Is there a way to use a “strategic narrative” to combat violent extremism? If so, how do you think this might work in practice?

After the Paris attacks on Friday, a friend of mine who is Muslim posted a picture with this quote from the Quran: “Whoever kills an innocent person it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”

She posted it along with a message of peace and a plea not to judge all Muslims by the extremists in Daesh.

I thought of this as I heard Farah Pandith speak on Face the Nation Sunday morning. Pandith was the first ever special representative to Muslim communities with the U.S. State Department. She now is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  She had some very smart takes on the challenge facing the West with Daesh’s recruitment of soldiers.

For one, she says, we had to accept Daesh has a strategic narrative:

“By demonstrating military power (taking over territories) and psychological power (stoking fear and recruiting youth) they have developed a narrative of success. This narrative is critical to them. They can’t win over new recruits if they are perceived as weak. Thus, their momentum must be broken in both the military and ideological war.”

Pandith also makes a very good point that the best way to counter violent extremism is by amplifying the credible voices that counter it. She points out it is possible to create a new narrative, however, she suggests we need to treat the response in the same scale that we would consider a military response.

“Since the September 11 attacks, the military response to terrorist organizations has been vital, as well as the ability to shut down their financing. But, we cannot win the war against extremists without a “soft power” strategy. Their armies can’t be built without recruits,” Pandith said.

Pandith suggests that governments don’t have credibility in this arena. She suggests governments should give support to organizations who have a credible voice but don’t have the avenues to amplify that voice.

For instance, last year, a small group of Muslims living in London made a powerful anti-Daesh video. Using the hashtag #notinmyname, they started a campaign to counter the messages from Islamic extremists on social media.

There is an opportunity for a credible strategic narrative of peace, but that message has to come from other Muslims or else the narrative and the message will not be received.

In addition, there also needs to be a strategic narrative countering the narrative of fear and power promoted by the heinous acts committed by Daesh. That can be done by, as one opinion column in the Boston Globe suggests, using the term Daesh instead of ISIS since ISIS suggests that Daesh is a legitimate nation-state. In a small way, the pictures of buildings lit with the French flag are countering that narrative. However, there could be a more organized “anti-fear” narrative. I’m just not exactly sure what that would look like without looking militaristic. Perhaps others have better ideas?






3 thoughts on “#notinmyname

  1. When discussing violent extremism in the context of Islam, it is essential to discuss the strategic narratives that the mainstream Muslim population promotes in comparison to that of the extremist groups. I applaud you for highlighting the voices of Muslims like Farah Pandith who encourage the credible voices of the Muslim community to speak up and connect with those who are considering joining ISIS. I was fortunate to participate in a seminar held by the U.S. Special Operations Command that explored how to use social media to combat extremism. During those discussions, a formerly radical Muslim emphasized that there are many clerics and scholars who hold the theological knowledge to verbally combat the ideologies put forth by ISIS. Certainly, the concept of religious justice and divine command is central to ISIS’ strategic narrative; and the Islamic intellectual community has the power to crumble this platform. The seminar also explored how government institutions (such as the diplomatic communities and military) do NOT hold the credibility to influence the opinions of potential extremists, because they are interpreted as biased and even corrupt. Their authority limits their credibility among these actors.

    It is also important and relevant to discuss the careful strategic narrative that nation-states must construct in order to justify fighting violent extremism. Politicians use carefully constructed terms to differentiate themselves in their views on extremism. In last Friday’s democratic debate, Hillary Clinton refused to state that the U.S. is at war with ‘radical Islam.’ This thrust the media into a frenzy about the implications of such an omission. Secretary Clinton clarified that she did not want to “be painting with too broad a brush,” implying that to generalize all Muslims as extremists would be shameful and incorrect. Governor Jeb Bush fired back on Twitter saying, “Yes, we are at war with radical Islamic terrorism.” This statement is meant to promote a narrative of Governor Bush, and Republicans in general, as unafraid to declare “the truth.” It also implies that Democrats like Secretary Clinton are too hung up on being politically correct and are not paying to the real issue at hand of violent threat to U.S. citizens.



  2. Great blog! I love how you incorporated your friend’s post and the Muslims Against ISIS video. Unfortunately I had not seen this video before nor had I heard the term Daesh but the strategy to use this term rather than ISIS, I agree is a great way withdraw authority or delegitimize the extremist organization.

    The #notinmyname video does a great job of combating the stereotype of associating Muslims with terrorist groups and is a great way to use soft power in order to reach people. The problem is, it hasn’t reached enough people. The Muslims Against ISIS video was a wonderful idea but was short lived. Social media plays such a large role in conveying messages domestically and internationally, and is a great platform to use as we have especially seen with the Daesh’s usage of Twitter. This “anti-fear” story can be played up to the fullest and turned into a strategic narrative but more Muslims have to get involved initially. Otherwise it won’t seem “real” to the Daesh. After there has been a wider social media circulation of these videos, people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds have to come together to assert the claim that they are not afraid of this extremist group and how they stand by Muslims to help protect their morals and values. Not those that have been placed on them by the extremist group. However, this can’t just be regular people making this claim, this has to be people belonging to government organizations or NGO’s in more countries than just the United States. This may be asking for a lot but as you mentioned in your blog, Ms. Pandith emphasized the need of powerful and credible organizations to create the most movement in the direction of restoring humanity. What a great narrative that would be! How nations and people all over the world came together to eliminate the Daesh through social media! Now this may be a little ambitious but other than using military force this is, in my opinion, a good use of soft power.

    Can a strategic narrative combat violent extremism? Yes, but you have to have all the right characters and elements within a story to make it work. If not, like the #notinmyname video, it’s just a short story.


  3. sb6116a

    Your point about the need for credible and sensible Muslim voices is right on target. So much of Western discourse on the Islamic faith specifically and, more generally, on the Muslim world is vitriolic to the point that many people no longer see humanity when they’re confronted with the aforementioned ideas. Unfortunately, I am also at a loss when it comes to finding ways to combat the harmful preexisting notions which posit that entire groups of people are homogeneous and to be “rightfully” spurned.

    The first thing that came to my mind upon your mention of funding valuable contributions to discourse by way of supporting certain speakers/personalities is the concern over how such an action might be perceived by the general public. Given the current predominant narrative among average American citizens about Muslims, I think it’s likely that any “official” sponsorship of Islamic advocacy will be met with criticism and distrust. Coupled with contemporary feelings of distrust in government, such a scenario could predicate an even greater distrust among citizens and, ultimately, lead to an even more ineffective government than exists currently. I know that a response like that is ridiculous, and so do you, I’m willing to bet, but that doesn’t make it any less of a possibility.

    Somehow I think that crafting narratives with a focus on religion is going to be problematic regardless of which faith is in the spotlight. Perhaps we’d be better served by seeing people as people instead of as adherents to one ideology or another.


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