GLOBAL efforts of countering IS, would not succeed until its propaganda reality is not exposed and countered. The recent military defeat of IS in Mosul could not be considered a sustainable victory until the grievances of the Sunni population in Iraq are not properly addressed. Many believe that the retreating and defeated extremist elements will look for another location and another time to restart the war. The best way to defeat such extremist groups is to counter them both on the military as well as the ideological front. There is a dire need to address the root causes which provide space to extremist groups like IS to expand their footsteps in many countries. These groups, mostly capitalize on political vacuum and internal conflicts based on sectarian and ethnic divisions. Further the socio-economic grievances and the increasing estrangement of Muslims in the West are some other factors contributing towards recruitment of citizens from various countries.
The situation in Syria and Iraq will not stabilise soon. The issues of sectarian division and bad governance will prevail – the same circumstances that allowed the rise of IS in the first place. The things would reverse to a previous state of affairs if the rehabilitation and reconstruction work is not handled properly. After Mosul, the war for Raqqa, the capital of the IS, has begun. Many believe that even if IS is diminished militarily, its ideology will live on. It is possible that IS as a lethal idea will live on long after it is driven out of Mosul and Raqqa. After defeating IS in Mosul, the US-backed forces are now encircling Raqqa where 3,000 to 4,000 IS fighters are showing great resistance.
It will take a few months to recapture Raqqa, the most symbolic stronghold of IS in Syria. Defeating IS in Raqqa would not mean the end of IS as being a global organization, it will not lose its appeal. Contrary to the other global jihadists, IS model is based on sectarian jihad against Shia Muslims, Coptic Christians and other minorities. Basically, it is united by its ideology, not its grip on parts of Iraq and Syria. Its leaders see it as a generational struggle that will continue long after the group has lost control over its territorial holdings.
There is a consensus among most of the Muslim scholars and leaders that the self-proclaimed caliphate of IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is illegitimate and perverse. The activities and actions undertaken by IS such as torture, slavery, forced conversions, the denial of rights for women and children, and the killing of innocents is explicitly forbidden in the teachings of Islam. They believe that Jihad, which is a noble concept in Islam is being manipulated and misused by IS. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in one of his statements has rightly noted that terrorist attacks by IS both in Muslim and non-Muslim countries are aimed at creating a wave of Islamophobia around the world. It has become IS’s best tool for recruitment in the Western countries.
IS initially attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq located near Aleppo and adjacent to the Turkish border. It is referenced in ancient Islamic apocalypse mythology as the location of an epic battle that will result in the destruction of the ‘Christian armies’. In its propaganda, IS claimed that a field outside the town would witness a ‘major apocalyptic showdown with the armies of the infidel’. It named its propaganda magazine with the name of this town i.e Dabiq. IS greatly celebrated its conquest. But later in October 2016, Dabiq was recaptured by Sunni militants. The expulsion of IS from the town was an opportunity to deal its propaganda a double blow, not just because of the failed prophecy, but that it was defeated by the very population that it claimed to represent.
It quickly revised the Dabiq prophecy, saying it still applied, but its time had not yet come. A day after its defeat in Dabiq, it began to depict Mosul as the site of the epic battle instead. Here also IS has now been defeated that exposed its propaganda of linking its battle in this city as an epic battle. Further, in September 2016, IS replaced Dabiq with another online magazine, Rumiyah for recruitment. Since then it has regularly been published in English and other languages. French, German, Russian, Indonesian and Uyghur. In response to the wave of refugees fleeing to Europe, IS initiated a media campaign in which it strongly criticised the Muslims emigrating from Syria, Libya, and Iraq to Europe and the United States.
Islam teaches us peace and tolerance. It gives a lot of emphasis on the rights of marginalised segments of society such as women, children and minorities. The Daesh is acting contrary to the ethos of Islam. How it treats women is well known today. Women are treated as a trade commodity. In its propaganda publication, “Dabiq,” justifies its mistreatment of women, stating that it is permissible under early Islamic law to capture and forcibly make these women slaves. In Islam, women’s rights are well protected and abuse of women’s rights by IS is a violation of the Islamic code of justice, norms and values.
IS’s use of social media as a tool to project its activities and thoughts is well known. One of the important tasks in the efforts of countering IS’s ideology is to expose its propaganda reality especially its myth about Islam? By dividing the world into two camps, the Dar al-Harb (land of War) and Dar al-Islam (land of Peace), IS is propagating its narrative to justify its attacks and creating further divisions on the basis of clash of civilisations that would help the IS in attracting the Muslim youth from the West which apparently seems unhappy with the US on its anti-Islamic policies. A systematic and organised response based on the true message of Islam would be required in order to undercut the appeal of IS’s ideology. The debate on how to counter the IS should move beyond military options, and instead, adopt new approaches that will better diminish plea of IS’s violent actions and address the emotional appeal that has been attracting foreign fighters.
— The writer is Research Fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.