevant and morally irresponsible by leaving the field of power entirely to those they censure. Accordingly, politicians pay them little heed, and the public couldn’t care less, often with good reason. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, many in my own field of anthropology principally occupied themselves with the critique of empire: is the US a classic empire or ‘empire light’? This was arguably a justifiable academic exercise, and perhaps a useful reflection in the long run, but hardly helpful in the context of a country moving fast to open-ended war, with all the agony and suffering that extended wars inevitably bring.

Responsible intellectual endeavour in the public sphere was once a vibrant part of our public life: not to promote ‘certain, clear, and strong’ action, as Martin Heidegger wrote in support of Hitler, but to generate just and reasonable possibilities and pathways for consideration. Now this sphere is largely abandoned to the Manichean preachings of blogging pundits, radio talk-show hosts, product-pushing podcasters, and television evangelicals. These people rarely do what responsible intellectuals ought to do. ‘The intellectual,’ explained France’s Raymond Aron 60 years ago, ‘must try never to forget the arguments of the adversary, or the uncertainty of the future, or the faults of one’s own side, or the underlying fraternity of ordinary men everywhere.’

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.

Source: Why ISIS has the potential to be a world-altering re…

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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