One thing I have learned over three decades of working in intelligence and counter terrorism is that perspective matters. As an analyst one of the gravest sins you can commit is to give in to what is called “mirror imaging”, the erroneous belief that everyone thinks like you do. When you do that, you are blind and deaf to the fact that other actors have different agendas and different ways of seeing the world. If you fail to realise this your analysis will fail and your conclusions will suffer.
This variation in worldview is no more stark than in the case of terrorism. Groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State hew to the belief that the West is at war with Islam and that they alone have the divine mandate to fight back and bring about the ultimate victory for their twisted view of their faith. This alleged defence of Islam goads them into all kinds of behaviours we would call barbaric: beheadings, crucifixions, immolations…
From our vantage point this is seen as conspiracy theory at best, garbage at worst. This is why we have a hard time understanding how a “true believer” could willingly become a suicide bomber – it is so beyond our way of seeing things. But in order to defeat this monstrous movement we need to get into the heads and souls of our opponent.
Perspectives also vary when it comes to how to address this problem. Many in the West see the solution as a purely military one (“turn the Middle East to glass” is the way I seem to recall one Republican presidential candidate put it). Others advocate putting up walls (Donald Trump’s suggested ban on Muslim immigration). Still some want to resort to torture and killing the families of terrorists (that would be Mr. Trump again).
A few are tackling the problem from the other end – prevention and building resilience. This is what the Liberal government in Canada is advocating. A very good approach, albeit not a comprehensive one, in my opinion.
I am writing this blog from Dubai where I delivered a lecture on extremism at the American University of the Emirates (AUE). My audience were largely Emirati students in mass communications and political science. One theme that came up time and time again was the frustration in this part of the world over how the West covers Islam and how terrorism is always associated with Muslims. From the perspective of the students, we don’t understand Islam and what it truly means.
When asked what can be done about it I threw the question back at my listeners. Rather than complain and agonise over what Western media and politicians write and say, I noted that Muslims need to take the initiative and debunk the myths surrounding their faith. They must demonstrate – yes again I am afraid – that the aberration that is Islamic State is neither normative Islam nor widely held by the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. This means getting involved in writing pieces in the press and online. It means creating institutes and thinktanks that pump out materials that show the world what they truly stand for: the announcement by the Prime Minister of the UAE His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of the International Institute for Tolerance is a good start. So is the courage of the Caliph of the Ahmaddiya in denouncing extremist preachers (I know that many Muslims have issues with the Islamic legitimacy of the Ahmadis but, to be honest, anyone who takes extremists to task is an ally).
I realise that most Muslims are tired of being asked to apologise for the acts of a few terrorists. After all, Christians are not held to the same measuring stick. And yet there is a difference. Islamic State claims to be acting in the name of Islam and on behalf of all Muslims. As frustrating as it is to be constantly compared to the heinous criminals of IS, Muslims do need to take centre stage. If they don’t the great unwashed do not understand the vast gulf between the worldwide Ummah and the extremists and the vacuum created by a lack of response will be filled, and not in a good way.
As aggravating as it is, the task is before the world’s Muslims. You have it in you to undermine the messaging of the terrorists and to make a positive difference. I hope that the enthusiasm that I witnessed at the AUE on Friday translates into action: there is certainly more than enough energy and passion to go around.