Dealing with ISIS: Constructing a Counter-Narrative

Part Two of the transcript of an item on NPR’s Sunday Edition on November 22. The host is Rachel Martin; the guest, Scott Atran, is the director of research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. He also holds positions at John Jay College, Oxford, and the University of Michigan.

MARTIN: Since 9/11, there has been one school of thought that this [Islamic extreme radicalism] can be combated through economic incentives. If you just create enough jobs and economic opportunity in this part of the world, they won’t be as vulnerable to radicalization. You say that’s not true. Why?

ATRAN: The process of radicalization is a path. If you can give people a sense of identity and a sense of economic security and social status at the very beginning of this path, sometimes it works. But once people lock in to a set of sacred values, a belief that this new way of doing things in the world cannot be bought off, then the lure of jobs not only falls flat, it backfires. Now, people don’t want to hear this because jobs and education and things like that are the standard fare of social and financial aid. But they don’t work.

MARTIN: Then what can Western governments do if it’s not about creating economic programs? You say it’s not about military intervention because that feeds the narrative that ISIS is propagating. Are Western governments and their allies in the Gulf area to just sit it out?

ATRAN: Well, the coalition of Western allies is a joke. I mean, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have knives in each other’s backs. But that doesn’t mean military means are out. Now, how do we stop it in the long term? Well, we’ve got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that’s hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance. Again, we don’t provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don’t even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.

MARTIN: When you were talking to members of ISIS – reformed, captured or otherwise – did they give you any belief or any reason to believe that a counter-narrative can be created by the West?

ATRAN: Yes, but as I’ve always found that the most persuasive means, once people have locked into these sorts of views of the world, are arguments from people closest to them. As one imam from the Islamic State told us, he left the Islamic State because he couldn’t stand the Islamic State just killing willy-nilly any foreigner who happened to be in Syria and Iraq. But he said the people coming to us aren’t witless, as your propaganda makes it. They aren’t brainwashed in any sense. They’re compassionate. They’re looking. And the Islamic State has a powerful and positive message, even though what’s recorded here is mostly the negative message. We’ve got to – and this is the, again, an imam from the Islamic State telling me – we have got to come up with a positive message within our religious idiom that can attract these young people and track them away from violence and killing.

Part One was posted on November 25.


2 responses to “Dealing with ISIS: Constructing a Counter-Narrative

  1. In the context under discussion, ‘ come up with a positive message within our religious idiom..’ is considered key. The questions to ask of the guest, however, would be what specifically does he mean by ‘our religious idiom’?, why have ISIS (‘Daesh’) adherents up to now at least been seemingly immune to or unreceptive of any ‘positive message’ to be derived from it?, and can any plausible (i.e., ‘secular’) ‘counter-narrative’ be ‘created by the West’?