Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) and editor of the new book Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, spoke to a June 21 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about efforts to combat the Islamist ideology promulgated by global jihadi movements.
According to Berman, the U.S. and its coalition allies have been "enormously effective in the kinetic arenas of counter-terrorism," as indicated by the resounding military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2019. However, Washington is "not paying sufficient attention" to the growth of Islamist ideology that gave rise to ISIS and continues to fuel violent jihadist movements around the world.
Berman highlighted the distinction between Islam and Islamism, which can be understood as "the active attempt to impose sharia ... Islamic law as a political exercise on a local, regional, or global level." Not all Islamist movements seek to do this violently. Turkey's Justice and Development Party aims to impose sharia via its political system, while al-Qaeda is focused on killing people. However, Berman stressed, they differ only in tactics, not in their common goal.
Berman discussed four future trends that will "define the counterterrorism fight" in the years ahead:
The persistence of ISIS: "ISIS is down, but it's most definitely not out." Although the "caliphate era," when ISIS exercised a monopoly of force within large swathes of territory, is over, it still has an estimated 10,000 active fighters in Iraq and Syria, plus thousands more attached to ISIS affiliates around the world. Moreover, it's estimated to possess hundreds of millions of dollars and a steady stream of revenue from illicit activities. This has enabled ISIS fighters to migrate to new "empty political spaces" in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Berman sees "the next, great frontier" in central Africa, with its young, growing population, as a ripe target for jihadist recruitment.
The resurgence of local jihad: Islamic State affiliates have become "unmoored" from central ISIS, "reverted to type," and "gone back to their original theaters of activity" in places like the Lake Chad basin, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
"Islamist ideas are receiving a warmer reception than ever before" in the Arab world.
A more receptive Arab politics: "Islamist ideas are receiving a warmer reception than ever before among the publics of the Arab world." Although Arab countries "are not a monolith," as evidenced by the success of the Abraham Accords, there is still "a tremendous amount of resonance for Islamist ideas."
The resilience of the jihadi message: Having widely canvassed officials in the Middle East and North Africa over the past year and a half, Berman heard the same thing again and again – that the "dynamism" of the jihadi message is undiminished. "There's really no substantive change to patterns of recruitment and radicalization and mobilization in the broader Muslim world." The "soft power" messaging of jihadi groups such as Boko Haram in Africa and al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya in south Asia through social media, networking apps, online forums, and other venues is increasing in reach.
In seeking to combat jihadi "soft power," the U.S. is at a disadvantage because it does not have "the standing, religiously, to weigh in authoritatively on Islamic thought and ideology," said Berman. But fortunately it is "not alone in this fight." Berman's new book examines Muslim countries that have taken a "whole of government approach" to combatting Islamist ideology.
Morocco "has built a comprehensive national strategy underpinned by the authority of its monarch to discredit extreme ideas ... in everything from school curriculum to the scripting of television programs." In Indonesia, "moderate mass religious movements work in tandem with the state" to combat jihadism. In Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom "blazed an early trail in crafting tolerant religious ideas into a cohesive message." In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the government has marshalled its resources to spread a "co-existence culture" and is "actively" exporting it abroad.
The lesson to be learned from these efforts is that they succeed by "limiting the empty political space" that Islamists exploit. Mideast allies engaged in this fight are finding soft power approaches that "balance state and religion" as an antidote to defeat "Islamism as a counter-state movement." The job ahead is to find "common guiding principles" to unify this "disaggregated community" into a cohesive force that "becomes more than the sum of its parts."
Berman is "pessimistic" that the U.S. government will take on this fight, as attention in Washington is pivoting to "great power competition" instead of counterterrorism. The tendency now is to minimize the "war of ideas" as "someone else's problem." Berman hopes his book will draw attention to the need for "governmental seriousness" in fighting the resurgent jihadi threat and its toxic ideology.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.