The Narrative Implications of ISIS
Dr. Sara Cobb, Director of the Center for Narratives and Conflict Resolution
At present, we, in the west, are running scared. It is clear that extremist groups not only kill westerners, in their own communities but these extremists operate in a transboundary way, moving across national, as well as cultural borders, to instill terror, threatening our way of life.
But suppose that the “audience” for this violence is as much within the Islamic world, as it is in western democracies? Suppose ISIS is deeply committed to “protecting” Islam from “shirkers” by bringing them back to the correct foundations of their faith? Suppose that the West plays an ancillary role in enabling shirkers to stray from their faith, by promoting secularism and “free choice” but the problem is less to do with the west and more to do with getting these shirkers back on track? If the West is not the location of the problem, but only an “accomplice” to shirking, then how might this change the way we story our role in addressing, redressing ISIS as a violent extremist group?
An examination of the ISIS narrative landscape indeed reveals the “shirker” narrative is “dead center” (pun intended) re their identity. They see other Muslim’s as the location of the problem, and the West contributing to lull Muslims toward shirking. It is the Islamic world, but the west that is the location of intervention.
So we have a group of folks within the Islamic world who think Islam has lost its way. This is clearly a topic for conversation within Islam where the issues they see as central to this extremist narrative could be discussed, if not addressed. Basically, if we take this “shirker” narrative seriously, and I would advise that we do, collectively, we could have an opportunity to contemplate how a group of folks, within Islam could begin to feel and think this way? What are the origins of or context for this “shirker” storyline?
Clearly there are many problems that the Islamic world faces, and it is not just secularism or free choice. There are occupations, sectarian conflicts, youth unemployment, marginalization of Islamic people within western communities, autocratic rulers, postcolonial histories, etcetera. At some level, ISIS’s shirker narrative could spark a broader conversation about the conditions internal to Islam, focused on this moment in their history, and how they want to write their future. A sustained, deliberate, reflective inquiry on the part of the Islamic world about the emergence of extremism within Islam would enable both the global community to get smart about issues, to learn together about the struggles people face, and to begin to thoughtfully address these issues, in partnership. After all, we live in a world where the problems within Islam are the problems of everyone, and people of every faith, as well as political stripe must join together to collaboratively support long-term sustainable solutions to what is clearly a “wicked” problem.
After all, we live in a world where the problems within Islam are the problems of everyone, and people of every faith, as well as political stripe must join together to collaboratively support long term sustainable solutions to what is clearly a “wicked” problem.
Sound like a large undertaking? It is. But it is really the only way to address what Nixon (2011) has called “slow violence” — -the non-spectacular violence of toxic conditions that build up over time. In the case of ISIS, we are clearly engaged in “fast violence” in response to their fast violence. But if we could turn our attention to “slow violence,” in partnership with religious and political leaders from around the world, we could begin to see the violence of the conditions in which so many Muslims have been and currently are, subjected. Naming this slow violence is a way to engage the world on extremism, which is a form of fast violence that begets more of the same.
While I have no first-hand knowledge of the capacity of Islamic world to reflect on “slow violence,” I have faith in the Islamic people that they have the will, and the capacity to do this reflection. Indeed, I see the Islamic world as being uniquely qualified for this kind of humane and reflective inquiry into the state of Islam in the world today. And I have every hope that western leaders could partner with them, not by jumping on the “blame Islam” bandwagon, but by legitimizing their inquiry as an act of moral courage that sets an example for the world. Indeed, the west has its share of the blame as well — colonialism, invasions, occupations — we have shirked our moral obligations by denying or ignoring the slow violence (as well as the fast violence of drones), we have done to others.
This is not a time for finger pointing. However, it is a time for moral courage. The US is a big nation, not just in landmass, or military might. We are big-hearted. We are big enough to be able to support a global conversation that is attentive to the experience of Others, as a strategy of engagement. Getting the stories about slow violence into the public sphere, we can work, with others, to address the very real issues on the ground. The question I have is whether the US has enough moral courage to see beyond its role as military or political force, to become, or perhaps reclaim, our role as a moral leader.
We have enough money and know know to set up a sustained global dialogue, one that would dominate the media, circulate in communities around the world, mesmerizing in terms of the complexity of the stories that would/could emerge. Imagine a World Café (a strategy for dialogue) focused on learning about slow violence in the Islamic world, and how to address it, lead by the Organization of Islamic Countries, supported by global leaders, circulated in social media, where participation could be broad and deep. The world would learn. The “clash of civilizations” narrative would abate as our stories get more complicated — -the diversity of perspectives would complicate our view of who we are, and the role that different characters (nations, religions) have played in “slow violence.” These more complicated stories would reduce the “us and them” and make it more likely we could develop multi-pronged, collaborative strategies for reducing marginalization of Islamic youth and building connections across cultural divides.
These more complicated stories would reduce the “us and them” and make it more likely we could develop multi-pronged, collaborative strategies for reducing marginalization of Islamic youth and building connections across cultural divides.
This is not a “kumbyya” process. There are extremely touchy subjects, such as the occupation of Palestine, such as the invasion of Iraq, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, such as the conflict between Sunni and Shia, such as the violence of terrorists’ attacks, that need to be discussed in public, in communities across the world. There are plenty of narrative “potholes” but to avoid discussion of them is childish — -let’s not avoid looking under the bed to see if the monster is there, remaining with dread in our beds, pulling the covers up over our heads.
Neither is this narrative exploration/development equivalent to a program in public diplomacy or a “counternarrative” project, both of which are all too often little more than a thinly veiled marketing approach to the narrative space.
This long term strategy of complicating the narrative landscape does not replace the need for “fast violence.” Civilians must be protected. Violence should be stopped, even if it requires violence. But we cannot let fast violence occupy us to the point where we cannot think and work, long term. I think we, in the US, are better than this. And I believe that the Islamic world has the internal strength and wisdom to design and manage a sustained reflection, on the world stage.