The Chronicle Review

Want to Beat ISIS? Try Poetry and Negotiation

May 20, 2016

ISIS produces a glossy magazine intended to recruit fighters from Western countries.

How should the world respond to ISIS?

Philippe-Joseph Salazar immersed himself in the promotional and theological texts of the Islamic State and emerged with a provocative answer to that question. Salazar, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Cape Town and a former student of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, argues that we should negotiate with ISIS. He also contends that the group’s ability to attract recruits from Europe and the United States highlights a weakness in literary education — that ISIS’s success is, to some degree, a teaching failure.

Salazar spent a year and a half analyzing ISIS propaganda: watching documentaries, scrolling through posts on social media, studying the magazines it publishes in multiple languages. He concludes that ISIS’s appeal is more intellectual than frequently assumed. His book Words Are Weapons: Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror won a top prize in France and has, unsurprisingly, inspired strong reactions in that country and throughout Europe. (It’s been published in Italian and Spanish and will be available in English next year from Yale University Press.) This interview has been edited and condensed.

You’ve praised the oratory and the literary style of the Islamic State, in contrast to the West’s fascination with Facebook and Twitter. But the Islamic State relies on social media for recruitment. Its popular videos, far from being complicated theological explanations, tend to engage in fairly shallow rhetoric — visions of heroism, promises of glory. Is the appeal really as scholarly as you say?

Laurent Viteur, Getty Images
Philippe-Joseph Salazar
The Internet is simply a utensil. What the caliphate has realized — and they’re the first global ideology to do it — is that the utensil can be used to convey different messages. Its propaganda is highly erudite. There’s not a single document, documentary, harangue by a soldier of the caliphate when they kill someone that is not based in the Quran.

But we don’t see it because we don’t know it. And the media and politicians fall back on what they think they know of Islam instead of doing a careful analysis of the content. We’re fooled by the fact that the caliphate uses Twitter, Snapchat, and so on.

You’ve said that if we pay attention to the rhetoric of ISIS that will help us negotiate with its leaders. But how do you negotiate with a group that believes that if you don’t submit to its version of Islam, you deserve to die?

We have reduced the university to getting a job. That's a weakness ISIS has tapped into.
Let me answer your question with another question. Aren’t we talking with Iran? Were we talking with them two years ago? No. Yet Iran is still propagating the strange idea that Israel should be wiped off the surface of the earth. There is a time when you dialogue with the enemy and there is a time when you battle the enemy.

I’m quite convinced that we can strike a deal with the caliphate. I’m thinking of sovereignty and preserving what we’ve got. If the safeguarding of France requires letting go of part of the Middle East and letting it be the caliphate, then that’s what it should be.

We’ve seen that when ISIS forces have free rein over territory, they will kill inhabitants who do not conform to their ideology. How does one reach an agreement with such a group?

The caliphate offers the population in the Middle East a choice. The choice is convert or live in sin — and you don’t want to live in sin. Therefore, you’re going to tell me, it’s a dreadful argument. But it is an argument. The only thing we can do is take it at face value. It is pointless in my view to call it a genocide. Or to call it massacres. It is what it is.

What should we call it then?

It’s a war. It is a true war.

But we don’t usually use the word "war" to refer to the slaughter of civilians. We have other, more specific words.

I quite agree with you. This is what our vocabulary has become. But think of 1945, think of the 12 million Germans who were forcibly transported from east to west with the full knowledge of Churchill and Roosevelt. What’s very interesting with the caliphate is that it’s a return to a situation that existed before. So we should start again using terms that are adequate to the situation. It is a war that they are waging on us, and it’s served with a global instrument which no other global military power had before, which is the Internet.

The caliphate has turned the Internet into this everlasting library that will continue to inspire, teach, give tips on how to conduct your private life, treat your children, what kind of education your children should get, to fabricating bombs and writing speeches. Think of what Marxism could have achieved, which had the same type of following — young, highly erudite, highly literate, the belief that violence is the engine of history. Imagine if Marxism had the Internet at its disposal.

I read a comment by you, referring to the Islamic State, saying "let us not deride it, instead we must take it seriously." Can’t we simultaneously deride it and take it seriously? Why are those in opposition?

In Texas, there was a case of a guy who wanted to join the jihad because it came to him in a dream. In the Islamic tradition, the will of God appears in a dream. But in the media he was derided as a psychotic case. Well, no, it isn’t so. Let’s not laugh at it. Let’s take it very seriously.

You’ve written that what the Islamic State is creating is its own humanities, and that the West needs to strengthen its grounding in the humanities. But what does reading Homer or Thoreau have to do with extremists beheading people in Iraq and Syria? Also, it seems possible to say that what the Islamic State is doing in its propaganda and its philosophy is sophisticated in terms of having a system and a worldview, but is "humanities" the right word? Doesn’t ISIS have more of a persuasive, fundamentalist mission, which seems like the opposite of what we mean when we talk about the mission of the humanities?

What I mean is a culture based on reading complex texts and understanding complex arguments and being able to write complex literature. By "complex" I mean the assemblage of philosophical ideas, poetic ideas, aesthetic ideas, the ability to add beauty to a text. This is what the caliphate is doing. And the only way we respond is by putting out ridiculous counter-messaging videos. This is not the way to combat the caliphate because the fundamental question is, Why don’t we convert to Islam? Why don’t we? Why would it be so scandalous?

