THE BLOG
12/31/2014 11:54 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

A Smarter Strategy Against Jihadists and the Lone Wolves They Inspire

The caliphates of Muslim antiquity that ISIS and other Jihadist groups hope to restore could not have been more different than their self-appointed Jihadist successors of today. The former were devoted to this world, to promoting exchange, diversity, and understanding. Their leaders were not democrats, but they believed in restoring and proliferating knowledge, whatever its origins. They competed to build schools and communities, not tear them down.

Today, the caliphate in Nigeria attacks schools and kidnaps young girls. The caliphate in Iraq and Syria rounds up religious minorities and gives them a stark choice between death and conversion. The Taliban fighters of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" survive on extortion of the local population and the opium trade. Its sister organization in Pakistan recently butchered 132 school children in Peshawar. And the list goes on. Libya. Mali. Somalia. Yemen. The Caucasus. Are these functioning regimes or merely ruthless gangs competing to top the next news cycle with their brutality? We know that one thing unites them: they appropriate the symbolism and history of Islam to provide the legitimacy and allegiance they require to grow and attract followers. We also know their common ambition: to establish territorial states that emulate the caliphates of the first years of Islam in the 7th century. But do these movements truly represent the Islamic tradition they seek to reestablish?

Let's look at the history, un-sanitized by selective memories and political agendas. In my historical novel, God's Banquet: A Tale of Muslim Spain, I look at one of these medieval caliphates, but during the Golden Age of Islam there were many of them, first in Arabia, then Syria, and later in Egypt, Iraq and Spain. Like the caliphates of today, they also competed for allegiance and legitimacy within the broader Muslim world, each claiming they were the rightful heirs to the Prophet Muhammad's ideal community. Here, however, we should remind ourselves, and the rest of the world, that the nature of that competition was quite different. Beheadings, forced conversion and marriage, and ethnic cleansing were not points of pride for these medieval Muslim rulers. On the contrary, at a time when Europe was butchering minorities such as the Jews, the caliphates were welcoming them and allowing them to worship freely and govern themselves. At this time, Muslim civilization was a far more diverse global society than the western world, relying on a mosaic of inter-faith trading communities embedded in cosmopolitan cities to fuel a vast trade in material wealth and science across three continents.

It was this emporium and the prosperity it created that spawned the translation movement that began in Baghdad's House of Wisdom in the 9th century. Ancient texts of Greek, Indian and Persian science and philosophy were preserved and traded as luxury goods, eventually making their way to Europe to germinate the seeds of our own Enlightenment. Muslim rulers competed to build the largest libraries, endow astronomers to comb the skies and physicians to study the human body, leading to the first hospitals and the Arabic names we still use today for the stars that litter our horizon. Muslim cities vied to host literary salons convening the greatest poets and mystics of both sexes, lubricated by so much wine that an entire class of poetry was named after the drink. Innovation flourished and our concepts of the algorithm, trade finance, and the very numeric system we use today were born.

We could continue to fight the Islamic franchises of today wherever they appear across a large swath of Muslim lands in turmoil stretching from Morocco to China. Given the spiraling cost and limited success of our experience over the past decade, this seems like a one-dimensional strategy. Even if we completely destroy all of them, their ideology will live on, inspiring lone-wolf attacks such as the recent mass casualty incidents in France and the Sydney café hostage stand off. It's not enough to disable their physical infrastructure and capabilities. We must neutralize the ideas that underpin their legitimacy and recruiting.

A smarter strategy would exploit a key weakness: the complete disconnect between the Islamic past Jihadists invoke and the bloodthirsty, closed societies they have created. This is the authentic counter-narrative that should be amplified across digital channels like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that until now have been used against us to recruit Jihadist sympathizers. These conduits work both ways, and perhaps it is time to fully harness them and redirect our own unparalleled openness back at our adversaries. A reminder of the real history of Islam and how different it was from today's Caliphal pretenders will resonate with a billion Muslims across the globe, because it is their own history. Strip away the Islamic veneer and all you have is gangs. Criminal gangs.

Despite the clear cost-benefit of this strategy, it will be a challenge to implement. It takes time and patience to change minds, something that is in short supply in the halls of power today. It is far easier for a leader to appear strong with the immediate results of a drone strike, or for a congressman to reward his district with a costly weapons program that does little to address the real problem. How can a fully organic communications strategy that harnesses the local history and culture of the target population against our enemies compete? Like our adversaries, it is often far easier for us to destroy than to be patient and build.