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Fighting ISIS On The Ideological Battlefield

05/10/2016 2:38 AM IST | Updated 07/10/2016 8:27 AM IST
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The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) appears to be on the defensive in both Iraq and Syria. It recently lost its hold on Aleppo, Syria to a combined attack by Russian and Syrian government forces. Mosul, in Iraq, which has been under ISIS control since July 2014, is under severe pressure from a combination of Iraqi and Kurdish military as well as the US-led coalition. The strategy to retake Mosul from ISIS is based on a "pincer"-type operation with Iraqi forces entering the city from the southeast and Kurdish forces planning a launch from the northwest. There are also plans to launch a simultaneous attack on Raqqa. For ISIS, the hold on territory is critical for two reasons. For one, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a Caliphate—one based on a territory— in July 2014 from Mosul. Second, ISIS has utilized its hold on sacred places like Raqqa and Dabiq in Syria, to showcase itself as a true representative of the Muslim cause. These places are mentioned in apocalyptic Islamic literature as sites of the final battle between believers and infidels (Rome). ISIS, through the narrative that it has created for itself, represents itself and Abu Bakr as fulfilling that prophesy.

A viable way to question ISIS ideology is for a "counter-narrative" to exist within its target audience.

However, equally critical to retaking territory is to simultaneously question the ideological narrative that ISIS has propagated so successfully online. Its al-Hayat media centre has made thousands of videos on its beheadings, its ideology, as well as religious inspiration for its existence. ISIS has succeeded in attracting a large number of foreign fighters to its cause based on its online propaganda. Till date, around 27,000 foreigners have travelled to fight for ISIS, attracted by both religious aspirations as well as the draw of money. In July 2014, ISIS released a video titled "The Chosen Few of Different Lands", in which a Canadian fighter was seen describing his life under ISIS. The online recruiting of women is organized under platforms like al-Khansa'a , named after a devout poetess who lived in the Prophet's times; after losing her four sons in battle against Persia, she apparently stated that she was proud to be the mother of martyrs. Tunisia has sent the largest number of foreign fighters (6000), followed by Saudi Arabia (2500), Russia (2400), Turkey (2100), Jordan (2000), France (1700), the UK (700) and Germany (500).

The lack of a distinct strategy within the counter-terrorism domain to question radical extremist ideologies like that perpetrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the deceased leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) resulted in ISIS. Taking cue from Zarqawi, Baghdadi further propagated similar ideas, and continued with the brutal narrative of AQI methods and tactics. Consequently, the death of Zarqawi weakened AQI but led to the rise of ISIS.

A viable way to question ISIS ideology is for a "counter-narrative" to exist within its target audience. For instance, ISIS has identified both Indonesia and India as future areas of expansion. Incidentally, Indonesia and India boast among the largest Muslim populations in the world, and yet, remarkably, have been the source of very few ISIS recruits. The answer lies in a civil society that has boldly questioned ISIS ideology in both countries.

Indonesia and India offer critical policy lessons on the significance of society-based counter-narratives that reject ISIS ideology and consequently limit its spread and influence.

In Indonesia, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Sunni Muslim organization with nearly 50 million members, preaches an Islam of compassion, kindness, tolerance of other faiths and inclusivity—a direct challenge to the Salafi inspired fundamentalist theology of ISIS. Another organization called the Brotherhood Forum of the Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars has rejected ISIS. In India, 70,000 Muslim clerics of the Sunni-based Barelvi movement issued a fatwa (religious communication) against ISIS during the famous festival of Urs-e-Razvi of Dargah Aala Hazrat. On Eid in 2015, Indian Muslim clerics declared that any Indian Muslim taking part in terrorist activities would not have the namaz-e-janaza read during his funeral services. All India Muslim Personal Board (AIMPB) member and noted scholar Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani stated, "There is no space for ISIS ideology in our religion. The inhuman activities of the ISIS go against the teachings of Islam."

In conclusion, I would reiterate that a simultaneous twofold strategy has to be utilized against ISIS. First, denying it territory for establishing its Caliphate; second, questioning its brutal narrative. A lesson should be taken from deceased American jihadist, Omar Hammami, former leader of al-Shabaab, who stated, "The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives." Indonesia and India offer critical policy lessons on the significance of society-based counter-narratives that reject ISIS ideology and consequently limit its spread and influence.

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