Because we believe that we belong to a different culture, that we have a different relationship with the divine, a different relationship to the world, and to nature, and to other human beings. All of that is embodied in our traditions in the West, in the arts, in literature, in philosophy, in the cultivation of history. And this is what I mean by the humanities. Our education has been so reduced that we are unable to summon up the resources to think more profoundly about the challenge of the caliphate.

So you see the root of this as a general decline in what’s taught at colleges and universities?

Yes, of course. I’ve had master’s and doctoral students, and I ask them questions, and I’m stunned to see how little knowledge they have of the history of philosophy, of the history of history.

As you point out, these Western recruits are not all criminals or idiots — they’re well educated and middle class in many cases. But at the same time, you’re pointing to a lack of education as the problem. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Let me imagine this little scene. This young Australian nicknamed Jihadi Jake. He wasn’t popular, as you say in America. Came from a rather rich family. He wasn’t popular because he was a genius at math. This young man kept a diary, and he gave an interview to a newspaper in which he explains how he came to convert himself to Islam and how he offered himself for an attack.

What would have happened if an English teacher had entered into a discussion with this young man? Made him read Thomas Aquinas. Made him read the very first translation of the Quran. Made him aware of how rich the cultures of Christianity and Judaism are, how rich the culture of 18th-century rationalism is. That is, enter a literary dialogue with this young man. I think he wouldn’t have gone.

So you’re saying counter-messaging can’t be this sort of very superficial, talk-the-language-of-the-young, it needs to be a full-fledged response from all parts of our society, our own intellectual traditions, our own religious traditions. That it’s about offering an alternative path.

“Those young men during the Spanish Civil War who went to fight on the Republican side had Virgil, Homer, they had poetry in their pockets.”
I think it will be the job of educational institutions to try to offer up a different version of history, of time, of nature, and more importantly the realization that transcendence, ideals, and self-sacrifice, which are the mainstays of the caliphate ideology, belong to us as well.

We have reduced the university to getting a job. These are the sources which the caliphate has tapped into.

But rebuilding our Western literary tradition wouldn’t seem to have any effect on an Iraqi who is from Kirkuk and wishes not to live under Shia rule. How does your argument deal with that guy?

My argument is that in such a global world you have to cut your losses and choose your enemies and your friends. If an Iraqi wants to go to the caliphate, well, good for him. I don’t see why we should convince an Iraqi to act otherwise. But if a German, French, Briton, or American wants to join the caliphate, I think it’s our duty to counterargue.

In terms of military action, are you in favor of what the U.S. and its allies have been doing on the ground?

Personally, as a Frenchman, I think we should enter in direct negotiation with the caliphate. France has a longstanding interest in North Africa, as you know. We were the colonizing power. We have a long expertise in the field. There is that fallacy that either the West or NATO should do something. No. I think each major country should decide for itself.

I want to make sure I didn’t mishear you. You said France should enter directly into negotiations with the Islamic State?

You’ve dragged me into a political discussion. I don’t mind.

To drag you even further, when you say that France should enter into direct negotiations, it seems like your assumption is that ISIS is willing to negotiate. There’s been zero indication that that’s the case. And negotiation necessarily entails concessions from each side. There’s also zero indication they’re willing to do that.

Are you sure?

Do you have information that says otherwise?

What I’m saying here is that the interests of France in the Middle East are not the same as the interests of, let’s say, Germany or Britain. We have different interests because we have a different type of Muslim population in France.

If I were in diplomatic circles, I would advocate that we strike a deal. That is, you leave us alone, you don’t send partisans into France anymore, you redeploy your parties elsewhere. That won’t be popular. But that is what I believe.

In the United States, what unites both political parties is the goal of defeating ISIS. It seems, though, that you’re not arguing for its defeat.

Since the Vietnam War, in the American psyche, to defeat an enemy is very important for national pride. We have to defeat "x" because they are bad. The populace says "Yes, we must defeat the enemy." It’s a rhetorical ploy used by politicians. For me, the real question is not to defeat ISIS but to understand it so that we manage it, so that we contain it. If you want to defeat the caliphate, you can try, but I think it’s far more clever to try to understand it.

Those words "defeat" and "enemy" have a lot of traction in American political jargon. But they are obfuscating.

So what should we do?

My question is, what have we lost of ourselves to lose them — the 7,000 Westerners [who have joined ISIS]? You do not find, on the other side, the same sense of enthusiasm. We don’t see Britons and Germans forming international brigades to fight the caliphate, to defend the Yazidis and the poor Christians that are being destroyed, and the way the Jewish population has been eradicated from those countries.

We have lost sense of our own roots. Those young men during the Spanish Civil War who went to fight on the Republican side had Virgil, Homer, they had poetry in their pockets. Their humanities enabled them to fight for a noble cause.

Are you imagining that if we still had that tradition, if it was as strong now as it was then, Americans, French, Germans would go to Syria and fight ISIS with pockets filled with poetry?

The reason it’s not happening is because we’ve lost track of what we are. We fell back on the state to take care of all that. So the state manages an army and an air force that bombs from 40,000 feet. We are being managed. We are denied the possibility of living better lives, enthusiastic lives.

How is that congruent with your argument that we should sit down and negotiate with ISIS?

The two relate in a certain way. I would like to see a social movement based in our humanities and our history opposing the caliphate with the same strength as the 7,000 Westerners. I would like to see young men and women defend our values the way that young jihadis defend jihadi values.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle