The 14th installment of ISIS’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, devoted comparatively little space to celebrating recent bombings in Brussels, dedicating less than two pages to eulogizing suicide bombers Najim Laachraoui, Khalid el-Bakraoui, and Ismail el-Bakraoui.
Instead, ISIS devoted significantly more editorial space working to undermine international counter-narratives. The group named, disparaged and issued a hit list on well-known Western Muslim scholars and personalities in an obvious effort to intimidate them into silence. Targeted by ISIS were American cleric Hamza Yusuf, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, diplomat Rashad Hussain, and others.
It’s a desperate move for ISIS. The group has engaged in takedowns before, often through proxies, and on informal channels like Twitter. Rarely, however, has ISIS used its formal platform to so systematically insult Western clerics. The move speaks to ISIS’s growing anxiety over recent battlefield setbacks and cracks in its own messaging. Most usefully, however, it signals the efficacy of authentic counter-narratives in combating ISIS’s perverse theological worldview.
Scholars who speak up universally against violent extremism, like some of those listed, deserve the endorsement of the international community. Just as the world spoke up to defend free speech in Paris, we should now speak up to protect the rights of these clerics who stand up against ISIS’s corrosive message of hate and violence.
Others named in Dabiq, however, teeter on the edge of legitimacy, perhaps filling the niche role by which ISIS feels most threatened. Indeed, of the 21 clerics listed, several have themselves espoused extremist and violent views not entirely at odds with ISIS’s messaging. At least one cleric has been banned from both Australia and the United Kingdom. Another has endorsed suicide bombings against Israelis.
While those listed span a range of ideologies and worldviews, each serves to defy ISIS’s claim that it is the legitimate and unifying movement for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Grassroots support for these targeted individuals and others serve to undermine ISIS’s message with their words and their existence, and speak to the power of community-based efforts to counter violent extremism.
These clerics are not alone. Young activists are, and for a long time have been, speaking out against ISIS’s messages. The myth that ISIS represents anything other than a violent fraction of the world’s Muslims is dangerous, harmful and — as ISIS revealed through its defensive response in Dabiq — patently untrue. As individuals, particularly youth activists, speak out and engage their communities to challenge violent extremism, they deserve the international community’s support and endorsement.
When ISIS spoke for them, they felt the need to say, “Not in Our Name.” To ISIS’s kill list, to its threats of violence and intimidation, let us respond: Not on Our Watch. Not on our watch will we allow ISIS to intimidate activists and dissidents into silence.