Sunday, May 24, 2015

We need a new hero to show us how the West can win the war against Islamic State

For many of us, the ins and outs of what is happening in the Middle East are less than clear. We shouldn't feel inadequate. It is a very complex situation and it is constantly changing. Yesterday's enemy can become an ally , if not close friend, tomorrow. Overnight, you find that a darker, more ferocious enemy draws you and a previous foe into a handshake, if not a warm embrace.

We don't need to know and understand every little detail in order to have a view and to participate in discussion. In the public debate there is a degree of gamesmanship that would be laughable if the journalists and commentators were not (a) being paid and (b) influencing public opinion. The gamesmanship can involve dropping into a question or comment the preferably difficult to pronounce name of a person involved in one terrorist group or another, or nonchalantly dropping the name of yet another new offshoot of some radical terrorist group.

In a desire to appear more informed, some journalists and commentators create the illusion that they are across the nitty-gritty detail of all the intricacies involved. Generally, they are not. They are just seeking to appear the most clever, to intimidate other participants in the debate into not challenging them. There are places where that specialist kind of knowledge is critical, but I think it is at a broader level that the public debate can be usefully conducted and in which the public can be genuinely engaged.

Thankfully, I do not know anyone who thinks IS can be seen as the good guys. Of all the bad guys that are around at the moment, we can probably agree they are the worst. That means opening our minds to working with anyone who shares that view, even if we don't think much of them either. We do not live in a whiteboard world, where everything is in black and white. In the Middle East, there are more than 50 shades of grey, and nuances to match every one of them. As they say, politics can make strange bedfellows.

The IS ideology comes out of medieval times, but we would be mistaken if we thought that their ideology is everything we need to know about them.

In fact, as Mike Marinetto from Cardiff University has pointed out in an article in The Conversation, Islamic State has learnt a lot from the West.

They know that money is important, and their securing of territory with plenty of oil fields is no accident. They are the best funded terrorist organisation in the world, with billions of dollars in assets. There is nothing medieval about their finances.

They have seemingly come from nowhere over the past 18 months or so. From unknown to the name on every website and news report in 18 months is every marketing guru's dream. Their medieval philosophy doesn't stop them using every marketing skill the West has developed. They are brand management geniuses.

The beheadings and immolations are stage set pieces. The orange overalls are no accident. The visuals are designed to be compelling. A man chained in a cage in the desert, facing the fuse that will burn towards him as time presumably stood horrifically still is an image destined to hit every media outlet and occupy the most prominent spot. The Twittersphere would be set alight. IS packages up its horror and we fall for it every time. Ditto the beheadings.

These atrocities, if performed solely because IS believes the behaviour acceptable and appropriate, could be done away from public view. But no, they are designed to be viewed by millions. It is a part of the building of their tough guy image and of intimidating both the West and the doubters (because you could be next).

It is estimated that there are more than 90,000 IS-related Twitter accounts. These crazed lunatics are sober and sensible enough to be targeting the 20 to 35-year-olds in the West and, by all accounts, are having some success. Serious, concerned speeches in our universities and parliaments are nothing in the face of this well-organised, colourful and targeted campaign.

Islamic State has had tremendous success in wooing young, disenchanted people from the West to embark on the adventure of a lifetime and head off to fight in support of the caliphate. Is there anyone stupid enough to think that the photos of these kids just accidentally end up in the Western media? These kids are lambs to the slaughter. IS don't need their numbers; they need the message to the West: "Your young people think we're great."

IS would have any number of people happy to take on the role of executioner. They intentionally groomed a westerner, the man the media called Jihadi John, to boost their media coverage and to underscore the message that many of our younger people will turn their back on the West in support of IS.

In this way, they not only promote themselves but they cause us to ask ourselves where we have gone wrong.

IS has something else in its favour, too. As outdated and sickening as we find their ideology, they are at least out there selling it. The West hasn't had a leader in my lifetime who has taken on the task of selling Western democratic philosophy. It starts with the unbeatable premise that all men are created equal, that everyone gets a say in who will govern us, that everyone is equal before the law, that presidents and prime ministers are subject to the same laws as tradies and teachers. I can't think of a better message.

Yes, part of the battle is on the ground, for territory, fought with troops and equipment. However, the bigger battle is for hearts and minds, and that has to be fought in mainstream and social media. Ask yourself this: is there is a wordsmith out there to lift our hearts and minds and help us win this battle? There was Churchill in the Second World War, Kennedy in the Cold War; now, we need a new hero.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist with The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.


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