By Solange Harpham
From the beginning of its expansion accross Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has stopped at nothing to broadcast itself across the web. Not only have its leaders become the producers of the polished magazine Dabiq, but they also revealed themselves to be adept users of social networks. Jihadists portrayed as feeding kittens on Twitter is only one example. ISIS leaders have even shown occasional sparks of morbid creativity, such as having the hostage John Cantlie be the talk show host for a video report of their advances in Kobane.
These efforts to appeal to a larger audience, involving the translation of films and speeches into more than seven languages, the exploitation of well known scenes from video games such as “Call of Duty” to entice the youth and the posing on Instagram of Jihadists with gleaming weapons have been successful on various counts.
Firstly, a tailored approach to different audiences has been effective in recruiting more than 2000 Westerners and thousands from Arab countries. The sense of being part of something bigger than oneself, the strong ideology, the feeling of something new emerging from a congested world has thrown recruits as young as fourteen into the Islamic’s State’s open arms.
Secondly, contrarily to states that have banned Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and have limited their citizens’ freedom of speech with much difficulty and little success, the Islamic State’s overwhelming presence on social networks is a show of confidence. Its fighters have access to the outside world through all of these social networks, to all sources of information, and yet choose to believe and to stay loyal to the Islamic State. Its anti-Western ideology is probably the most powerfully attractive and yet the most violently intolerant ideology that currently exists.
We in the West have been left mouth agape and eyes popping – how to explain that teenagers from middle class families risk their lives to cross the borders and flee to Syria? Apart from restricting travel to conflict zones and launching debatable media campaigns such as #ThinkAgainTurnAway (State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism), governments have been largely unable to address the issue. Could it be that since the end of the Cold War, the superiority of our western ways may have come to seem so self-evident that we are now unable to defend our own ideology and values?
Our information and transparency age has pushed all, including jihadists, to justify their wars as “just”, and distinguishing truth from deception, and the facts from the exaggerations has become more and more problematic. More information has not brought more transparency but more doubt and suspicion. Every lie by the government has decreased our trust, every distortion has made us more wary. Despite its radical traditionalist views, the Islamic State has been skillfull enough to build on this atmosphere of skepticism by broadcasting its own view of the world, and its own angle on the conflict. With both sides calling each other liars, it is difficult to know who to trust. Our response has been largely inadequate – our political representatives, and the strong defenders of our own values, of democracy, human rights, and diversity, have yet to come to the bar and inflame the crowds with their passionate speeches.
The only alternative we have found to this lack of faith in our own ideology is brute force, although we are all aware of how short-termed a solution it is. What other solutions could we consider, while we exasperate ourselves in pummeling our enemy?
Perhaps part of an answer may be found in Joshua Cooper Ramo’s recent book: “The Age of the Unthinkable” (2010), advocating “deep security” and a more resilient society. It all starts with an attempt at describing the world we currently live in as a sandpile – our international system is constructed by so many diverse and different forces that we are unable to calculate if one event, like one grain sand, will provoke a catastrophe or not. The impossibility of aligning causes and consequences has resulted in a constant state of uncertainty.
A necessary concept to survive in this unpredictable environment, Ramo argues, is the concept of “deep security”. “Perhaps the best way to think of deep security,” he writes in his book, “is as a kind of immune system, a reactive instinct for identifying dangers, adapting to deal with them and then moving to control and contain the risk they present.” Otherwise said, “deep security” is a flexible way of acting and reacting, closely linked to the resilience of a society facing new and erratic threats such as ours.
Until now, we have preferred resistance to resilience. Cameras, police patrols, airports asking passengers to strip down to their underwear, security guards searching handbags and demanding identification papers. Has all this hustle and bustle provoked any sense of security, except for giving us the uneasy feeling that we are all increasingly watched? With the recent, and not uncommon example of the badly informed French police going to pick up three returning French jihadists at the wrong airport, human error has always been the weakness of the technological apparatus. Resistance is, as Ramo writes, exhausting. It is also ineffective when confronted with human creativity – no matter how much money we spend on security systems, there will always be another way of blowing up a plane.
Instead of resistance – which has its short-term benefits but will never lead to an absolute feeling of safety – resilience should be a more long-term answer to threats like IS and menacing opposed ideologies. “We can think of resilience as a measure of how much disturbance a system can absorb before it breaks down so fundamentally that it can’t easily return to the way it once was” writes Ramo. Resilience, he goes on to explain, is about getting stronger with the stress, and concentrating on what can make us stronger.
In other words, instead of destroying buildings, cars, people and failing to affect the ideology behind it all while drying up resources in our efforts, we should invest in building trust between the population and the government, provide better education and health care, and nurture projects which give pride to our citizens.
“Resilience expands the virtue of slow-variable policies beyond their traditional domain. Such efforts are valuable for what they accomplish in and of themselves, and they are also a way to bind Americans into a compact of responsibility and a network of personal relationships sealed by working hand in hand.” Ramo explains. Instead of running amok in a fruitless bid for more power on the international scene, a good start for more resilience might be the feeding, clothing, education in common values and providing adequate health care of the population at the local level.
Some, not without reason, have criticized Ramo for his book full of metaphors but with no clear map or action plan. On a WE-NATO livechat in April 2012, Dr. Stefanie Babst, Deputy Assistant Secretary General of Public Diplomacy Division of NATO at the time, said that there was no answer to the question of what we should do with his “not entirely new observation” of the world having so drastically changed. However, instead of spoonfeeding us ready-made solutions which we are always so eager to swallow without even pausing to chew, the book is an attempt to entice all individuals to see what they can bring to a world where “we don’t have all the answers”. The author leaves the reader to speculate on how exactly to develop the concepts he mentions, but gives hints as to how to adapt to the pace of the world, and leaves an intentional blank field of action for application as we see fit. “We should start with the sorts of questions we can control and answer, reaching for the places where the slow variables of our own society are within easy grasp: how do we consume? Educate our children? Run our businesses? Invest our money?”.
Although education of our common values and more health care may seem like extremely “soft” solutions, what else can build the resilience and the inclusiveness of a society, mend the relationship of trust between the citizens and the power in place – that relationship which is so essential in a democracy? We are far from a resilient society today of course, but only these long term solutions, built brick by brick, can finally give us the foundation we need to win the hearts and minds of our own people and resist the pull the IS has on our young through the propagation of its violent ideology on social media.Featured Photo: Featured Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense, Flickr CC, License available here.