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Kill the Brand First

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Cameron Kamran
SYRIA UN © shutterstock SYRIA UN

As the Syrian civil war intensifies with Russia's violent entry and the Arab heartland begins to empty out and stream westward, there is only more pressure for Western leaders to do something. But how will fifty US special operations soldiers, however motivated and capable, tip the balance in Syria when 160,000 US soldiers could not in Iraq?
Syria's and indeed the entire region's problems are generational, unfolding over decades of poor governance and virulent identity politics. Short-term policy fixes -- whether airstrikes against extremists or border fences against refugees -- attack symptoms, not root causes. They may convince a body politic that a politician is not weak or indecisive, but they will not provide an enduring solution to the problem. Munitions cannot rebuild a shattered land and provide stability and opportunity for its peoples. They cannot heal an Arab Muslim psyche badly battered by seven centuries of civilizational decline and the rise of an insidious form of Islamic puritanism.
Similarly, higher walls will not protect Europe from the tide of migrants destined to remake its societies, or from the demons of its own illiberal past, re-fashioned into new anti-immigrant movements. Even if and when the Islamic State is defeated on the battlefield, what new extremist group will take its place in a hollowed out, destitute Syria and Iraq, as has happened time and again in recent history? When will we begin to devote the same energy and resources to attacking the ideas that make up the many brands of violent extremism? It is these ideas-- not men, material or territory-- that drive the longevity and appeal of these movements.
A long term solution involves both Europeans and Arabs re-imagining their traditions to bridge divides, both between each other and within their respective civilizations. Fortunately, all they both need is contained in their own shared history, if only both peoples would muster the courage to remember it. Moreover, that shared history is also an authentic counter-narrative against the prevailing brands of Islamic extremism today, wherever they may be.
The Islamic State and other extremists invoke the symbolism and history of Islam to provide the legitimacy and allegiance they require to grow and attract followers. Military engagement and tightening European border controls only serves to feed the beast-- reinforcing the extremist narrative that the West and Islam are in a state of permanent religious warfare, driving more disaffected Muslim youth into their ranks.
But the extremist version of Islamic history rests on a hollow edifice. It has conveniently sanitized the authentic history of the Muslim and Mediterranean worlds and their deep connection to one another. The many caliphates of the golden age of Islam stretched from Central Asia to the heart of Europe. As I detail in my historical novel, God's Banquet, A Tale of Muslim Spain, the first Muslim conquerors in 8th century Spain asked if they could share the Church of St. Vincent in Cordoba with their Christian subjects. For some time, both Christians and Muslims prayed in the same temple, until the church was bought outright and converted by the Emir Abdel Rahman into the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The Emir and his brethren brought with them to Europe a medieval Muslim tradition of pluralism from their forefathers, the first Sunni Caliphs of Syria, who had also worshipped alongside Christians in the basilica of John the Baptist in Damascus.
Abdel Rahman consolidated his rule in Spain, inviting the Christians to rebuild their churches, and the Jews to flourish under Muslim rule as statesmen, business leaders, poets and philosophers. After all, Muhammad had come, like Jesus before him, as a prophet to renew God's message. And the Jews were descendant from Abraham's son Isaac, the half-brother of Ishmael, the father of the Arabs. The vast material and scientific wealth of Islamic civilization flowed west through Muslim Spain, where the greatest libraries (particularly for secular knowledge), the most sophisticated hospitals, and the largest mixing of peoples and goods from three continents-- Africa, Asia and Europe-- were found. Ancient texts of Greek, Indian and Persian science and philosophy were preserved and traded as luxury goods, eventually germinating the seeds of European enlightenment. Women poets and mystics were not unheard of, and scientific innovation flourished, giving birth to our concepts of the algorithm, trade finance, and the very numeric system we use today.
In the next 15 years, the global Muslim population is expected to rise to over 2 billion, a full quarter of all humanity. Over 50% of this population will be under 30 with larger and larger communities residing in an aging Europe. As nations crumble in the Middle East, Muslim youth search for identity and belonging, and it often comes down to a stark choice between foreign imports and past traditions warped by extremist strains. They need something that speaks to their authentic past, but allows them to step into the future. All of this is contained in the storied history of the caliphates of Muslim antiquity that stretched at their height into the heart of Europe, a history that could not have been more different than the jihadist states that ISIS and others hope to restore.
Both Europeans and Muslims must embrace this shared past as a template for co-existence as well as an effective counter-narrative against the bloodthirsty, closed societies the Jihadists have created. It's not enough to disable the Islamic State's physical infrastructure and capabilities. We must neutralize the ideas that underpin their legitimacy and recruiting. We must kill the brand.

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