The U.S. State Department recently conducted an assessment of its efforts to counter ISIS propaganda. The conclusion boiled down to the obvious: It is a failure. ISIS is growing in popularity, not only in the Sunni Middle East, but among Muslims living outside the region.
Still, the State Department experts seem to think that with better messaging and more efficient delivery, the U.S. and its allies can win the battle for the “hearts and minds” in the Middle East.
This is wrong. America won’t win this battle, or even compete, until it comes to terms with a simple reality: Arab minds are different than American minds. And Arab hearts are different than American hearts.
Not better. Not worse. Different.
Most Arabs, Shiite as well as Sunni, are deeply religious. They have been educated in schools (even purportedly “secular” schools) where they were inculcated with Islamic orthodoxy (Sunni or Shia).
This orthodoxy is more than theological. It is civilizational. It encompasses a historical narrative, a language, laws and cultural norms, and a version of territorial manifest destiny.
Muslims do not see themselves and their civilization as inferior. Nor do they regard Western civilization as a wise and benign rival. They are naturally offended by patronizing Western rhetoric about how they need to gets their minds and hearts right.
The great majority of Muslims resent and fear the West’s cultural imperialism. They deplore the American refusal to accept what they regard as indisputable truth: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.
ISIS (and, in the Shia sphere, the Iranian Ayatollahs) see themselves as propagators of Muhammad’s message as it is set forth in Koranic law, and everyday custom. When they frame themselves as the enemies of infidels and heretics, they are speaking in the language of the highest ideals of their civilization. The idea of a Caliphate, or an Islamic theocracy, resonates with people inculcated with the idea that this is the most authentic and virtuous form of government.
Like all civilizations, Islam cherishes its most deeply held foundational principals. It venerates defenders of the faith as heroes, even if it deplores their particular methods. And it is far from certain that the majority do deplore these methods.
The premise of the American “hearts and minds” campaign—and the reason for its abject failure—is the belief that what ISIS represents can’t possibly be the real Islam. This is an especially fruitless message. Muslims naturally resent being tutored about their own religion by infidels.
American heart-and-mind warriors should perform a simple thought experiment. How would Americans react to a Muslim campaign aimed at convincing them that their most cherished values—freedom of speech, civic equality, private property, separation of church and state, free and fair elections (and, for a great majority, Christianity) - are a perversion of real Americanism.
How many Americans open their hearts and minds to real Americanism as it is understood by Islamists? Especially by Islamists who are concurrently engaged in a bombing campaign designed to impose its Koranic values on Des Moines or Denver or Westchester.
Would this work? The very idea is preposterous.
ISIS propaganda has inflamed the imagination of thousands of young people in the West. But these are by and large Muslims who see ISIS as a group of righteous holy warriors. The number of non-Muslim Americans who are inspired by the call to jihad is vanishingly small.
American exhortations about “real Islam” and the blessings of Western democracy do not resonate in the Middle East because they are at odds with what people believe and want. This does not mean the U.S. should give ISIS (or Iran and its puppets) a free hand. America and its allies have economic and security interests in the region which are, in fact, threatened.
But the U.S. should drop the illusion that if only it gets a better Facebook page and rounds up a few sheikhs to endorse the State Department’s line, it can make the Middle Eastern multitudes see the light. Psychological warfare starts with understanding the enemy.
The “hearts-and-mind” warriors of Foggy Bottom and the other Western capitals need look no farther than Usama Bin Laden, the world’s greatest expert on Middle Eastern marketing, and his timeless insight: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”
The rest is just commentary.