The myth of Islamic State's executioner is a reminder that it is important to extinguish the root causes of extremismby Maajid Nawaz / February 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
There may be some initial relief in knowing the brutal Islamic State killer we have seen in the media, responsible for the gruesome beheadings of a number of Westerners, has been identified as Mohammed Emwazi, a Londoner of Kuwaiti origin. But perhaps the biggest and more sobering surprise in the identification of the notorious IS frontman, is that he isn’t a person at all.
So who and what is he?
Emwazi may be the man who followed the jihadist ideology that led him to join IS, but Jihadi John is much bigger and more powerful than that. He’s a bogeyman, created by IS’s propaganda machine to generate fear and fuel their fight towards the achievement of a utopian Islamist state or “caliphate.” Jihadi John is a symbol of the extremist Islamist ideology that underpins this increasingly slick organisation. So, what happens now? “Hunt and kill Jihadi John,” some might say. It’s true, he has committed some heinous crimes. But how can you kill a brand? Killing Osama Bin Laden certainly didn’t end al Qaeda–style Salafi-jihadism.
Tackling the real issue requires fundamental societal changes to dissipate the extremist Islamist ideology that underpins the brand of Jihadi John, and the circumstances that allow radicalisation of young Muslims to happen in the first place. This needs to happen more urgently than ever, with methods such as internet recruiting of Jihadists making young people easier to access than ever with extremist messages. In a survey conducted by the BBC yesterday, an alarming 11 per cent of British Muslims are reported to feel sympathy for people who want to fight against Western interests.
The key area of focus needs to be in a civil society response to tackle this ideology which is driving vulnerable people to join Islamist groups. People with real or perceived grievances, maybe around the impact of western foreign policy, or personal grievances such as racism, are exposed to charismatic recruiters who exploit them emotionally and push them down the radicalisation rabbit hole. In the case of the brand of Jihadi John, this may be to extoll the celebrity status and “bravery” that fighting for the caliphate against the West will afford them. As corporate marketing experts will know, branding is a powerful tool that appeals to the emotions and is designed to impact people’s emotions and behaviour.
IS has been operating increasingly as a corporate entity making use of social media to target and indoctrinate new recruits. Though protection from terrorism, via the police and security services is important, preventing the spread of extremist narrative should be the key focus of any government and civil society approach so that extremists are not created in the first place.
We need to gain a much deeper understanding of how extremism takes root and spreads. At the same time a focus on educating frontline public servants—such as teachers and health professionals—is important so that they understand the risks posed by extremism and how to take action against it. Values such as freedom, tolerance of others and democracy need to be asserted. Resilience needs to be built at community level, with support given to faith groups to help with social integration.
These measures should greatly reduce the existence of extremism and in the nearer future, at least give potential recruits to extremist groups, such as Mohammed Emwazi was, the clarity of vision to say “no.” The myth of Jihadi John is a reminder that it is more important than ever to extinguish the root causes that fan the flames of extremist organisations such as IS and their dangerous marketing campaigns.