Empty Suits and Unholy Rage – ISIS vs. the Secular West (Part 1)

I originally published this short series on SharperIron.org, and it is reprinted here with permission.

chairThe Problem

Recently, a French political scientist was interviewed on National Public Radio. The terrorist attack in Nice had just taken place. France had been on heightened security alert since November 2015, when 130 people were slaughtered in a series of coordinated attacks involving suicide bombers, assault weapons and hostage taking. Now, just this month, a Tunisian madman who had lived in France for 11 years deliberately ran a 19-ton cargo truck into a crowd along the Nice waterfront on Bastille Day. 84 people died. The 31-yr old terrorist, a man who by all accounts was a drug addict, alcoholic, and all-around petty villain, was surrounded by police and shot dead in the cab of his truck. The media was engaged in the usual post-mortem analysis. What can be done? What should be done? What isn’t working? What would drive somebody to do such a thing? This was the context for Myriam Benraad’s interview with NPR. What should France be doing differently? Her answer was remarkable:

In France, I think there’s a real malaise. There’s a crisis of our political and social model for a number of reasons which I cannot enumerate fully during this interview. But we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.[1]

How do you persuade angry young men, many of them immigrants from abroad, some even EU citizens, that it isn’t a good idea to butcher many people in the name of Allah? What must be done to counteract this propaganda? Benraad recognizes that there is a problem. She also realizes that France (and its coalition partners) have not yet found the solution. She is not alone.

The Empty Secular Solution

On September 29, 2015, an article appeared in The New York Times which stated, “President Obama called upon a conclave of world leaders on Tuesday to fight violent extremism not just with weapons but with ideas, jobs and good governance, a strategy he has long advocated. There are few signs that it is succeeding.”[2] President Obama announced this was an ideological war, not a strictly military conflict. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns,” he exclaimed. “They are defeated by better ideas — a more attractive and compelling vision.”[3]

What is this “compelling vision” the Western world offers angry young men that ISIS cannot? What “better ideas” was President Obama referring to? This strategy was probably driving the now-infamous statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that ISIS could be defeated if only their fighters had access to jobs. “We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”[4]

The State Department has admitted “the coalition does not communicate well.”[5] An official lamented that the West was always reacting to ISIS online propaganda, instead of advancing its own narrative. The counter-propaganda effort was a failure, a disaster. The Western world was being defeated in social media by the junior varsity team.[6] ISIS was “expanding like Starbucks franchises.”[7] Something must be done. A solution was nigh at hand – a “full-time coalition communications hub.”[8]

Thus, we now have something called the “Global Engagement Center.” The director of the center explained that his counter-propaganda mission was to expose the awful truth that ISIS “is indeed a vicious awful organization that is rife with hypocrisy and everything else . . . it’s about revealing their true nature so people understand they aren’t what they say they are,’ he said. ‘They’re not paying their fighters what they claim to be paying them, and nor is the quality of life what they’re advocating.”[9] So, for example, the GEC’s Twitter account has graphics of people standing in line for food, with the text, “Under Daesh, the lines of the hungry grow longer.” Another post shows a laptop computer illuminated by the miserable, flickering glow of a tea light candle. “Daesh can’t provide basic services for its people,” the picture warns solemnly.

This is the same approach which Myriam Benraad advocated. Young immigrant men in France are disenchanted. They’re cynical and soured on the life they’ve found in the West. This is why she suggested, “we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.”

Her comments are not remarkable because of their insight. They are remarkable because they betray how shallow and impotent a secular approach to this conflict is. The same could be said about the entire counter-propaganda message being pushed by the Obama administration and its various coalition partners. As Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has observed, “What we are looking at here is a vast collision of worldviews, and one that secular leaders in Europe and in the United States, starting in the White House, seem to be incapable of understanding. At its base, we’re talking about a worldview conflict between Islam and Modernity.”[10] Mohler later remarked that France, because of its unashamed commitment to secularism, is “almost singularly incompetent to know how to respond. There is amongst the French intellectuals now a virtual inability to understand anyone who might operate in terms of worldview from any kind of theological motivation and basic structure.”[11]


[1] National Public Radio. “French Men Attracted To ‘Anti-System Utopia’ In Drive To Join ISIS,” on All Things Considered. 19JUL16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Vr37KO.

[2] Gardiner Harris and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Call at U.N. to Fight ISIS With Ideas Is Largely Seen as Futile,” in The New York Times. 29SEP15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Ru4yKS.

[3] Ibid.

[4] T. Beckett Adams, “State Department spokeswoman claims jobs are key to defeating ISIS,” in Washington Examiner. 17FEB15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/3WXpDk.

[5] The New York Times. “State Department Memo on the Islamic State Group.” 12JUN15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/ipNTiK.

[6] See the discussion by Glenn Kessler, “Spinning Obama’s reference to Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team,” in The Washington Post. 03SEP14. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/yw2eRg.

[7] New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

[8] New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

[9] Kristina Wong, “How the US is working to defeat ISIS online,” in The Hill. 25JUN16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/bWktxW.

[10] Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 12-7-15. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/07/the-briefing-12-07-15/.

[11] Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 8-1-16. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/08/01/briefing-08-01-16/.

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