In that wide swath of land that straddles the border between Iraq and Syria, some 31,000 jihadists are fighting under the black banner of the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Some 15,000 of them are foreign fighters from 80 countries, mostly European. As of early this year, they included some 200 Malaysians, 100 Indonesians and dozens of Filipinos.
These are estimates, of course, but there’s little disagreement on their accuracy, give or take a few hundreds. Give or take a few scores, in the case of the Southeast Asian fighters.
Most of them are young, some with a bright future ahead of them. In spite of air strikes by the US-led coalition that kill hundreds of them in a single sortie, they increase in number every day. In the United Kingdom alone, as many as five young Muslims leave everyday to go Syria and fight under the black banner.
In Indonesia, authorities say they’re disrupting the travel plans of would-be IS jihadists. They’re choking the flow of terrorist funds. Yet there’s reportage that some militant factions have sworn allegiance to the IS.
What makes the so-called Islamic State, a blood-drenched mockery of a caliphate, such a strong magnet to idealistic young fighters?
There are the usual suspects: the collective memory of the humiliation that Muslims have suffered in the hands Western colonizers in centuries past, the sense of injustice and the discrimination that Muslims are enduring today in the Western world. The persecution of the Palestinian people, which up to this day stirs deadly resentment all over the Muslim world. The roughness of border guards, the indignities inflicted by security personnel. And the need for a sense of identity that can only be satisfied by belonging to a mighty and overwhelming movement.
But why the Islamic State particularly and not the rest of the jihadist groups? Maybe it’s because the IS has cultivated an image of itself as effective, disciplined, committed and marching inexorably toward world conquest. Through sophisticated use of social media and dramatic show of cruelty, it has created a bandwagon effect that attracts not only new recruits from around the world but also defectors from the other jihadist groups already fighting in Iraq and Syria.
The explosive violence of the IS has imbued it with the seductiveness of pornography. It offers to the would-be jihadists the ultimate worldly adventure: the license to indulge in an orgy of carnage and, at least in the case of the male fighters, to wallow in sexual promiscuity with divine permission.
It also offers the ultimate impunity: the jihadist killed in battle goes straight to heaven to enjoy the ministrations of 72 voluptuous virgins. What’s there on social media today that can beat that promise?
The IS may never be defeated until there’s an effective counter-message to its siren song. That message can’t come from the West. It must burst from within Islam, and ride on the voices of decent Muslims everywhere. It would be a pale and futile message if it only said, “Don’t go to Syria.”
It must therefore be a recruiting message. A clarion call to an activity, a movement that requires a new kind of Muslim heroism. Perhaps community work for the poor? A Muslim Peace Corps? But the message must match the sophistication and passion of IS propaganda.
In Indonesia and other Asian countries today, there’s talk of Meaningful Broadband, a program that would bring the force of the Internet into the service of development. There’s nothing more meaningful that broadband can carry than one that’ll reach out to the hearts and minds of the Muslim youth.
It’ll take a great deal of resources, organization and sophistication. And a constructive alternative to fighting in Syria. It’ll take these to drown out the siren song.