How to win the War of Ideas with Islamic State
No debate on how the West should confront the menace of the Islamic State is complete without the proposition that we should focus on winning the war of ideas – to provide a “better” alternative to the apocalyptic worldview of IS. Opponents of taking military action against the group are often the most vocal supporters of winning the war of ideas, but even President Obama and John Kerry, who are leading the international coalition against IS have emphasised its importance.
Providing an alternative to Islamic State, and an effective counternarrative are without doubt crucial to our efforts to defeat jihadism, not just IS. But Islamic State is enslaving women, it is roasting human beings alive and it is directing horrific attacks against civilians all over the world. Tweets showing how mean they are and how much better we are just aren’t going to cut it.
The most effective way to win the war of ideas will be to utterly decimate Islamic State as a credible force and to take back all areas under their territorial control; stripping them of their caliphate in the process.
Parallels with the Nazis are sometimes made far too frivolously, but in the case of Islamic State it is one of the few occasions when the analogy is entirely appropriate. There was a time when Nazism was an idea, an ideology, not dissimilar to Jihadism – utopian, imperialist, supremacist, genocidal. Western powers should aim to win the ideological war against Islamic State in the same way that Nazism was defeated in the Second World War. By completely destroying their fighting capability and liberating conquered territory. To be clear, this is not an argument for a full scale ground invasion or a Middle-Eastern D-Day, but it is an argument for defeating the group militarily as an absolute priority.
Islamic State is more than just a terrorist group. It holds territory, and in parts of Iraq and Syria it is a functioning state – but above all it is a symbol. Although young men and women from a number of countries had been travelling to Syria to join the likes of ISIS (as they were at the time) or al-Nusra since 2012, it was when ISIS rolled unopposed into Mosul and declared their caliphate that the numbers spiked.
The battlefield success and momentum of Islamic State was its USP to fantasists around the world and the group’s slogan, “remaining and expanding”, differentiated it from the more conceptual, less fashionable, al-Qaeda.
If the name Islamic State is consigned to the history books and it’s black flag is rendered meaningless, then wannabe jihadists around the world will have nowhere to migrate to, no battles to join, no fighters for young girls to marry and nothing to aspire to. The army which claims to be fighting on behalf of the one true God will be no more. Defeating Islamic State on the battlefield, preferably with local Sunni Muslim forces leading the way, will provide a more persuasive counter-narrative than any government sponsored Twitter account or YouTube channel ever could.