The Islamic State occupies two cities in Iraq. In one, Fallujah, the local people have just about had enough. Young men are rising up and opposing the extremists. (The other city is Mosul in the north).
Fallujah, in western Anbar Province, is the heartland of the Sunnis in Iraq. If anyone in Iraq would approve of IS, it would be these guys.
The people in Fallujah are being forced to take action because the Iraqi army and militias, which are mostly Shia, have surrounded the city. Food is scarce and people blame IS. But that’s not the only reason.
Anbar has a history of banding together to throw off the rule of extremists. In mid-2006, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, tribes began to work with the Americans, determined to push out al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI ran most of Anbar, and the people didn’t like it one bit. Lucky for us, the Sunni tribes worked with us to get rid of them. It was a huge success.
Just a few months ago, local Sunni tribes helped the government kick IS out of the othermajor city in Anbar Province, named Ramadi.
The point of this summary is that just because you are Islamic, or even Sunni, and live in Iraq or any of the Middle Eastern countries, does not mean you automatically support IS. In fact, you probably don’t. You probably find their policies to be abhorrent and anachronistic. But what can you do? They have the guns. Well, there is something they can do.
This dislike of IS is true across almost all of the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan. Nobody likes these people, even where they have what apparently looks like a lot of support. For instance, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exists in Yemen, but only in the eastern desert wastelands, not in Sanaa, the capital.
The extremists live in a larger Islamic world where the cultural traditions are multifaceted. In the last century, Muslims have spent more time coexisting than killing each other. The Iran-Iraq war began because (secular) Saddar Hussein decided to grab some territory from a distracted Iran, a miscalculation that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. How secular? Saddam, when he came to power, used to spend Fridays handing out bottles of scotch whiskey to picnickers on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.
So the fighting and divisions in the Islamic world are not inevitable, nor are they a sign that Muslim people are crazy. We are seeing, rather, a civil war of ideas in which a very loud and well-armed minority is making a bid to take over the whole enchilada. This is a war of ideas backed up by a war of guns.
A mosque in Baghdad, 2005
Because it is primarily a war of ideas, we can look at our own daily experience to calculate who’s “winning”. After all, everyone in the West understands exactly what IS stands for, what they want and what they will do to get it
But who understands what so-called moderate Muslims believe? What they want, what they will fight for, what they need for support?
Few people in the West know. In fact, Islamic moderates are fragmented, distracted and under siege, beset by crises from Mali and Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
To fight this war of ideas, moderates Muslims need a public relations revolution. That is, governments, clerics, nationalist and religious organizations working together to make the argument that the extremists anywhere and everywhere are wrong. Wrong in aim and wrong in action.
This message in the war of ideas is not being made in a systematic, global way. Clerics speak out, private organizations such as “Dawah” act, and governments oppose, but not in concert. Meanwhile, private donations and recruits roll in to IS. A PR revolution is not easy. Concerted action faces a rocky road.
The status quo governments have little credibility with exploding populations who face stagnant job markets. They look incompetent, which bolsters the extremist message of change.
They are ideologically bust, too. Saudi Arabia might be the keeper of the most holy sites, but its princes’ notoriously drink, gamble and employ call girls across the European Mediterranean shore. These rulers have poor credibility to issue a message opposing an extremist religious message.
And, all too often, these status-quo governments have supported ideas akin to the extreme: the Saudi state is built on a pact with Wahhabis, who have more in common with mullahs in Raqqa than those in Omaha. Pakistan has supported extremists for 30 years.
Thus far, a unified effort is missing but it is necessary. The US can help, but not much. We have some ability to influence the social media space, but IS makes the US media effort look amateur. And we can help militarily, but that has limited effect in what is primarily a war of ideas.
This is primarily an Islamic affair.
So it is up to Islamic moderates to speak up and get organized, transnationally. (Think al Jazeera television on steroids). It can work. Public/private PR campaigns in Indonesia stamped out most extremists by harnessing many voices against extremism.
Still, widespread collaboration is a tall order in a region wracked by high unemployment, anger at the status quo, illegitimate governments and fundamentalist influences.
Extremist ideas have been around for a long time and they aren’t going to fade away quickly. But they can be countered if the moderates get better organized, ala Indonesia. This is because average, ordinary people in the Muslim world aren’t extremists.