US President Barack Obama says extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will not be defeated solely by military force. He says concerned nations must fight violent extremism by countering messages of those groups that seduce young men, and some young women, to join their ranks. In addition to any work on the internet, success will require aiding families’ efforts to keep their children away from those groups.
In a February 18, 2015 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed entitled, “Our Fight against Violent Extremism”, US President Barack Obama explained “The US has made significant gains against terrorism,” but also noted that “the US campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.” Obama’s Op-Ed echoed remarks he made during a three–day summit in February 2015 on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington, DC, attended by representatives from over 60 countries. Noting that a US-led multinational coalition was engaged in a fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which he refers to as ISIL, Obama further explained in his Op-Ed that “We know that military force alone cannot solve this problem. Nor can we simply take out terrorists who kill innocent civilians.” As an additional approach, Obama stated that “We also have to confront the violent extremists—the propagandists, recruiters and enablers—who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so.” One plan Obama proffered to counter the interpretation of Islam promoted by ISIS and al-Qaeda is to “help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the internet.”
Despite Obama’s clarion call to arms, in both his Op-Ed and in a speech at the CVE summit, a February 19, 2015 New York Times article indicated many leaders and officials attending the meeting doubted his administration had the ability to counter extremist messages, especially from ISIS. It has a reach and agility in social media that surpasses that of the US government. Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organization, emphasized in her presentation at the conference, “We’re being outdone both in terms of content, quality and quantity, and in terms of amplification strategies.” She explained that there was a “monumental gap” between ISIS, which uses social media services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and the Obama administration, other governments, and nongovernmental organizations. Havlicek called for private firms to become involved in what she called “the communications problem of our time.” Administration officials sense they face a huge challenge. US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes explained “You could hypothetically eliminate the entire ISIL [ISIS] safe haven, but still face a threat from the kind of propaganda they disseminate over social media.” Yet, most promising about Obama’s Op-Ed was his claim “We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders.” Aiding efforts within families to defeat the influence of extremist groups is the key to long-term success.
When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were on the march, there were voices of great men and women in Europe who spoke out against the evil Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini embodied. They outlined the crimes and atrocities committed by authorities of those regimes. Their messages were genuine, truthful, and were heard. For those innocent people trapped in lands dominated by their regimes, those important words helped them hold on to their humanity and hope. However, in the end, the use of force was the only way to defeat such evil. Western powers now search for the bromide to destroy the appeal of ISIS among many young Muslim men and weaken the organization. Developing a counter-ISIS or counter-Islamic extremism message is a formidable undertaking. Nevertheless, the attempt to approach the issue must begin with a look within the families of young Muslim men. The response of those young men to ISIS or a similar Islamic extremist group will be determined foremost by the perspective of his family toward such groups. He must be provided with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundation which would lead him to reject ISIS, or any other Islamic extremist group, hoping to capitalize on his devotion to Islam. By the time the young man first views any Islamic extremist material on the internet, instilled in him should be all that he needs to know in order to turn away from it. Dictum sapienti sat est! (A word to the wise is sufficient!)
Young men who convey an enhanced devotion to Islam in their communities are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. The recruiters condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually, radical views are insinuated into the relationship.
The First Brush with Extremism: The Best Chance Counter It
From many angles, young men are pulled into the grip of Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS. A young man can often become bound up in himself, making of himself a very small package. That sort of young man does not learn from adversity or difficulties, but is instead humbled by lessons. He is destroyed by humiliations. Pessimism infiltrates his thinking. He may seek to become somebody to everyone else, and not for himself. Young people of this age become easily seduced by the culture of entertainment. To acquire attention or importance, some young men may seek to convey a religiosity. It may make them seem spooky among some friends and neighbors, but favored among those in their family mosques who will respect their new devotion. Such young men are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. They condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually radical views are insinuated into their relationship.
Long before those recruiters reach the young man, his family may discern changes in his perspective. He has perhaps become more cynical and may often display petulance and a rebellious attitude. The family wants to believe that, in his heart, the young man is approaching Islam as he was taught at home. It will expect the young man to be guided by integrity and that he will keep things in perspective and act with proportion in mind. The family will hope that the young man will accept that the religion it taught him, serves to provide guidance on living in communion with God and on traveling the path that God makes for him. However, the fear may build that he will approach Islam as a novelty and expression of ego or pride, as ISIS presents it. The family, more precisely, his parents, want the young man to be the very best he can be. They may recall great dreams of his youth in which he wanted to be an educator, carpenter, or entrepreneur, or dreams they had of him becoming a doctor, lawyer, political leader, or manage the family business. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While parents may believe there many other things for their son to work toward, that belief will be confounded by his new religious focus that they may notice is straying toward radicalism.
