Saturday, 29 August 2015 21:22

Fighting Against ISIS’s “Soft Power”

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British Prime Minister David Cameron devoted his recent speech in Birmingham to the struggle against religious extremism, primarily Islamic. This speech is a prelude to the expected publication of a new five-year strategy for combating extremism. Apparently, it reflects the main elements of this strategy, above all, the need for the ideological consolidation of Britain’s civil society.

Describing the current state of affairs, Cameron emphasized ISIS's attractiveness for a considerable number of young Brits. According to various estimates, from 700 to 1,500 Brits have joined ISIS since 2012. Cameron mentioned four main reasons why ISIS seems so attractive: the question of identity, ISIS’s “energizing” nature, its appealing ideological concepts based on radicalism and a conspiracy-based world view, and finally, the fact that extremists are allowed “to set the terms of the debate”: “Ask yourself, how is it possible that when young teenagers leave their London homes to fight for ISIL, the debate all too often focuses on whether the security services are to blame? And how can it be that after the tragic events at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, weeks were spent discussing the limits of free speech and satire, rather than whether terrorists should be executing people full stop?” 

Describing ways of countering these four root causes of extremism, Cameron emphasized the need to oppose ISIS’s mad ideas with traditional British values: freedom of speech and assembly, sexual equality, multiculturalism (sic!), freedom of convictions, a parliamentary system, etc.

All this is very typical and indicative.

First, the Birmingham speech in and of itself demonstrates the growing importance of fighting extremism in the domestic political arena, and this applies not only to the United Kingdom but to many other countries as well.

Second, unlike many domestic analysts who speak about the failure of multicultural policy, Cameron sees it as the foundation of the British nation and one of its basic values.

Third, to follow the logic of the British Government, the fight against ISIS should primarily be waged on the ideological front, thereby promoting the consolidation of society, and this is an important point.

In fact, this is a confrontation of two systems of values or two “soft powers”: Britain's “soft power” versus ISIS's “soft power”. Britain’s “soft power” means Western “soft power”; all British values mentioned by Cameron are identical to European or liberal values.  

In general, a striving to consolidate a value-based identity has become a trend of the past year across the most diverse countries. Speaking at Al-Azhar University last January, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi urged Islamic scholars to create “a revolution inside Islam.” He said a bunch of extremists should not be allowed to speak on behalf of a world religion.

It would be appropriate to mention in this context numerous initiatives of Muslim intellectuals, decisions adopted by the Organization of Islamic Conference on countering the ISIS threat and new programs on the development of Islamic education in Tunisia.

It is also possible to recall the Russian Government's stake on enhancing patriotism and traditional values. Statements in this vein have been made throughout the past year. Although in the Russian case the ideological quest is primarily determined by the confrontation with the West rather than the extremist danger, the ISIS threat is playing a key role in some Russian regions (primarily Chechnya). Typically, the British and Russian (especially Chechen) concepts of countering extremism are built on opposite logic to a certain extent. The British Government insists on the consolidation of liberal values while Cameron is indignant over the debates on freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. In the meantime, the Russian Government is trying to demonstrate its super-conservative attitudes, in religion as well. It is no accident that participants in numerous rallies in Chechnya and other Muslim regions of Russia protested against cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad rather than supporting the victims of the terrorist act.

It's clear that attempts to confront ISIS ideologically are an admission of the inability to deal with it militarily, and not only because ISIS is stronger than, say, al-Qaeda, but also because the world has become weaker. It simply does not know how to defeat ISIS (nor does it know how to defeat the Taliban or what to do about Libya, Syria and Iraq).

At the same time, placing emphasis on extremism (which may be embodied not only by ISIS but also by nationalists) has become a convenient instrument for consolidating societies. To a certain extent, the authorities are interested in exaggerating the threat. Cameron compares ISIS with the ideologies of nationalism and communism.

Finally, the most important point is that the popularity of extremism compels the governments of the most diverse countries to revise their own value systems. The problems that societies are facing along this path in Britain, Russia and a number of Arab countries are not political and not even ideological, but philosophical. They lie in the deteriorating crisis of the world outlook that has taken shape in the modern era. This crisis, which was described by post-modernist philosophers half a century ago, is now entering its final stage, in which ideological concepts resting on a certain philosophical basis – cogito ergo sum – no longer allow people to answer major existential questions. The absence of answers prompts people to seek consolation in archaic philosophical systems like those of ISIS or neo-Nazis, whom Cameron also mentions.

The common feature of these systems is their emphatic anti-humanism, which allows them to find in the surrounding world values that are more important than humans.

Politicians, propagandists, journalists or advertisers cannot win the battle against such philosophies, such worldviews, but it can be won by intellectuals, whose philosophical ideas have become an urgent political necessity.

Previously published by Valdai Club  

Russian version of the article was exclusively published by IMESClub:

Read 5817 times Last modified on Saturday, 29 August 2015 22:09
Vasiliy Kuznetsov

Head of the Center fro Arabic and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.