The West should not squander the opportunity to address the refugee crisis and counter al Qaeda and Islamic State propaganda.
The mass migration crisis paralyzing Europe has now reached its crescendo, with thousands of Syrian refugees (and others) walking across Europe, and the world reacting in horror to the photo of a dead Syrian boy washing ashore after his boat capsized while en route from Turkey to Greece. At last pressed into action, Europe and the West are reluctantly grappling with the crisis by discussing multinational plans for settling refugees, with Germany leading by example, and France and Britain pledging to do their part. Whether these countries will be able to rally the rest of Europe remains to be seen, however. Elsewhere, Australia and Canada have also pledged to take more Syrian refugees. Here at home, we have not yet pledged to take additional refugees, although we have funded substantial relief efforts. But our posture in the U.S. could change as a result of pressure from our allies or a recognition that it would be in our own self-interest to settle additional refugees.
Although it may be difficult to see, Europe and the West have an opportunity to harness their humanitarian impulses to turn the tide in the propaganda war being waged by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al Qaeda. These terrorist groups prey on disaffected Muslims in the West and elsewhere with a rousing narrative that the West is at war with Islam. This narrative is grounded in a carefully curated chronology of actions taken by the West, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the treatment of detainees, drone strikes, etc…. And the narrative is repeatedly reinforced with images of these actions. It is, unfortunately, highly effective.
To date, the West has largely responded to this propaganda by bemoaning its effectiveness and denying its truth. President Obama, for example, has publicly stated that the West is not at war with Islam while hosting a conference that illustrated that the West has yet to settle on a comprehensive campaign for countering radicalization and terrorist recruiting. Instead, we are venturing online to counter IS and al Qaeda recruiting content and piloting a variety of counter-radicalization programs. While these efforts may prove worthy, they do not constitute a winning battle plan for defeating IS and al Qaeda. Since the President’s speech in February, IS and al Qaeda have recruited many more disaffected Muslims to their cause. If we are going to win the hearts and minds of potential IS and al Qaeda recruits, which we must if we are going to starve these terrorist groups of the infusion of newly radicalized recruits they require to survive, we need to start by taking a page from their propaganda playbook and recognizing that actions speak louder than words. And in the European migration challenge, the West has an opportunity to take action.
What better way to convince Muslims around the world that the West is not at war with Islam than by caring for the Muslim refugees in Europe and elsewhere that are fleeing Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other nations wracked by conflict – conflict that in many cases that has been initiated or exacerbated by IS and al Qaeda? This is a unique opportunity to prove the lie in the IS and al Qaeda narrative, not by saying that they are lying, but by showing that they are lying. It’s time for the West to be aggressively altruistic and strategic.
What would happen to the IS and al Qaeda narrative if later this week the Europeans and other Western nations announced a comprehensive plan to care for and settle a large number of Muslim refugees? If that plan were accompanied by a sustained multimedia campaign designed to contrast actions taken by IS and al Qaeda against their fellow Muslims with actions taken by the West to care for the very people driven out of their homes and terrorized by these fanatical groups? If we replaced photographs of stressed politicians and wandering migrants with images of Westerners providing food, clothing, and shelter for refugees and greeting them warmly as they arrived at airports across the West? If refugees gave interviews contrasting the treatment that they received at the hands of IS and al Qaeda with the treatment they received in the West? If these images and interviews made their way into media outlets and online sites frequented not just in Europe, but across North Africa and the Middle East? If our allies in the Middle East helped ensure that these first-person accounts were discussed in mosques and madrassas around the globe? If the United Nations, based on a motion made by nations with predominantly Muslim populations, publicly commended Europe for its response to the crisis a month or two from now?
Some of these events may unfold even in the absence of a strategy, simply because of the strong humanitarian impulses of the West. Indeed, some of this is happening in Germany today. But these acts of kindness lack the punch of a coordinated international public affairs campaign. The West and the refugees in Europe would both be better off if Western leaders saw the mass migration crisis as an opportunity to build a symbolic battleship to fight in the propaganda war we are waging with IS and al Qaeda. This ship will soon sail. Let’s not miss this boat too.