At his university, a young man is taught about the lives of noble figures from the past. Professors discuss the past and the young man learns what works and what does not. He discovers that there is a harmony in how the world works. Further, in the classroom, the young man may begin to understand the human soul, especially his own. Yet, radical views can reach a young man during this learning process. Much as shallows of water may be clear to the bottom, shallow thinking can make a lot of sense to a poor thinker. The young man attempts to find deep truth surrounded by a world of lies provided by the Islamic extremist group. In becoming more radical than spiritual, the young man becomes a more tragic, apathetic figure as time goes on. While the classic approach to religion has stood the test of time, the sorrow of the age is that young men are often drawn to the latest style of the day. ISIS is the latest fad of the day. While claiming to adhere to Islam, ISIS merely pantomimes it. The actions of its members indicate a rejection of God, and are befitting of the most pagan religions on record. Yet, it provides a “feel-good” religiosity for spiritually ungrounded young men, searching for something bigger and better. ISIS recruiters can convince the young man ISIS is that bigger and better thing. ISIS’ establishment of the Islamic Caliphate supports that notion. The idea of being associated with celebrity substitutes itself for worship. It plays into the young man’s vision of his own greatness.
Good parents want their children to be the very best they can be. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While they may want their children to work toward great things, that hope can be confounded by a son’s new religious focus that may be straying toward radicalism. They must fight to prevent that.
It is at this point the family has the best chance to stop the young man by speaking to him as an individual. The Islamic extremist recruiter speaks to him as being one of many. Lies cannot survive before the truth. However, the individual must respond to the truth. The young man must recognize that nothing will be accomplished through ISIS, particularly in this world of impermanence. If the family has raised the young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he may turn back at this point. Many young men, however, prefer to reject the truth and dismiss reality. They redefine what exists into projections of their egos. They then seek to satisfy their passions. The Romans would refer to this as laetizia. They sense the power, celebrity and the satisfaction of the ego that the process of joining ISIS provides. They “understand” ISIS’ need to have its way with others through domination and control. It is what the Romans would refer to as felicitas. However, one degrades oneself by imposing ones world view on others through political slavery and moral bondage. Those who have held absolute power over others in history are often found in the end holding on to power by their fingernails, knowing if they let go they will be destroyed. When challenged, they self-destruct rather than face retribution. Cupido dominandi cunctis adfectibus flagrentior est. (The lust for power inflames the heart more than any other passion.)
There are some young men who reach a point where they seek to strike out on their own, perhaps feeling stifled or encumbered by their routine lives with their families. This occurs worldwide, regardless of religion. The young man may decide to go into a self-imposed exile. He becomes deaf to voices of reason, proportion, truth in his life. He seems to live off a steady diet of ego and soul-searching. He wiles the idea of fabricating a life and a reality that cannot be built. When this youthful zeal becomes tied in young Muslim men to the illusion that ISIS or another Islamic extremist group will allow for the best use of his powers, he may be drawn by the conviviality of recruiters or gossamer fantasies of brotherhood and unity offered by ISIS and other groups on the internet. His family’s only hope is that the young man will discover his error early on. If not, he may travel to Syria or Iraq where many soul-searching young men are killed.
Hoping Seeds of Reason Sown Earlier Will Sprout
No matter how a young man eventually arrives on the road to Syria or Iraq, he is undoubtedly filled with an anticipation of what he might find. He likely believes that away from his home, his family, a paradise awaits. This thinking is promoted by the ISIS recruiters with whom they have dealt. In a euphoric state, the young man views his surroundings as being lush. As he passes through the so-called Islamic Caliphate, his “new home,” he is impressed by the size of the territory the group holds. He sees the nearly endless columns of vehicles and heavy weapons captured from the Iraqi Security Forces. He observes ISIS fighters clad in camouflage uniforms and brandishing a variety of small arms and multiple bandoliers of bullets and grenades and AK-47 magazines. In towns and villages he passes through, he sees commercial activity and the people appear supportive of ISIS. Despite the discouraging remarks of family and friends, the young man may feel that he has placed himself on track to become “true warrior for Islam.” He and the other deluded young men with whom ISIS has him traveling to a training camp likely congratulate each other over their accomplishment. The young man continues to receive encouragement from ISIS members during his training. However, after training is completed and there is no longer the need to seduce the young man, attention placed on the young man soon wanes. When the spotlight shined on him, there was a palpable sense of celebrity. Once the spotlight goes off, his sense of importance fades.
As a novice member of the group, he discovers an organizational structure where he is on the bottom. The young man, albeit trained to fight the ISIS way, is required to perform common tasks for strangers that he probably never would have been asked to perform at home. He may be directed to help gather the dead from battlefields under the guns of watchful opposing snipers. He may be ordered to help with the preparation meals for other fighters, serve tea or meals to leaders and commanders, or run errands. He may understand that in the Islamic Caliphate, all are ruled under Sharia law. He may have found that attractive before he joined ISIS. However, in Syria or Iraq, he finds himself placed under rules and regulations a bit different than he imagined. He learns that in the Islamic Caliphate, Sharia law is determined by whoever is in charge where one is and not a central authority. He becomes witness to atrocities against Syrian and Iraqi citizens, much of it being of a revolting, degenerate nature, meant to control and terrorize the inhabitants of towns and cities. He also discovers infractions of that individual’s vision of Sharia law can lead to summary execution, even for ISIS fighters. Indeed, fighters are killed by ISIS now and then partly with the goal of encouraging others to stay “in line.”
