A Strategy for Countering ISIL Propaganda

Barbara Harff
I will focus on one variable in my model that is a driver in detecting a genocide in the making-the role of ideology. I have operationalized it as one that includes Sharia states-why? States  that adopt Sharia (Islamic law) as the supreme law of the land are adopting  legal traditions that are reminiscent of  medieval  justice, especially if the predominant school of jurisprudence is Hanbalite as practiced in Saudi Arabia as contrasted with more flexible Shafi's , Maliki's or Hanafi's.
In my view, as a Middle East expert, I tell you that ISIL is the most dangerous organization and movement to have emerged since the early days of Islam which saw the assassination of the 3rd Caliph Uthman and the civil wars that led to the emergence of Shi'a movements.  From the Kharijites who first were supporters of Ali but then turned to assassinate him to Ismailis who later were known as the Assassins, the history of Islam is littered with corpses. But this history is not so different from the religious wars fought by Christians, who in the name of Christ killed tortured, burned and pillaged whole societies
ISIL and the salafist/jihadist movement it has inspired a war for supremacy of their version of Islam,   seeking the establishment by force of a new Caliphate reminiscent of the fight of Meccans against Mohammed in Medina in 625. Here Jews were exiled or killed and Christians driven out or welcomed as converts. The birth of a new religion was accompanied by violence, wars, assassinations and division. Members of ISIL kill, maim, burn and violate laws of humanity all in the name of re-establishing a Caliphate that ceased to exist in 1924.  It claims adherence to Wahabism, a movement originating in the Arabian Peninsula and alive and well in Saudi Arabia.  ISIL copies Saudi Arabia in meting out medieval justice as in crucifixions, stoning and the general abysmal treatment of women.
We need to fight back with the help of Muslim scholars, clerics, imams and all those who claim that moderation and tolerance are essential to reform the Mideast.
Western politicians and the general public are often truly ignorant of Islam, thinking of it as an offshoot of Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism-yes, it borrows from all but the message was new and original,  Islam built a new civilization.  Theology,  jurisprudence, ethics, institutions, practice of religion, personal ethics, the collective idea and the state changed according to the message delivered by Mohammed  as written in the Quran, hadith and by jurisprudential thinkers such as Ibn Hanbal and Abu Hanifa.
 ISIL claims to purify Islam without knowing much of its history.  It provides ignorant members with false doctrines.  It preaches hatred and redemption to those who kill and maim.  We have done nothing to counteract this avalanche of misinformation and it is high time to act. Why? Highest on our risk list for future genocides and mass political atrocities are Saudi Arabia and Bahrain-the next dominos that could fall. We hear the same disbelief that we heard three years ago when warning about Syria. But Saudi Arabia is an arch conservative, repressive regime governed by leaders who at the same time profess friendship toward the US and simultaneously support radical Sunni movements abroad. Who supports madrasas abroad? Where are the so-called moderates?   And, why is there so little support coming from oil-rich countries to ameliorate the refugee crisis, which plays out in Europe?   My politician cousin in Germany calls it the fallout from a failed US policy.
Let me reiterate some policy suggestions that I suggested last year, and one idea that comes from my familiarity with Islamic societies and thought, namely familiarity with the Quran, hadith, and Islamic jurisprudence. We need a Voice of Islam for the Mideast.  But, this voice should come from recognized Islamic scholars who reside in Pakistan, or anywhere in Sunni dominated societies. We need to amplify the moderate voices of clerics, thinkers and those who have name recognition to fight ISIL's propaganda war. We need a cyberwar against any deadly doctrine and practice not grounded in recognized texts. And I do not mean a Western launched international effort.
Muslim theologians questioned whether God is the ultimate author of man's action or if man is rational enough to choose between good and evil! Hellenistic metaphysics played a role in deciding the importance of the written word (the Quran) vs. what could be discerned from the sayings of the prophet and his actions (the hadith and law).  Today and then we witness juxtaposition between Quran, hadith and law of which the average Muslim typical knows only Quranic commands through memorization.  Reason and revelation have coexisted for centuries.  So let Muslim scholars re-discover reason in dealing with its radicals.  How?  Though for many Quranic injunctions we find alternatives in the Quran itself, hadith and law are quite clear about what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
Today Islam is used as an element of state ideology and revolutionary utopias-the latter extremely dangerous because it distorts by and large the communal nature of Islam. The fusion of mass culture, radical secular thought, and Islamic symbols makes for a volatile mixture. ISIL wants to establish a new caliphate, let us remind its potential followers of the true nature of Islam.

When this paper was presented to a UN audience in Geneva, we learned that the Moroccans have initiated just such a program, using religious authorities to counter salafist and jahidist propaganda.

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