Amr Salah, Ph.D. student at George Mason University, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, received a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Exeter (UK)
On 23 March, U.S President Donald Trump hailed the fall of the Islamic State (ISIS) ‘caliphate’ in Syria after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of the town of Baghuz, the terror group’s last stronghold. This announcement came after three years from Trump’s pledge to eradicate ISIS and other extremist organizations “quickly”. While many perceived this as a signal of the success of the incumbent administration’s efforts in countering terrorism, this perception reflects naivety rather than a reality. Despite the military damage to ISIS, its narrative remains strong.
This analysis will examine how narrative works to introduce and sustain jihadist groups in their cycle of violence by building and strengthening their membership. Moreover, though an empirical comparison between the core content of the jihadist narrative and the U.S president’s rhetoric and foreign policy, the analysis attempts to explore how the incumbent U.S. administration may inadvertently help in strengthening jihadism, rather than weakening and countering it.
How does the jihadist narrative work?
Although there is no consensus over the definition of the “jihadist narrative”, in this analysis I am using the term to refer to the account, the story, and the logic adopted and promoted by jihadist groups in targeting the groups’ own members, and their audiences of potential recruits and sympathisers further afield. Despite differences, jihadist groups have a common grounding in three interconnected elements: an extreme interpretation of the holy texts (Quran and Sunnah), a unique view of Islamic history (glory versus failure), and relevant analysis of the contemporary political and social realities of the so-called “Muslim World”. Each jihadist group’s narrative presents it as the guardian against the “other”, justifying its existence, behavior, goals, and aspirations as the representative of a coherent and homogenous “Muslim world”. Meanwhile, it uses the narrative to appeal to and recruit new members, and to create their allegiance by fostering a sense of belonging and a willingness to sacrifice for the ultimate cause.
On one hand, theoretically, the narrative serves as an introduction to the extremist group and a means of sustenance. Notably, famous social psychologists such as Henri Tajfel and John Toner assumed that an ideological group may resort to violence through a comparison between its own social identity, and another group’s identity. This comparison can be based on hierarchy, where one group perceives itself unjustly positioned in a lower hierarchy and consequently tries to change this position. Here, the role of the narrative comes as a means of distinction and confrontation with the “other” for the sake of changing the incumbent, humiliating status quo. On the other hand, the narrative can also serve in building and strengthening the manpower of the organization and creating sympathy within the communities it claims to represent using a narrative based on “representation and regeneration”.
Unlike the conventional approaches, which assess the potential of a violent group through the lens of tangible capabilities, the “representation and regeneration” approach for the scholar Ersel Aydinli focuses on the morale side of membership through exploring the merits of belonging to these groups. This approach can examine the group’s capacity to maintain its original members and recruit new members. And again, this partially comes through the adopted narrative and its potential to win hearts and minds. Such narratives can be especially successful in conditions of crisis and attack.
What are they fighting for?
Starting from the literature of the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, and ending with the rhetoric of modern jihadist groups such Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it is noticeable that the jihadist narrative has been used to present the use of violence not only as a religious duty (fard), but as a tool to alleviate the humiliating status quo for Muslims. According to the same narrative, this status quo is an extension of the historic humiliation for the Muslims, which was created by the Jews and Christian Crusaders who sought to dominate Muslim lands, manipulate their resources, and cause them to deviate from the true Islamic faith. To change the current status quo and to restore the old glory of Islam, when the Islamic Law (shari’a) was enacted, jihad is an obligation for every Muslim.
This narrative was and is supported by three major arguments:
(1) Dividing the World: The duty of jihad is promoted in a world that is divided into “Dar al-Islam” and “Dar al-Harb”. Dar al- Islam are the lands where Islamic law prevails. In contrast, Dar al-Harb (lit. “abode of war”) includes every country that does not (yet) apply the legal provisions of Islam.
