By: Anne-Marie Balbi
This publication first appeared in The Interpreter, Lowy Institute of International Policy on 17 March 2016.
In light of recent terror attacks in Israel it is hard not to reflect upon the narrative that must be influencing them. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is understandably part of that discourse, but so is the role of ISIS propaganda. The widespread narrative that the group promotes is undoubtedly fuelling existing conflicts and polarisation in the region. This poses the question of how to deal with that narrative.
Counter-narratives — a notion currently often spoken about but with few providing actual substance — have become a vital part of the response that is now referred to as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). These soft counter-terrorism approaches using counter-narratives, or counter-messaging, are being rolled out around the world. They have been adopted in a bid to curb the use of violent extremism, not least in the context of the ISIS propaganda that is centred around three key narratives of persecution, utopianism and brutality.
A recent UK report, tasked with investigating the effectiveness of counter-narratives, challenged their usefulness. This, however, should not discourage CVE approaches from future efforts, particularly since the whole concept of CVE is still in its early stages. It is important though to view counter-narratives as part of a larger project of reinstating and reiterating norms. Normative barriers, identified by counter-terrorism experts as the key factor that stops people harming others, or carrying out other acts of violence, even though they may hold grievances, have obviously eroded. This becomes evident in the recent highlighting of the role of social institutions such as schools and families in CVE.
However these institutions in and of themselves can only be expected to achieve so much. In liberal democracies they must be complemented by politicians who engage in reasoned discourse. A world where so many subscribe to the ideas of ISIS (which is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people) and Donald Trump (who encourages a scapegoating of particular ethnic and religious groups), begs the question: where did it all go wrong? Have Western liberal democracies failed to demonstrate they are the best political system available?
The success of a ‘self-made-billionaire’ such as Trump (who has built on inherited wealth) shows the role of the narrative should not be underestimated. In a world currently characterised by international unease and economic dislocation it becomes easy to play on people’s fears and discontent while undermining those social institutions that have been upholding the norms.
Let’s not forget that Trump’s success has been enabled by the polarisation that has increasingly characterised American politics in recent decades, and has been encouraged by Republican campaign strategists in particular. As a Swedish editor was recently quoted as saying, ‘even if Donald Trump is defeated in the election, his success should propel a self-critical discussion about the healthiness of our democracies.’ The first half of the 20th century is a reminder of the self-destructive tendencies that liberal democracies are capable of.In a recent visit to Australia, the British actor and comedian John Cleese, when asked about the US election, gave an answer in keeping with the politically incorrect style so celebrated by Trump. Cleese said: ‘Democracy basically depends on having a reasonably well-informed, reasonably intelligent electorate — and we don’t have one — so what next?’
It appears clear that, at a time when people are bombarded by ideas, information and disinformation —thanks to the information technologies and communication networks of a globalised world — those who yell loudest (not necessarily with substantial content) are the winners. The fact that politics and terrorism is becoming even more complex means liberal democracies can no longer just go about business as usual. After all, as Foucault — the father of discourse himself — stated, ‘discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized’.