An exemplary way to defeat Islamic State

The war on Islamic State may not be won with military might or theological arguments but by providing role models for young Muslims seeking purpose and belonging. This would dry up the group’s recruitment stream.

AP Photo
A leading Muslim cleric Mohammed Manzar Hasan Ashrafi Misbahi, who issued an edict that condemns the Islamic State, speaks with Islamic students at the Ajmeri Masjid in Mumbai, India.

If, in the years ahead, a Nobel Peace Prize is ever given to those most responsible for ending the war with Islamic State, who might they be?

Military strategists?

Diplomatic negotiators?

Perhaps moderate Islamic scholars who make an irrefutably theological case on Internet forums that Islam is a religion of peace?

While these all may be helpful, the best candidates could be those who offer a real alternative to the darkest side of Islamic State – its ability to recruit young, disaffected Muslims in search of purpose and belonging in their lives.

Thousands of young Muslims are still joining IS in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere – perhaps faster than American or Russian warplanes can kill them. The militant group offers them a new identity, one wrapped with promises of achieving heroic glory, of righting historic wrongs, of living in a supposedly idyllic caliphate of believers. Women are being lured as well as men, and from dozens of nations.

Countering this online IS propaganda – which differs sharply from the reality of life under IS rule – cannot be achieved simply through using social media or YouTube videos, as many Western governments try to do. What these potential recruits need are alternative role models, real examples of Muslims who can touch them by their individual success and their peaceful communities. Such role models are the best sunshine against IS’s dark ways and the surest way to collapse its recruiting pipeline. They may be the best candidates for a peace prize.

The front line in this aspect of the “war” on IS are, of course, the parents and other relatives who must guide any alienated young Muslim away from being radicalized. But beyond family are other Muslims in neighborhood mosques or other community figures.

Also vital are individuals and groups devoted to providing mentors and other models. Such people include Sara Khan, founder of Inspire, a British charity that reaches young Muslim girls with real examples of Muslim women doing well in sports, business, politics, and other areas of public life. Or Shahed Amanullah, cofounder of Affinis Labs, a Virginia start-up incubator that helps young Muslim techies around the world devise new online ways to bring a positive social impact on Muslim communities, such as one website that provides personal mentoring. Or Christianne Boudreau of the Hayat Canada program that empowers Muslim families in counselling sons or daughters away from extremism.

Whole countries are helping, too. Tunisia remains a beacon for Arabs in how Muslims can live in a secular, pluralistic democracy. During his recent trip to the United States, Indonesian President Joko Widodo reminded the world of why his large Muslim country in Asia sets an example: “Islam in Indonesia is a moderate and highly tolerant one. Thus, Indonesia offers a model of Islam that isn’t only compatible with democracy, but also with modernity.”

The war against IS can’t be fought merely as a military or theological one. It must be won with living models for young Muslims – either individuals or entire communities and countries that provide purpose and belonging.  The violent and illusory path offered by Islamic State would fade away.

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