(2) Occupation of Muslim Lands: This argument majorly focuses on the historical and the present occupation of Muslim lands by the “infidels”. The ongoing Israeli occupation of the “Muslim lands,” supported by the West, is a pillar of this argument. In the occupied Palestine, the holy city of Jerusalem (Al-Quds) has major religious and historical significance for the Muslims. It is the third holiest city, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, and it was the first Qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims. According to the same argument, the incumbent aggression of the “Jewish-Crusader” alliance against Islam, is an extension of the Crusades between 1095 and 1492.
(3) Targeting Muslims: The extremist narrative of the terror groups posits that Sunni Muslims are being targeted by “Crusaders,” directly and indirectly through cooperative “internal enemies,” namely Jews and Shi’is. In his 2014 seminal study, Issac Kfir focuses on the role of the “threat” and “targeting” at the heart of the extremist narrative. It is the narrative that played a massive role in allowing ISIS to appeal to Muslim youths from many Arab and other countries. Researcher Shiraz Maher describes the ISIS-driven conflict through the maximum and unprecedented utilization of social media to disseminate its narrative to a broader audience.
Is the U.S. President serving their narrative?
In assessing whether Trump has played into the jihadist narrative, let’s take each of these supporting arguments in turn:
(1) Dividing the World: In an implicit confirmation of the jihadist’s main argument about the Manichean division of the world, Trump has made repeated statements seeming to divide the world into the West and Muslims. These “us versus them” statements have included:
- “I think Islam hates us … there is a tremendous hatred there”;
- “You look at what’s happening with the Quran, it’s a pretty scary things”;
- “They do not respect us at all”;
- “Large portions of a group of people—Islam—large portions want to use very, very harsh means”;
- “Within the Muslim community, we have some very radical people, who want to do harm to you … and to everybody on this planet and to me and to this country and to world”;
- “If you have people coming out of mosque with hatred and with death in their eyes and on their minds, we are gonna have to do something”;
- “25% of the Muslims living in the United states agree that violence against America here in the United states is justified”.
Plenty of similar statements have been made by former and incumbent key players in Trump’s administration, notably Steve Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist in the early months. Bannon described Islam in 2014 as the most extreme religion in the world, and divided the world into a Western Judeo-Christian block at war with a savage and bloody Islamo-fascist enemy. In the recent administration statement after recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his belief, “as a Christian”, that it was possible Trump was sent by God, as Queen Esther was, to help save the Jewish people. “I am confident that the Lord is at work here,” Pompeo said.
(2) Occupation of Muslim Land: In this context, one of the most notable themes of Trump’s foreign policy toward the Middle East is its bias towards Israel’s right-wing government. This was obvious both in Trump’s pledge, as a candidate, to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and in his vice president, Mike Pence, describing Jerusalem as “an eternal home for the Jewish people”. In office, Trump took a hostile stance toward Palestinians, cutting aid from international organizations. In December 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to it. Recently, he signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, overturning decades of U.S. policy, endorsed by the United Nations. Here it is important to mention Pence’s statement: “We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight. (Applause.) We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, in good over evil, in liberty over tyranny. We stand with Israel today, tomorrow, and we always will. (Applause.)”.
(3) Exclusive Policies against Muslims: Both as a candidate and as President, Trump has pursued policies that can be seen as aggressive against Muslims. These policies usually proceed under the heading of “national security”. The most controversial of these was the Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, issued on 27 January 2017, known almost universally as “the Muslim Ban”. It imposed limits on travel from several majority-Muslim states. The order came two years after Trump had called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S, and had refused to rule out a registry or database for Muslims.
Therefore, despite the announcement of the full operational defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there are too many worrisome signs to allow any celebration just yet. Whatever ISIS’s military set-backs, its narrative has not been defeated. Indeed, its narrative has an opportunity to grow, flourish and prosper, as it finds its arguments not only spread by its own narrators but reflected and buttressed by the rhetoric and policies of the incumbent U.S. administration.