Yes, ISIS Is Winning the ‘War of Ideas’

The Paris attacks showed how even fringe appeal to a “microscopic minority” can do massive damage.

Residents and Lebanese soldiers inspect the site of two explosions in Beirut allegedly caused by ISIS. (Khalil Hassan / Reuters)

In a recent Atlantic article, J.M. Berger challenges the notion, as he frames it, that “the U.S. is losing a war of ideas or narratives to ISIS.” He writes:

The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population, even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.

In contrast to the Third Reich, whose Nazi ideology attracted tens of thousands of supporters in America, ISIS “has recorded only trifling victories in the war of ideas,” he writes. “There are no ISIS towns in America,” he continues, and “ISIS can claim no support from major celebrities or captains of industry in America or abroad.” Berger approvingly quotes Will McCants, who observes in The ISIS Apocalypse that “reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.”

Berger’s writings on jihadism, not least his book on ISIS coauthored with Jessica Stern, are typically insightful and incisive. But in this case his commentary obscures far more than it clarifies. When Berger insists that ISIS is a fringe movement without mass appeal, he is right to the point of stating the obvious. Of course there are no ISIS towns in America or pro-ISIS voices in the dominant culture of Western democracies. Who would seriously argue otherwise, or contend that ISIS appeals to the masses?

The argument that the U.S. is losing the war of ideas against ISIS has never been about, to use McCants’s phrase, “mass appeal,” but rather, very precisely about how ISIS, as a state, spectacle, and idea, has been able to mobilize historically significant, if low, numbers of Sunni Muslims to join its cause. The debate, in other words, is expressly about fringe appeal, and how to prevent this from translating into mass carnage. Given the horrifying events in Paris last week, in which reportedly eight jihadists murdered 129 innocent civilians in a marauding rampage in the city, this debate could not be more urgent.

Berger insists that “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas,” but rather because “it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority” consisting of “a precious few thousand” among millions of Internet users. But this is a false opposition: ISIS’s success at attracting recruits, from both within and outside the region in which it is based, is due both to the emotional potency of its ideas and to the skill with which it exploits social media to disseminate its message and reach out to potential supporters and recruits. The central question Berger alludes to, but doesn’t answer, is just how ISIS has been able to sell its “violent and apocalyptic ideology” to the “microscopic minority” that has come to embrace it, and why they are, as Berger puts it, “receptive to its message.”

The anthropologist Scott Atran, whom Berger cites as a purveyor of the thesis he seeks to disprove, has some very useful and illuminating things to say about this. “Current counter-radicalization approaches,” Atran writes, “lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of the Islamic State’s story of the world, while at the same time lacking the personalized and intimate approach to individuals.” He discounts “vapid notions” about “brainwashing” and “nihilism” as forms of denial “about the multifaceted appeal of ISIS to yearning young people who want to be rebels with a cause,” and who long for glory as well as “struggle and self-sacrifice.”

“ISIS’s brand of jihadism,” Berger concludes, “will not be vanquished by ideas alone.” Again, Berger is pushing at an open door. Who would suggest otherwise? ISIS is an idea, but it’s also, obviously, a group that commands a vast area of territory and resources. To vanquish ISIS it will be necessary to vanquish the group. But Berger is mistaken to suggest that “the most decisive defeat of its ideas will almost certainly coincide with its defeat on the battlefield.” The genie of global jihadism is emphatically out of the bottle and will migrate to other masters once ISIS has been degraded, just as ISIS itself displaced al-Qaeda and became the epicenter of global jihadism.

On Friday, a “microscopic minority” carried out a devastating attack on one of the world’s great cities. It was an act of horror; but it was also an act of political violence, and as such was imbued with meaning and purpose. ISIS has already constructed a narrative around the attack, for which it has claimed responsibility, justifying it as retaliation for France “striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes.” And no doubt the young men who carried it out and sought their own destruction in the process saw themselves as martyrs to their faith and righteous defenders of the nascent self-proclaimed Islamic State. What this and other recent attacks demonstrate is that ISIS, as far as this minority is concerned, is indeed winning the war of ideas.