'Swedes must realize only soft power can defeat radicalism'

  • 20 April 2016

Claims that a suspect in the Brussels terror attacks was 'brainwashed' in Sweden show the importance of soft power in the battle to combat radicalism, argues Abu Dhabi-based scholar and author Dr. Jamal Sanad al-Suwaidi.

The pen is mightier than the sword, the old saying goes. The challenge presented by radical Islamic extremism to the civilized world is one that cannot be defeated solely by military means; it is the nature of such radicalism to metastasize and grow when it is physically attacked.

This is because extremism of this sort is based on the belief that Islam is besieged and persecuted by armies of infidels and it is the duty of “true” Muslims to kill in its defense. The fact that the shocking attacks in Brussels last month came just days after the arrest of one of the planners of the recent Paris attacks demonstrates this martyr effect.

Swedes shouldn’t overlook the significance that one of the suspects in the attacks became radicalized in Malmö. Why were ideas grounded in hate and violence more attractive than the tolerance and understanding typically associated with Swedish values?

One source of strength and strategic advantage among these radicals is in their belief that terrorism is sanctioned by God. This is the great “mirage” of extremism and no amount of military hardware can defeat it.

Rather, extremism must die in the battlefield of ideas.

It lives only so long as there is one more impressionable young person wanting for inspiration and glory. It lives so long as lies about the great faith of Islam and false calls to religious duty can be perpetrated upon them.

It lives so long as we allow it: we authors, teachers, statesmen, athletes, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures – whether from Sweden, Syria, or elsewhere.

This is a war on multiple fronts, and all people of goodwill can play a part. It must begin of course in the Arab and Muslim world, which with few notable exceptions, has until recently been slow to engage. But the entire world is threatened by religious extremism and the entire world must bring it to heel. Isis alone has conducted more than 70 attacks in 20 countries since 2014. Many more countries—including Sweden—are sources of Isis migrants.

Law enforcement and the military alone cannot stem the tide. To choke off the supply of new recruits, we must present a credible alternative to young people. This involves explaining the true calling of Islam, yes. But more challenging, it involves creating new outlets for political expression, religious duty, and achievement among our young.

The outrageous claims, assumptions, and ends of extremists must be challenged and their lies exposed. The UN has a new agency to counter the messages of religious extremism in the media. The UAE has launched a similar, pan-Arab effort. These should be endorsed and coordinated worldwide.

Extremists fish in troubled waters. We must support peace efforts in the Middle East and promote social justice and broadly in the Arab and Muslim world.

In addition, International development agencies – including Sweden’s own Sida – must step up to create opportunities and drain the swamp of economic grievances.

Most importantly, we must promote interfaith tolerance while at the same doing a better job – particularly in Sweden and the rest of the west – of assimilating Muslims into society.

Finally, popular culture can also play a potentially decisive role. We must meet young people where they live and in the mediums that shape their attitudes and behaviors. We must provide them with new heroes – positive, life affirming, and just – to replace the nihilism of extremists.

This latter point is known as “soft” power and it has been overlooked in the tool kit of counter-terrorism.

We have heard time and again that we cannot “kill our way through the problem.” It is an absurd proposition, particularly when in open societies even one suicide bomber can wreak havoc. We are fighting for hearts and minds and this is ultimately a qualitative, not a quantitative effort.

Governments are not best equipped to lead this battle. Ordinary citizens such as artists, teachers, and religious figures are. Only they are capable of affecting the kind of widespread social effects needed to change attitudes and behaviors among our young.

Governments can of course support these efforts through tax incentives, funding, and communications networks. But at the end of the day it must be a peer-to-peer dialogue.

I am not so naïve to suggest that we are not at war. We are.

But the poet and priest are as able to take up arms – their moral authority – as any soldier. To drain the swamp of terrorism, we must come up with a vision that is more compelling than the one which drives our young to death and destruction.

This article was written by Dr. Jamal Sanad al-Suwaidi, Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) based in Abu Dhabi. He is the author of numerous publications and books including "The Mirage" which discusses the challenges of religious extremism and seeks to offer a way forward for communities worldwide.