Middle East

The United States Needs a Better Communications Strategy to Defeat ISIL


The debate over what to call the Islamic State (ISIL) reemerged full force following recent attacks inspired by the group in a number of Western countries.

Some argue that the West is at war with radical Islam, while others say that ISIL’s ideology is a perversion of Islam and argue that jihadism is the real threat. This debate, which focuses on appealing to domestic constituencies rather than foreign audiences, is not new. U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama took almost opposite approaches in the way they communicated about the fight against extremist groups, namely al-Qaeda and ISIL. While Bush spoke of a crusade and a war against terror, Obama called for a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim world. However, despite their different communications strategies, favorable perceptions of the United States in much of the Arab and Muslim world declined during both presidencies.

Rather than focus on inflammatory rhetoric that speaks to domestic audiences, presidential candidates should look to the environment from which ISIL emerged. Opinion polls have found that most respondents in the Arab world have negative views of ISIL. Even in countries where there has been a lack of support for U.S. foreign policy, there exists a majority that supports U.S. military action against ISIL. Rather than anger towards the United States or the West, a fundamental failure of governance is to blame for the spread of religious extremism. Instead of focusing on how to label ISIL, U.S. leaders should look to communicate effectively with the Arab and Muslim world in an honest–not combative or platitudinous–way, and build a better sociological understanding of ISIL recruiting and the drivers behind ISIL defections in order to inform demobilization efforts.

The above is a summary of a piece originally published in USAToday. To read the full piece visit “To win terror war, we have to talk to Muslims.”


Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a member of YPFP’s Middle East and Human Rights Discussion Groups. This article was coauthored with Oleg Svet, a security analyst at Group W, and Scott Kleinmann, a senior research associate in the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University.

Image credit: “Prague prays for Paris” (Bianca Dagheti/Flickr).

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