Why Fighting Terrorism Is Not Just a War of Ideas

Fighting terrorism is more than a war of ideas and a battle of words. If we understand the message (read propaganda) of violent extremists, then logically speaking, we should be able to craft counter messages that defeat their weak ideological reasoning. 

But is it that simple? Can we expect religious leaders, for example, to fight extremists with narratives alone?

In a new opinion piece, “Religious leaders can’t fight terrorism with ideas alone,” the author Qamar ul-Huda–who is a former senior policy advisor in the US Department of State–makes a powerful argument. Expecting civil society members, including religious leaders, to fight violent extremists and their messages is flawed “without considering the contexts and conditions in which civilians operate.”

Thank goodness someone had the courage to say this out loud. 

In other words, knowledge (alone) does not end extremism. 

Let me be clear: Knowledge of Islam is an important FIRST step to change minds, attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, and is the pathway to introducing new approaches, strategies, policies and practices. But knowledge must be put into practice with meaningful change. 

Knowledge of and teaching Islam must be followed by practical steps to change the context in which vulnerable Muslims live. This is essential to defeating the violent extremists’ appeal, narrative, and recruitment.

After all my years of training and traveling, I have learned that you can’t just tell a broken soul or a vulnerable person: ‘You must study Islam to know the truth.’ Learning the true, peaceful and powerful principles of Islam must accompany the other real problems that one faces, such as identity, a lack of belonging, troubles at home or school or in society, possible psychological illness, and much more.

Islam must be a lived Islam, not a set of ideas that one pushes onto potential recruits to help them “see” the truth. Ideas coupled with changing the context is the right way to preventing violent extremism. 

As I’ve said in speeches, creating and distributing widely counter narratives to defeat the ugly narrative of violence is largely ineffective if the message does not address the grievances that women and children or men have to begin with. Helping others rebuild their lives and cope with a myriad of issues has to be part of a successful counter-narrative strategy. 

And as ul-Huda says in his article, we can’t expect religious leaders to dissuade violent extremists if we don’t understand their environment: 

“These efforts to combat extremism build on tragically flawed assumptions. They presume religious leaders are free to act independently and construct counter narratives in their communities. But they’re often coerced by authoritarian pressure and preoccupied with a dearth of basic material resources. Such factors make them ineffective CVE partners in many cases.”

As an international speaker and instructor, I teach a very simple idea. Context Counts. 

Without context, we can not possibly understand the reasons why anyone turns to violent groups and/or violence in the name of faith. 

To learn more, get a copy of my new book, Invisible Martyrs.



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