We have to defeat Islamism on the battleground of ideas

Fallujah, Iraq (AP)

In the minds of many, the American-led “War on Terror” arrived at a major turning point when it caught and killed the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011. His death followed a highly effective, though somewhat controversial, drone campaign that successfully eliminated many senior al-Qaeda members who were holed up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Although there were no post-Iraq War style “Mission accomplished” banners being brandished, these developments were supposed to usher in a new era in which global jihadism was much less of a threat, and the US could retreat from the Middle East and South Asia and be slightly less concerned about it.

But while al-Qaeda may not be the menace it once was, jihadism is more alive now than it has ever been. In fact, not only is it alive, but it has also developed new and arguably more virulent strains that are spreading like wildfire in Iraq and Syria. This worrying state of affairs is exacerbated because these new strains, represented by groups such as the Islamic State (IS) are recruiting European Muslims on an unprecedented scale.

IS has been around since at least 2005 when the insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq was in full swing. But the civil war in Syria gave the group a new lease of life and, crucially, access to eager jihadist recruits from all over the world.

It has since taken over large swathes of Iraq, filling a power vacuum in the Iraqi Sunni heartlands that neither the Kurdish Regional Government nor the federal government of Iraq had paid enough attention to.

Since taking control of significant Iraqi territory, IS has persecuted Shias, Christians, Sufis and other minorities while seeking to exterminate the Yazidi, whom they regard as Devil worshippers. This persecution has included daubing symbols on Christian houses in Mosul to identify them, taking Yazidi women as sex slaves, while beheading hundreds of Yazidi men.

Many of these atrocities have been committed by individuals who were born and raised in European cities, with 500 Britons believed to in the region fighting with IS, as well as 900 French nationals, and many other Europeans from Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This is an astonishing state of affairs that was simply unthinkable a decade ago. Needless to say, the propaganda now emanating from IS is also being used by far Right elements to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment at large.

Not having a response to a group like IS is clearly not an option, so what should our response look like? It is important to note that jihadist groups are not mafia-style organisations that rely heavily on the personality or dynamism of a few individuals. They are ideologically driven groups that routinely produce new leaders, strategies and tactics. Their key strength is the power of their ideas, which enable them to attract recruits prepared to sacrifice their lives. This is a crucial distinction because it shapes the way we tailor our response.

When IS is perceived as a mafia-style group, governments tend to view the application of sufficient force as the primary means through which they can be defeated. When understood as an ideological threat, the response should be somewhat different. Ideas cannot be killed through the barrel of a gun. If not attended to appropriately, ideas can prove more dangerous than any weapon humans have ever made. An ideological movement needs an ideological response that is sensitive to the reasons why the ideological movement is attractive to some in the first place.

Thus far, the response to the jihadist threat has been mainly military, which is deeply problematic. We must recognise that military action only affects the ability of jihadist groups to operate in certain areas or carry out certain attacks. It does not undermine their support base. Secondly, such action can also be used to feed the jihadist narrative that presents the US and other non-Muslim powers, as well as non-Islamist states, as being engaged in a war against Islam and Muslims. This is not to say there is no room for military action at all, just that it needs to be limited and complemented with other strands of work.

Ultimately, jihadism will only stop appealing to young and disenfranchised Muslims around the world when they feel they have better alternatives through which they can engage others. Bad ideas need to challenged and replaced with better ones. As such, we need a global and concerted effort not to impose democracy and liberty at the barrel of a gun, but rather to build support for and intellectual engagement with these ideas through constructive and sustained civil society activism.

We need a global dialogue about how societies should be governed, confident as we are in the knowledge that it is very hard to argue against having a political system that respects human rights and forms governments based on popular consent. Through such dialogue the intellectual bankruptcy of jihadist and Islamist thinking can be exposed. Currently, that dialogue is not happening, allowing extremists to monopolise the discourse on geopolitical issues.

Democracy, liberty and human rights are universal and most people around the world do seek to live in societies that uphold these values. How else can one explain global immigration trends being skewered towards liberal democracies? But there has been very little investment in creating support for these ideas on the ground in countries plagued by jihadist extremism. This needs to change immediately if we are serious about uprooting the support base jihadism feeds off.

Maajid Nawaz is the director of the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank