Islamism as a story.

The current theater of operations for ISIS lies in the midst of ancient and modern historical places. On the one hand, Tel Megiddo, in northern Israel, is the place identified with Armageddon in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Farther north, in Syria, Dabiq appears in the Hadith as the name of a village where a final confrontation between the armies of Islam and Christendom will fight to a decision. Dabiq is near the Syrian-Turkish border. In Summer 2014 it fell to the ISIS forces. In July 2014, during its own “surge” in Iraq, ISIS began publishing an on-line magazine called “Dabiq.”

On the other hand, it is commonplace for people in the Arab states to explain the decline from earlier Muslim power and prosperity by blaming Western intervention and exploitation.[1] Islamists extend this narrative. Islamists celebrate the breaking of the grip of the Byzantine Empire on Syria and Palestine, and the conquest of “al-Andalus” in the in the 7th and 8th Centuries. The Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates are held up as the ideal for what the Islamists hope to create. Similarly, the Medieval Crusaders are analogized to contemporary Western states.

The American invasions of Afghanistan in 2011 and of Iraq in 2003 certainly gave the proponents of this view a lot of material with which to work. Young Islamists have mastered modern social media just as well as have young non-Islamists, along with young everyone else. Al Qaeda led the way by launching a media campaign: audio cassettes, DVDs, and Internet forums preached the Islamist interpretation.

Recognizing that people like Anwar al-Awlaki[2] had played a role in fomenting and recruiting for terrorism, in 2011 the United States Department of State created a Center for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications (CSCC). One chief function of the CSCC is to engage in on-line debate with Islamists. The goal here is to dissuade young people from supporting or joining Islamist groups.[3] The CSCC has a Digital Outreach Team with members working in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Somali, and English.

The means to the goal is to propose a different narrative of history than the one upheld by many Muslims. The CSCC’s counter-narrative focuses on recent history, rather than on a more remote past. It emphasizes the tolerance of pre-Islamist Muslim society. This view clashes with both the restriction imposed under the Islamists’ version of sharia and the brutality with which it is enforced.

The question–not much addressed by Western scholars or journalists or counter-propagandists–is why the messages of either an “End of Days” or a revival of the Caliphate appeals so strongly to thousands of young Muslims. What are they missing about motivation?


Shatha Almutawa, “Historical Narrative in American Counterterrorism Operations,” American Historical Association, Perspectives, September 2014, pp. 12-13.

Noor Malas, “Ancient Prophecies Motivate Islamic State,” WSJ, 19 November 2014.

[1] This explanation ignores the pervasive weaknesses of Medieval Arab society that exposed the region to conquest by successive waves of Muslim Turkish tribesmen, followed by the long decline caused by the decay of the Ottoman Empire. Western imperialism had a much briefer period of influence. Not all of those influences were negative. However, the performance of the post-independence Arab states contrasts badly with those of other “developing” societies.

[2] See: “Just like imam used to make.”

[3] One might be forgiven for believing that another purpose is to draw them out so that their other communications can be tracked by the NSA. I’m all for it, but it could lead to “getting flamed” for some hasty remark—by a drone.

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