Islamic State: The Menace Is Its Narrative

I cringe every time I hear Donald Trump these days because I can picture the jubilation he's sparking in Islamic State headquarters: surely, this is just what they were hoping for! When Trump talks, they know what to do next: strike while the iron is hot, carry out another terrorist atrocity as soon as possible, help keep Trump's surge going--because make no mistake: he is the kind of man the Islamic State (a.k.a. Daesh) wants behind the wheel in America. They seek a war that consumes the innocent, and that is what Trump is promising them.

How can Daesh terrorism be defeated? Every idea I've heard comes down to this: kill them where they live, keep them out of this country. Neither plan addresses the crucial fact: the real menace posed by Daesh is not bombs, bullets, or gunmen. It's an idea. They're wielding a narrative with the power to frame random acts of senseless violence as heroic deeds of epic significance.

Here in brief is what they say: an apocalyptic battle is under way between two monolithic forces, Islam and the West. God has now entered the contest, and His intervention means the Muslims are predestined to win. Join up now and you will be a mythic hero. If you die, you'll go directly to heaven. If you live, you'll end up as part of a community permanently empowered by God.

The Islamic State inherited this narrative from Al Qaeda, and they've honed it expertly for a particular audience: marginalized Muslims grappling with identity issues, all those men and women who see no future for themselves except as misfits in a world they never made, a world in which they will be impotent and irrelevant. Remove "Muslim" from that sentence and you see the scope of the problem: lots of alienated misfits walking around, brimming with rage; and don't kid yourself: they don't have to be Muslims to see how a life of purpose and meaning might be within reach. You can lock out yesterday's terrorists but tomorrow's terrorists may already be inside. They're just not terrorists yet.

Some say Daesh's narrative has nothing to do with Islam, but that's disingenuous. Obviously it has something to do with Islam. Its roots go back to the origin story cherished by Muslims, which tells of a small group of worshipful devouts who are targeted for extermination by an overwhelmingly powerful enemy; they fight back, and guided by God, the only God, they not only survive but end up ruling the world. And that story does have mythic power, if you feel affiliated with the original small group.

But just because Daesh taps that story doesn't mean the Daesh narrative is Islam. It's one possible derivative of Islam. The same body of scriptures, history, and traditions can yield other, equally powerful counter-narratives. For example: when the first Muslims arrived in Medina, they forged a constitution explicitly designed for people of different faiths to live together in peaceful harmony, each following its own ways. That too is part of Islam's origin story! And the laws followed by those Muslims guaranteed women the right to inherit and own property--unprecedented at the time. Islam also set forth conditions designed to limit the savagery of war--presaging what we now see embodied in the Geneva Conventions. One might say Islam was the progressive phenomenon of its time, and if that's the heart of the faith, true Muslims must in every age strive to advance human freedom, social justice, communal harmony, and stewardship of the Earth for their time. A narrative derived from premises such as these looks very different from the one touted by the Islamic State.

But the West can't craft that narrative. It has to come from Muslims thinking and speaking as Muslims. And the thing is, Muslims are doing this. From Indonesia to Egypt, there are Muslim thinker struggling to formulate the theological underpinnings of a progressive Islamic vision. Few people in the West realize it's happening, however, because the conversation is taking place outside the language of Western discourse.

The scholars forging this new narrative are fighting an uphill battle, though. No narrative can gain traction unless it helps people make sense of the things they are actually experiencing. And jihadists have an unrivaled power to shape what people are actually experiencing . It takes very little horrific violence to ignite wide-ranging trauma and brutal blowback. One passport dropped at the site of the terrorist bombings in Paris shut down Brussels, a city of a million, for a week. Building a solid foundation for calm, confidence, and dialog, on the other hand, requires arduous effort extended over a long period.

The future of the terrorist threat hangs on a battle of ideas, but the contest is not between Islamic and Western civilizations; it's between two competing narratives in the Muslim world. We in the West can't formulate that new Muslim vision, but we can undermine the people who are forging it. it: in the struggle between competing ideas, Western politicians like Trump and Cruz and Carson give every advantage to the Jihadis, because actions taken in the West comprise the evidence adduced by either side to prove its case. When Jihadists say an apocalyptic struggle is underway between two monolithic forces, Cruz agrees. When Jihadists say the West hates Muslims, Trump gladly confirms it. Why do we stand for this, here in America? Let's side with the progressives in the contest that will shape our own fate. For God's sake let's stop all this hideous talk of locking out Muslims, reinstating torture, and cancelling our own treasured constitution.