Why you should care

In the fight against Islamic State militants, the ability to combat ideological narratives may be more crucial than any targeted airstrike.

Keeping clergy in line can be tricky, even when the state employs them. So every week, Jordanian agents are dispatched to the country’s mosques to hear the Friday sermon, wearing “plainclothes” so as not to overtly discredit the imam. But should the imam say the wrong thing, the agent reports him directly to the Office of Mosque Surveillance, an Orwellian-sounding institution that officials say is key to the fight against Islamic extremism.

“Killing every single extremist is not an option,” says Marwan Shehade, an Amman-based expert on Salafism. “What we really need is to weaken their ideology.”

The little Hashemite kingdom of Jordan is at ideological war, its officials say. It’s not just surveillance. The government is looking to implement a national anti-extremism policy and has enlisted leading scholars from around the world to refute the Islamic State’s religious arguments and define “moderate Islam.” (“Most people who speak about jihad don’t understand what it means,” says Amer Al Hafi, of Jordan’s Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies.) Hayel Dawood, the portly minister of Muslim Affairs, is meeting with all of the 5,500 imams employed by the ministry to review guidelines for “moderate” preaching and suggested sermon topics. Most controversially, an anti-terrorism law has been broadened to include “terrorism-inciting speech”; almost every day since, local headlines have announced such arrests and charges.

Human rights concerns aside, fighting a narrative is not easy.

Jordan has long been a bastion of stability in a tumultuous region and a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State — its ruler, King Abdullah, has said Islam’s “war between moderation and extremism” is unprecedented. But the rise of Islamic extremism has put it on the edge. The Islamic State is gaining territory in neighboring Iraq and Syria, and hundreds of Jordanians have already joined its ranks. And ordinary Jordanians don’t seem particularly engaged in the fight against terrorists. One survey indicates that a substantial proportion of the population doesn’t even consider the Islamic State a terrorist organization.

Jordan has plenty of practice in propaganda: It is a monarchy, and has never tolerated criticism of its ruler. Imams, for instance, are state employees who receive their wages from the state, says Dawood: “There are consequences if they don’t do their jobs.” Human rights concerns aside — they are many, and serious — fighting a narrative is not easy. It can be hard to extinguish ideas, and driving them underground can only make them more alluring.

For instance, telling imams to toe the government line “will only decrease their authority in the eyes of the radicals that see them as government mouthpieces,” warns Joas Wagemakers, an expert in Jihadi Salafism and professor at Netherland’s Radboud University. Given the tight surveillance, extremists are likely to try to shift their strategy, spreading their message at gatherings such as weddings, funerals or Eid festivities. And online.

Defense lawyers say that many of the recent arrests have come from online postings on Facebook or Twitter, in which Jordanians express some sympathy with the Islamic State’s political aims, like a caliphate, but wouldn’t join. “But if you put this person in jail for five years, you can be sure he will later,” says Shehade. Government officials say silencing Islamic State supporters by force is a last resort. And yet the alternative strategy, an open and trusting dialogue with the nation’s most extreme Salafi jihadists, appears to be too much of a risk.

View from Jebel Amman to the Citadel

View from Jabal Amman to the Citadel in Jordan.

At any rate, some believe bickering over interpretations of the Quran won’t stem the jihadi tide because terrorists are not motivated by ideology anyway. (Recent reports that some Islamic State recruits buy books like Islam for Dummies suggest that at least some of the fighters aren’t religious zealots.) Suleiman Bakhit, a social entrepreneur and son of the country’s two-time Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, has an alternate theory, based on “collective shame in the Arab world,” which the Islamic State redeems by giving members a “sense of purpose and virtue.” His solution? To create comic books designed to hijack this formula and provide children with healthier alternative “hero journeys,” promoting positive role models and a nonviolent approach to dealing with the feelings of private and collective shame.

His latest comic book hero is “Element Zero,” an Arab Jack Bauer who fights — you guessed it — jihadi terrorists.

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