Monday, 8th September 2014

ISIL will be defeated only if we dismantle its appeal

In a season of blood in the Middle East, one incident in particular stood out for many of those observing from the West: the gruesome murder of US journalist James Foley, a video of whose beheading Islamic State (ISIL) jihadists released on 19 August. His death, horribly replicated on 2 September by the beheading of fellow  journalist Steven Sotloff, was undeniably horrific, and his loss dreadfully sad, but given the scale of atrocities elsewhere in the region – the bombings, mass killings,  abductions, sexual abuse, torture – the attention on one man was arguably disproportionate.

There are many reasons why the West has lingered on the story of Foley, just as in the coming weeks it will take time to absorb the loss of Sotloff. First, because it  humanised suffering: it is easier to empathise with an individual than a mass, to cling to a name rather than numbers. Second, the sheer barbarity of the video  circulated of his death was too disturbing not to sear the memory if you watched it, or the imagination if you did not. And third, the framing of the murder as a ‘Message to America’ reinforced a ‘them and us’ paradigm on which groups like ISIL thrive. That Foley and Sotloff ’s killer (or killers) came from the UK – identifiable by South East England vowels and dropped consonants – has fuelled the debate about radicalisation in the West, as Europe struggles to come to terms with the fact its own citizens are choosing to join the extremists. In London, politicians are scrambling to find ways of stopping jihadists returning home, looking to strip them of citizenship as if doing so will magically distance Britain from the problem. Yet the problem is precisely the distance: if young British men and women are taking up arms in Iraq, it is because they have felt that they do not belong in the Britain in which they live.

Anger breeds on the fringes, and radicalisation does not take place overnight. ISIL is essentially a gang, luring the disenfranchised with rousing propaganda and  hardening them once they are in. Violence bonds members, and belonging is enhanced by the religiosity of the jihadist jargon which elevates depravity into a ‘cause’. “The longer they are in, the more they drink the Kool-Aid,” as one observer told GSN.

ISIL’s brutality is an essential part of its message to the outside world. It is calculated to shock, to create an aura of invincibility that enables the group to transcend its physical capabilities. But to overcome ISIL, the world needs to unravel its internal messaging, to suffocate its propaganda, and reveal its leaders to be no more than the thugs they are. While ISIL violence must be taken seriously, ISIL aspirations should not. The idea that a jihadist group should name itself a ‘state’ should be treated with derision, its announcement of a caliphate with contempt. Islamic leaders in particular need to unite to dismantle the group’s abhorrent abuse of Islam. Failure to
do so will inflate the myth which ISIL needs to survive.

Within Iraq, ISIL has advanced because other Sunni groups have chosen not to fight against it. If they can be made to feel the pull of some kind of coherent, inclusive Iraq, they will begin to turn against the jihadists. And outside of Iraq, nations must try to redress the alienation which has made too many flock to jihadist gangs. Foley and Sotloff spent much of their lives trying to illuminate the dark corners of the world, and tell the stories of those who might otherwise have been mere statistics. Only by doing the same will we overcome the extremists. It will never be enough just to punish existing jihadists: while one group may fall, others will rise. We may be overwhelmed by the inhumanity of its acts, but we must tackle ISIL as a human problem, and treat the social and historic ills which have allowed such groups – such individuals – to flourish.

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