By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
27 December 2015
Whenever we in the West have our culture and way of life challenged, we like to define ourselves as the ‘free world’, a cultural universe where the liberty of the individual, of his conscience and his speech is paramount. We take this to be self-evidently good. Yet this leaves us open to attack, because we must give equal platform to those who would take our freedoms and liberties away from us. This has been a fundamental “problem” with liberalism for as long as it has existed. And today, one of the greatest challengers to our liberal values is ISIS.
ISIS has probably the most sophisticated media and propaganda operation in the history of global terror. They have an English language magazine, they post major speeches in seven languages, they have Twitter accounts for Arabic, English, French, and German, and thousands of their Twitter followers installed an ISIS-constructed app to simultaneously retweet their official updates to swamp social media. They release audio on Soundcloud, pictures on Instagram, and send graphics and images via WhatsApp. When those accounts are blocked by the platform providers, or hacked by groups like Anonymous, they create new ones.
They are very good at broadcasting their narrative across all these different social media channels, but they also tailor their messaging accordingly, with messages in Western languages framed specifically for the consumption of Muslims in the West and the Arabic channels directed towards those closer to their territory. And it’s not just tweets and snippets too. The narrative is developed into full length movies and documentaries, for more “broadsheet” consumers. This is a far cry from the days of Osama bin Laden filming himself speaking into a camera and sending it to the media.
On top of it all, our mainstream media channels in the West routinely broadcast ISIS atrocities, and media clips produced by ISIS themselves, providing the group with free publicity and allowing them to “build a brand” which is currently the “household brand” for Islamist terrorism and ensures that any alienated young men and women in the West and indeed in the Arab world who do become radicalised join this group instead of any other. And it also ensures that other jihadi groups in other parts of the world, such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya or Nigeria “swear allegiance” to ISIS and, perhaps, even coordinate actions with them – something much more serious than symbolic allegiances.
Courting media attention
In the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that there have been calls on the mainstream media to curtail the coverage they give to ISIS. When terrorists carry out attacks like the ones in Paris last month, they court media attention more than anything. And on the face of it, at least, it would seem that the most immediate retort would be to deny them the publicity they crave. But I believe that would be the wrong response.
First of all, censoring ISIS in this way is simply not feasible. We can very well demand that mainstream newspapers and TV news stations limit their coverage of these issues, but that would leave the entire field of discussion to the unregulated areas of the internet, the “blogosphere” and social media. ISIS would still dominate in these areas, except now we will have removed from the discourse those outlets that would be most capable to hold the ISIS narrative to scrutiny.
Secondly, restricting ISIS coverage in the mainstream media limit the group’s reach in terms of them radicalising young men and women in the West. That claim simply flies in the face of everything we have learnt from the academic study of radicalisation since 9/11. Nobody watches the 6 o’clock news, sees some short clip of an ISIS beheading and decides to become a terrorist. Quite the opposite. People become radicalised when they become isolated from mainstream culture, usually as part of a small group of ‘like-minded’ people, and it is in these circumstances that they consume preferentially the narratives of jihadism from online sources, more and more, as they reject mainstream culture and its narratives. But exposure to critiques and rebuttals of these narratives from mainstream culture, can help counter this process.
Thirdly, censorship will create a dangerous precedent against freedom of the press. A precedent that says that if an enemy puts its narrative with sophisticated propaganda, our best response is not to counter that narrative, but to shut it out.
Fourthly, Restricting coverage or media reporting would also mean the public would know less about ISIS. The struggle against them would become a lower order issue. That would make it harder for leaders to mobilize public support to fight them. It would risk undermining support for our intelligence, military, and financial actions against them.
And lastly, this must be an issue of principle and conscience. Government censorship should be beyond the pale, if we are the liberal free-thinkers we claim to be. And demanding self-censorship from the mainstream media should be equally suspect. As liberals, we often like to believe that in rational debate ignorance, bigotry, hatred and violence must dissolve. This may not be true – at least not when expressed in such simplistic terms. But from what we know about how radicalization happens and why people go down the road of violent terrorism, the best way to tackle the ideologies fueling these atrocities is not by ignoring them, but by confronting them. And rebutting them with moral clarity and vision. What we must do, and what the media must do, is to take this challenge head on. Learn about Islam. Learn about the motivations people have when becoming jihadists. And challenge the terrorists on the terms and on the values the purport to promote. The de-radicalization programmes of Saudi Arabia and especially Indonesia show that Islam is perhaps the best antidote to Islamism, after all.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
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