A few Thoughts on "Counter Narratives" and "Counter Messaging"

If we look at the lives Western foreign fighters led before they decided to go to Syria, we will find that they are truly diverse. We find former Gangsta Rappers as well as converts from well-to-do, bourgeois families among them; we see former pretty criminals, drug consumers and drinkers, but also university student, workers and pupils. What we usually don't find is recruits who used to be politically active.

That's interesting, because it wouldn't be at all counter-intuitive to assume that radicalization can be the result of frustration over not having been able to achieve anything through political activism. But that's not the case, apparently. What we see instead is that many of those who end up waging war in Syria have been radicalized at a dramatic speed. As if there had been a vacuum that needed to be filled as quickly as possible.

In fact, I think this is actually what happens. Many of those who radicalize do it because the ideology of Jihadism offers them simple and all-encompassing answers to all their questions and problems - and it instills them with a deep sense of purpose and meaning, something most other ideas on offer seem to be failing at. Jihadism basically says that you can leave behind your troubled past this very moment; your slate will be wiped clean; all crises are over; all conflicts from your past life are meaningless. You will be a new person, with a new identity. You are truly re-born. Or: Given a second chance.

You have to understand this mechanism if you want to fight Jihadist ideology. My question is: Does the renewed talk about counter narratives and counter messaging take this into account?

As the New York Times is reporting, the US State Department is in the midst of revamping its respective efforts. There is talk of making use of as many as 350 State department Social Media accounts in order to repel the IS's propaganda flow. The "Think again. Turn Away"-Initiative, which hadn't been faring as well as had been hoped for, will apparently be made part of a broader initiative that will also enlist the help of Pentagon and intelligence analysts so as to make sure that messaging is co-ordinated, not only among US agencies, but also with partner states.

One of the inherent problems with a state-run counter messaging proposal is made aptly visible in this quote by Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center: "We try to find ways to stimulate this kind of counter narrative, this kind of counter messaging, without heaving a U.S. government hand in it." The problem is that, quite frankly, the more state involvement there is, the more it smacks of counter propaganda - a concept which is not easily reconciled with our ideas of a free, liberal society.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think it is a mistake to point out blatant lies by Jihadists. I just think that this effort is not addressing the core of the problem.

I don't even like the term counter narrative. Because in my understanding, Jihadism is the counter narrative here. (And that is true even if you take into account the historical  emergence of the Salafiyya in reaction to the rise of the West.) Our problem is not that we need to find an answer to the ideological challenge of Jihadism - our problem is that our original narrative has become too unattractive. It can not fulfill the needs of those who later become Jihadists.

Our first question therefor should be: Why is our original idea not attractive enough anymore? Is it because we don't teach it well enough (in our schools, for example)? Is it, because it is not exciting enough (since party politics are "boring")? Is its, because we can't offer quick and complete solutions, unlike Jihadism? Or is it because we don't really keep our promises (because, e.g., we are all equal on paper, but it is much harder to find a flat or a job if you are a Muslim with an Arabic name)?

To me, it looks like this: The moment in which a 17-year-old starts believing a Jihadist hardliner, he has already stopped believing "us.

But at the same time, this may be true, too: Another 17-year-old, who in the same moment experiences that he is not powerless because he secured funding for a basketball court from the municipality or perhaps because he just successfully registered a demonstration against the next Gaza war, may become quite immune towards Jihadist recruiters.

I don't want to downplay personal factors. Broken families, lack of (male) examples - all of this plays into radicalization processes, as well. But the sense of being unable to achieve or change anything, is also a big driving force.

The truth is that Jihadism has many thousands of voluntary helpers across the Globe who spend hours on hours in front of their laptops trying to spread their ideology. These people are truly committed. If we want to counter their influence, we need more than state-run and state-instigated programs. We need volunteers ourselves, in order to counter the volunteers of extremism.

I have nothing against help from the state, wherever it is helpful and makes sense. But actually, no-one needs a mandate or even a laptop to his own bit of counter messaging. I guess this is my point. We can't and we shouldn't delegate this to the state or its agencies alone.


NB: This is a somewhat different version of a German blog post I published on ZEIT ONLINE today

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