The West suffers from what one leading strategist calls an “autoimmune disease” in fighting the Islamic State. The self-defense mechanisms championed by Donald Trump and his European neo-populist counterparts have gone into toxic overdrive — weakening the West’s body politic and making the jihadist fever far worse.
David Kenning, a British counter-radicalization expert, made this provocative argument in a telephone interview this week and in recent research for various Western governments. His comments are part of a new wave of analysis that views the Islamic State more as a youth gang driven by the identity politics of victimization than as a religious or ideological movement.
These skeptical analysts argue that many current messaging strategies against the Islamic State are backfiring — and that polarizing politicians such as Trump have amplified the jihadists’ impact and been their best recruiting tool. Islamophobia helps the jihadists by fueling their narrative about embattled Muslims, Kenning argues. It creates a sense of wounded community — a shared identity of having been wronged, which prompts violent revenge.
Watch the videos distributed by the Islamic State and you’ll often see young men atop pickup trucks in Syria and Iraq, their hair streaming in the breeze, cradling .50-caliber machine guns in an almost sexual way. Kenning explains why the self-styled caliphate’s appeal is so powerful with alienated, adolescent recruits:
“The Islamic State brand is empowering. It tells you you’re a victim and offers a license for revenge. And, through social media, it offers you celebrity, a chance to be somebody rather than nobody. Anyone who thinks a theological argument could counter this is simply naive.”
Trump is the leading American example of the polarizing populist response to the jihadists, but it’s in Europe where social cohesion is really beginning to crack. Politicians such as the “Brexit” campaigner Nigel Farage in Britain, the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen in France and the Muslim-bashing Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are the faces of a Europe shaken by the dual onslaught of terrorism and Islamophobia.
Lapis Communications, a Middle East-based consulting firm that works with Kenning and other strategists, explains in a recent paper why Islamophobia helps the jihadists: “Instead of undercutting recruiting, it pumps value into the brand.”
“We are dealing primarily with the adolescent mindset,” contends Lapis, citing statistics that 90 percent of jihadists today are under 25. These militant youths want to see things in black and white. The only antidote, argues Lapis, is “ ‘the grey’ of social compromise and tolerance, of nuanced and considered thoughts.”
Another contrarian analyst who shares this perspective is Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA case officer. In a forthcoming book titled “Misunderstanding Terrorism,” Sageman explains the process of radicalization — stressing that it’s a community phenomenon instead of an individual or religious one.
Sageman’s hypothetical jihadist group emerges from a political protest community that is attacked by the state and, as society is polarized, becomes radical and violent. Sageman says his model explains more than 80 percent of the 34 campaigns of political violence he has studied over two centuries. It’s a simple enough concept: People turn to violence when they feel their community is excluded and under attack.
What policies will best counter the Islamic State? I asked each of the analysts for suggestions. The common theme is that the counter-extremist campaigns should stop feeding the jihadists’ dreams by treating them as a terrifying Muslim threat to the West. Such talk just flatters and motivates them.
“Radical Islam isn’t the cause, it’s the excuse,” says Lapis. Messaging that feeds the sense of an isolated and aggrieved Muslim community is “the worst thing that can happen in the West,” says Kenning.
Kenning argues that the best way to defeat the Islamic State’s strategy is for the Trumps of the world to shut up. If they do that, the caliphate would quickly run out of steam.
“They’re rotten at governing,” he says. “The word on the street is that their caliphate is boring.” And these days, it has become a dangerous place, too. Kenning thinks the best approach is to gradually pull the Islamic State apart — by exploiting the fault lines among those fighting under its flag.
The “imagined community” of the Islamic State is far weaker than it may seem, argues Sageman. What gives it strength, paradoxically, is fear and hatred from the West. The Islamic State is a threat to our security, to be sure, but so is the response from Trump and his fellow Muslim-bashers.