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Neutralising terror: Soft power and the Islamic State

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Flowers as far as the eye can see at Martin Place, Sydney, 22 December 2014 (Image via @mmechomski)

Islam is not the problem and people who follow Islam are not the problem — Islam is, in fact, terrorism's first victim, writes Dr Hanna Kassab.

Just a couple of months ago, Canada was witness to an attack that shocked the entire world. It is unfortunately safe to say that Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, many parliamentarians and innocent civilians could have been killed in an outrageous and horrendous attack.

Last week, Australia suffered a hostage crisis that resulted in two people dead. The hostage-taker demanded an Islamic State flag to communicate his affiliation. This leads me to ask the question: will there be more attacks?

The answer, I fear, is yes.

Let’s be clear: Islamic State is not a state in the sense that we know. Attacks can be carried out by anyone who accepts the idea touted by Islamic State. Supporters of its ideology can, and will, do whatever it takes to forward their fight against democratic powers.

How can democracies fight this ideology? People may die, but ideologies are forever.

I suggest that we begin to think of the Islamic State as having soft power but with its own evil spin.

Joseph S. Nye Jr, in his book Soft Power: The means to success in world politics (2004), he defines the concept as one that

'…rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others ...[and is integral to]…shape the preferences of others.'

It is the ability to influence and attract others so that they in turn would follow.

For Islamic State, Islam is that source of soft power.

Islam, as a religion, has been effectively hijacked by Islamic State to gain support and legitimacy. Islam as a religion and identity is one of immense pride, with a proud history and culture that goes back for centuries. In this sense, we must consider Islam as terrorism’s first victim. As a result, given its appropriation, we must begin to think of these movements as having a degree of soft power: the Islamic religion.

Islamic State has soft power which is used to pursue its political goals and the establishment of a caliphate. We must begin to contemplate these movements with an appreciation for their soft power, not just for their hard power. It should therefore be the policy of those most affected by Islamic State to target the sources of its power.

(Image via societymatters.org)

Using social networks and soft power, the Islamic State is able to attract members, even those of democratic society, using Islam as a source of soft power. This attraction could begin as some curiosity, but also by some deep seeded feelings of political marginalisation and emptiness. Using their soft power to attract a potential lone wolf or women, for example, Islamic State preys upon those marginalised by society. By recruiting these people, the Islamic State can carry out attacks against the democratic powers as we have seen in the recent Canadian example. States do not matter now, networks in this case, are the most important movers of international outcomes.

As a network, Islamic State can influence and shape politics in other countries. While the liberal world is indeed full of opportunity, some people feel disenfranchised for a number of reasons. Mental sickness also pays a significant role in these acts. The example of the recent attack is clearer. The attacker, as the police say, was influenced by Islamic State.

Thinking this way, we can now logically conclude that we can curtail these lone wolf attacks through an active campaign of open and honest discussion with those feeling this way. By deconstructing the ideology of the Islamic State and rebuilding a world order based on cooperation and equality for all, the attractiveness of Islamic State would effectively be destroyed.

To fully understand this, we must take time to understand the goals of Islamic State and their ideology. Remember, the goal of any suicide attack is the promise of heaven. However, more materially, some groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, promise those about to carry out an attack that their families would be given money and care after they are gone. We also cannot forget the social programs provided by these groups that help people in their day to day life. This is an important part of their soft power. For Islamic State, this could also be part of their attractiveness. 

The only way to neutralise these attacks would be to balance against the soft power of Islamic State with the soft power of Canada, Australia and the West. There must be a clear distinction between the two forces, but Canada and Australia and other like powers must begin to address the marginalisation of people who may find such ideology attractive to begin with. We must begin to study and understand the political context which defines the perspective of Islamic State supporters.

Fighting soft power with soft power is a better alternative than some of the strategies being discussed today. These include: revoking citizenship and ignoring the social problems that lead to this behavior (the shooter was a drug user and has psychological issues). Revoking citizenship does much damage to the soft power of Canada. Citizenship is considered an inalienable right historically. It can be argued that revoking citizenship violates the natural rights of an individual. Canada cannot be sucked into violating human rights because of the fear of another lone wolf attack. Furthermore, it would be beneficial for the Canadian government to help treat those with mental health and drug issues; or at least reduce the stigma of admitting the need for treatment. Ignoring these issues will not only help reduce attacks such as this, but help reduce crime rates, especially crimes of murder, assault and theft.

In Australia, I’ll ride with you is a campaign to calm Australians of the Muslim faith using public transport who fear reprisals for the hostage attack. This campaign of kindness sends a clear message to Islamic State and their lone wolves that democratic countries will not fear attack. This solidarity is a source of soft power that erodes the Islamic State.

Canada, Australia and its allies must launch a public relations campaign that seeks to make the ideology of Islamic State seem illegitimate. This means creating the necessary alternatives to counter the attraction of the ideology. Strengthening education programs, creating jobs, bolstering mental health and drug programs provide a firm foundation in which to engage citizens in productive social exchange, especially in isolated and marginalised communities.

Democracies must begin to promote the health and welfare of all peoples, even those outside its borders. In doing so, these countries will promote its own soft power and destroy the soft power of those who hijack religion to achieve their goals. Likeminded countries must understand that they are not just fighting a terrorist group but an organisation with a public relations and social function.

Islam is not the problem. People who follow this religion are not the problem. Islam is terrorism’s first victim.

It is important to note that the strategy killing Islamic State leaders is indeed successful in the short-term. It should be part of an overall strategy to reduce the likelihood of people joining their ranks. However, this can never be enough. The leaders are replaced faster than they can be killed.

Like whack-a-mole, the resilience of Islamic State must be understood in terms of their ideas and the soft power which emanate from their ideas. The ideas must be neutralised. People die, but ideas live on forever.

You can follow Dr Hanna Kassab on Twitter @hskassab.

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