After losing territorial control in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State (IS) will use the nostalgia narrative as a tool for recruitment and sustaining morale and inspiration among its supporters.
The nostalgia narrative is actually nothing new in terrorists’ communication. However, this time counter-radicalization experts predict that it will be distinguished from other nostalgic narratives and empowered by reminding followers that “once we had the caliphate”.
This raises two questions. First, is the narrative an essential factor to be considered in countering radicalization? Second, or is it quite the reverse? Will focusing on it create the risk of losing clear sight of the broader picture?
Nostalgia as a Motivator
To begin with, we should remember that nostalgia is an element of every revolutionary movement, whether it refers to some golden age in the past or a bright future, imagined in dreams. The latter is important. As movements focus on bringing about change, even they are nostalgic for the past and hope to recreate it in the future.
Generally, jihadists’ nostalgia is broadly the same as non-violent Salafists’ and Islamists’. It is an attempt to implement rules and a way of life described in the Qur’an and the sunnah (the teachings, sayings and actions of the prophet of Islam, seen as a guide to life) in modern times. In this worldview, recreation of the social, ethical, religious and political principles from the times of Muhammad and the Four Righteous Caliphs of Islam’s earliest decades should bring glory and success to the ummah (community of believers). This kind of nostalgia, unlike “IS nostalgia”, is common in the wider spectrum of society exposed to radicalization.
Muslims who perceive the quasi-state IS built as a fulfillment of the caliphate promise constitute a narrower group than those who support Islam as a legal basis for the state[i]. Thus, the appeal of “IS nostalgia” will touch fewer potential recruits. Nonetheless, it could become an agent activating people who are already on the radicalization path.
“Every returnee from jihad brings a number of stories of fighting and glory”, writes PhD Kacper Rękawek, Head of Defence and Security at Globsec, in his book “Man With a Small Bomb” (published only in Polish “Człowiek z małą bombą”). This can be inspiring, as the tales come from jihad in the cause of Allah from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Somalia to Iraq and Syria.
Here we should stress the distinction between radicalization in the sphere of ideas and radicalization in the sphere of actions. “IS nostalgia” will have more effect on radicalizing actions of people sharing extremist ideas.
Victimization and Nostalgia – Twin Sisters
The nostalgia narrative has a twin sister – victimization. The motivation to undertake any action is based on perceptions of one’s current state and prospects for achieving improvements. Here victimization creates the negative perception of oneself or one’s wider group as victims while nostalgia forms the view of a desired state. So, the activity, dynamics and energy are generated not as a result of state A or state B, but as a result of the distance between A and B.
This means we should not limit ourselves to combating the nostalgia narrative with various counter-narratives alone. Instead, there is an opportunity to work with victimization as well. Twofold solutions can be proposed: changing perceptions of the current and desired states, reducing the distance between A and B, or finding other, non-violent and positive ways to improve the perceived situation, moving from A to B.
Some may find this debatable: do we really want to find other ways to move towards a caliphate? However, if we think of a caliphate not as an end but as a means to realize other goals, such as justice, equality, freedom of religion, gaining status, and so on, then this can be a partial solution. This can be implemented if we focus on social factors such as education, social status, employment, discrimination, or crime.
But does it work when it comes to an individual’s religious perceptions? If A is one’s own perception of life and it is miserable, sinful, or just not in line with the true meaning of the religion, B offers prospects for redemption and paradise. In this case, the distance between these points can be reduced by religious or psychological counselling. Other ways to repent for sins and achieve paradise should be strongly advised and propagated. That can only be done with the cooperation and dedication of religious people.
The Limited Gains From Exposing Islamic State
If we are speaking of countering “IS nostalgia”, the question is how to challenge its charm? One might think it can be done by exposing the truth about Islamic State, starting with its failure to deliver the promise of a caliphate.
There are two factors that make these expectations excessive. First, Islamic State did not govern long enough to discredit itself in eyes of its sympathizers. All the mistakes and shortcomings during that brief project can be explained away by being in a state of war – the caliphate was besieged by the world powers. Second, as with other utopian ideologies, new generations of Islamists will simply think that they will do it better.
Consider socialism and communism – they have proven that they are not viable and profitable long-term models for communities, yet still new groups appear, claiming that they can do it properly. They “know” how to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors and deliver the promise without forsaking communism’s “genuine idea”.
In this case, even if we manage to expose the inabilities and failures of IS, we cannot be sure that al-Qaeda or other new groups will not promise better results. Moreover, and unfortunately, IS has already demonstrated that the idea of creating a territorial Islamic State can be realized.
Perspective is needed. While we should not neglect the danger of this new narrative, the nostalgia for what was achieved by IS in 2014-17 is probably a temporary factor rather than long-standing. In the short term, though, major efforts should be focused on perceptions of victimhood and finding other legitimate ways to achieve improvements.
[i] M. Lipka, Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world, Pew Research Center 2017 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/09/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/