War on terrorism: U.S. soft-pedals the religion angle; so does the New York Times

The New York Times, as I noted in February, has been running ahead of the pack on the international effort to fight terrorism on the digital front. But the newspaper has yet to call out the religious ghosts in its own reporting.

"ISIS is Winning the Social Media War," says the latest Times headline on the matter. "The Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively 'trumped' the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations," the article reports.

Based largely on a U.S. State Department memo, the story presents an image of an efficient, united online jihad by ISIS outgunning a disjointed international counterattack. Says the Times:

A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.”
“The U.A.E. is reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group structure is confusing,” the memo says. “When we convened meetings with our counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first time.”

As the article adds, the confusion has had real-world consequences, with the recent fall of Ramadi and ISIS' continuing occupation of Mosul and Falluja.

Apparently, only two new ideas have been floated since February, both by Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel, author of the memo. Stengel urges a conference of merchants to shun trafficking in the kind of antiques ISIS is selling from wrecking and looting historic sites in Iraq and Syria.

Stengel's other idea would be to form a forward base somewhere in the Middle East, with 20 staffers from the coalition. The staff would produce daily messages to coordinate coalition work as well as counter ISIS messages.

Messages like what? Given that ISIS fighters are inherently religious -- and have built their caliphate on a ruthless form of Sharia -- wouldn't it be a great idea to fight them on the spiritual front as well?

The Times article acknowledges this but only with the barest flick of a finger:

A crucial part of the public diplomacy has involved encouraging Arab religious leaders, Muslim scholars and Arab news media organizations to denounce the Islamic State as a distortion of Islam. State Department officials have praised the United Arab Emirates for establishing its own center to counter the Islamic State’s prodigious propaganda.

This is pretty much the same as the newspaper said in February, with its original report on the cyber-war. If the anti-terrorism coalition lacks fresh thinking, the Times does, too.

Not that the U.S. State Department has been more perceptive. For years, it has soft-pedaled the religious facet of humanity, perhaps because of the American ideal of separation of church and state. But in international relations, that blind spot has led to error on error, as Madeleine Albright wrote in her memoir The Mighty & the Almighty.

Even if the Times editors didn't want to hit up Amazon for Albright's book, they could have Googled some online resources. Especially intriguing is an analysis by Abdullah Hamidaddin in Al-Arabiyah, spelling out the type of Muslim who becomes an Islamist:

1. Emphasis on humiliation of Islam by the West.
2. Colonialism is an ongoing project that has not ended.
3. Illegitimacy of the modern state: sovereign borders.
4. Conspiratorial thinking: the world is conspiring against Islam, in particular the Western World.
5. A vision for an Islamic revival based on a return to the Caliphate.
6. The ideal political order is one which existed fourteen hundred years ago.
7. The primacy of Islamic identity to all other identities especially to national identities. A Muslim in the view of the Islamists must be committed to the political goal of regaining the caliphate more than his/her commitment to the national state one belongs to.
8. The duty to uphold rule of Shariah.
9. Revolutionary attitude and rejection of status quo.
10. A belief that there are vanguards who are the agents of history and the representatives of the collective will and those vanguards have a right and an obligation to impose the collective will on all society.
11. The imperative of organized activity – most of the time secretive – towards achieving the ultimate goal of the caliphate.

Such sophisticated thinking could arm coalition strategists. It could help them craft messages to convince the world's Muslims that the war is against not their faith, but the brutal, ruthless interpretation being purveyed by ISIS and its allies.

So the Times stories have reflected the vacuous appraisal of our government. But instead of taking dictation, the writers and editors could have asked things  like, " 'Scuse, but if ISIS is religious, and it defends its approach on religious grounds, shouldn't the counter-messaging include religion, too? Why hasn't more been done on that front?"

It's not hard to find various viewpoints and come up with questions. All it takes is a few keystrokes and a willingness to think critically. By now, the Times should have, well, gotten the memo.

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