If a family has raised a young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he should turn away from it.
At the front, what the young man learned in the abstract from the internet does not survive his first day with war’s realities. He may find himself in ranks with other new recruits and regularly thrown into wasteful human wave attacks or diversionary moves to draw fire from opponents. Those moves would cover the more effective, more protected maneuvers of more experienced ISIS fighters. New recruits may be encouraged or ordered to execute a suicide bombing. Afraid to refuse, they meet their end. Setbacks, heavy losses, and wasteful actions, allow the young man to get a true picture of ISIS. They discover that war is not thrilling or glorious, but odious and terror filled. They may face the reality that ISIS is fighting people who only wish to protect their families and save their homes. Fictio credit veritati! (Fiction yields to the truth!)
Finding a Way Out of Extremist Groups: The Family Is the Beacon
There will be young men truly lacking judgment or overwhelmed by madness who will not be repulsed by ISIS’ actions. They will find pleasure in what is evil. They will be immune to the cries and lamentations of innocent civilians. Madness rejects truth. However, among those with sense, the truth of what ISIS is doing may be overwhelming. Soon enough, their self-imposed exile will become home sickness. The voice of rebellion loses the struggle with the voice of reason and truth. Thoughts of how he previously employed cunning in his actions, now creates a sense of shame. The association with ISIS becomes senseless. Despite all of the mistakes he has made, the best hope for him at this point is to somehow try to get away from ISIS before it is too late. Traveling back on the road he took to reach ISIS, there is little excitement in the young man. He may see the same weapons and know that they were just trophies, a sign of ISIS’s vanity, and were not used on the battlefield. The dead and wounded become more apparent, and he wonders how many of those he came with are still alive. The fighters in camouflage, brandishing weapons, cause him alarm for he cannot be certain if they represent some rabidly violent local ISIS authority and are seeking out an unwitting ISIS fighter of which they can use to display their power and their will. He now knows the people in the towns and villages are not supportive of ISIS. Rather, they are intimidated and enslaved by it. The young man’s own errors will become more pronounced as his conscience speaks to him. He may find some relief only when he holds himself accountable for any crimes he may have witnessed, been party to, or committed while with ISIS. The incidence of post traumatic stress among those unable to cope with their time in ISIS must be considerable. The young man’s family may bemoan over his initial failure to respond properly, to adhere with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundations that were instilled within him. Working with government authorities, the family can help set a new path for him. He can make amends for what he has done to them, others, and himself.
More often than not, families manage to defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family, and his responsibility to it, will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in the young man due to delusion, the love for family can find its way to the surface.
The Way Forward: Redemption, Defeating the Threat to Others
The story of a family worrying over the return of a young man who acts on thoughts of running off from home and involves himself with the loathsome, is not new. That story has been told for thousands of years. Two thousand years ago, it was best told as the Parable of the Prodigal Son in The New Testament. Leaving the warm embrace of his family for something bigger and better than what he knew, his adventure turned into tragedy as he found himself tending pigs and nearly challenging them for their slop. He was lucky enough to find his way back home to his loving father. With clarity, the young man amended his ways and found a better path in life. Similarly, young men who leave home to join ISIS soon find themselves among repugnant men who behave worse than pigs and find themselves immersed in an illegitimate fight in which they engage in murder and destruction and feel shame, disgrace, and self-loathing: slop.
The family unit is the most powerful and effective counter to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. Those groups should not be able to influence young Muslim men if their families have provided solid spiritual, and moral and ethical foundations for them. Their extremist views will be an annoyance more than anything else. Clearly, the majority of young men have rejected it. If a young man becomes radicalized, hope remains that the truth about Islam, instilled in him by his family during his youth, will overcome extremist lies. More often than not, families will defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family and his responsibility to it will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in a young man due to delusion, love for family can still find its way to the surface.
As mentioned, there will always be “hard cases”, madmen and the senseless, on which no counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist effort will have impact. There will be cases in which a father or brother of poor judgment may cause a young man to follow them into ISIS, into some other radical group, or to commit a terrorist act. However, the focus of Western efforts should be on the positively minded families. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and, mothers in particular, have the power to thwart ISIS recruitment efforts. A young Muslim man is most receptive to messages from them. Early in his life, they must make their opinions on groups such as ISIS known to him. There must be clarity in his thinking on those groups. Without the participation of families, counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist efforts will fail. Engaging in a long-term approach that includes families will ensure the effort to defeat Islamic extremism will become a generational affair. Dabit deushis quoque finem! (God will bring an end to this!)