June 22, 2010

The narrative that wasn't there

Pakistani 1: "Western countries are trying to destroy Islam. They fear us more than the Chinese. We are the only people who have a system that challenges theirs. They know their system has failed, so they are trying to destroy us before everyone becomes Muslim. They have always hated us. They want to keep us poor. Our rulers have been bought by them. Our rulers sold us for big houses in London and New York. Now Western soldiers and contractors roam around our country looking for ways to steal from us and control us. We are paying the price. If we don't fight, they will rob us and leave us to die in the gutter."

Pakistani 2: "Peace is a good thing. You are a Muslim, right? We are all about peace. We love it. Fighting is not the answer. Peace is the answer. Just take it easy, be good and everything will sort itself out."

Presenting your ideas as part of a bigger picture is much more persuasive than just chucking them randomly out there. The ideology of Islamist extremism has a very effective big-picture story. On the other side, the narrative is a bit.... well,.. lacking. That's not to say the ideas aren't soundly based or the approach isn't right, it just means that there's no bigger picture that captures the imagination, presents the prospect of things being different or generally inspires to action.

Quilliam Foundation director Maajid Nawaz has an editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn newspaper that tackles the extremist narrative in Pakistan. Maajid, who used to be a high-level member of UK Islamist outfit Hizb ut Tahrir, very neatly illustrates the point that actions by Western government's inadvertently feed the view of the world painted by extremists.

"I remember trying to convince people that the UN is against Islam, and I remember being laughed at. That is...until Srebrenica. I remember trying to convince people that Yasser Arafat and the PLO would ‘betray' the Muslims of Palestine because they were not ‘Islamic'. I remember being laughed at. That is...until Oslo. I remember arguing that Muslims would never be tolerated in Europe, and Bosnia would spread everywhere. I remember being laughed at. That is...until Chechnya.

"I remember arguing that western freedoms are tools for colonialism. I remember being laughed at. That is...until the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I remember arguing that human rights are used to keep us weak whilst our ‘enemy' grows strong. I remember being laughed at. That is...until Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. People eventually stopped laughing."

So, not only is there a failure to provide another attractive, alternative vision, the actions that emanate from Western capitals seem to boost the vision promoted by extremists. It makes me wonder whether extremist PR people only need to work part time. Couple of hours a day, maybe? I bet the holiday entitlement is pretty generous. They probably just go do some training on uploading videos to the net, then it's feet-up time again.

But despite the popularity of the extremist world view, "...it does not take much to pick holes in this simplistic, pseudo-intellectual and paranoid perspective," says Maajid.

So, maybe it's time we started.