In an interview this Tuesday on French television, President Obama talked, unsurprisingly, about ISIS. But what he said was surprisingly interesting — and proved the president understands the sources of ISIS's strength a lot better than many of his critics.
These lines in particular struck me:
I hope that young people understand that although there is violence and conflict, the world is full of hope and good people...
Regardless of your religious faith, the essence of a good life is not what you can destroy but what you can build...
When you look at what's happened with [ISIS], it finds appeal among people who are often isolated. People who feel displaced, alone, this gives them to attach themselves to, besides the fact that it's a cult of death.
It's this need for meaning, much more so than commonly blamed factors like poverty or Islam, that attracts a lot of young people to extremist groups. And understanding this basic point is absolutely critical to dealing with ISIS and jihadist ideology in general.
What ISIS recruits want
ISIS recruits, in particular those from Western countries, come from all different backgrounds: income level, employment status, level of education, religious piety — none of these factors seems to explain why a young person becomes attracted to ISIS's ideology. As I've explained before, there is no standard path to radicalization, and identifying common underlying "root causes" of radicalization is incredibly difficult.
But one thing that is pretty consistent among ISIS recruits — particularly the people in their late teens to early 20s who make up the bulk of the group's Western recruits — is a desire to do something important. To do something that matters. To belong to a cause bigger than yourself. To connect.
Teenage angst, isolation, and insecurity are powerful things. And tapping into them is a time-honored marketing strategy. It's how the Cure sold so many records. It's how Axe body spray sells its products. And it's how ISIS recruits.
ISIS propaganda hits on all cylinders, appealing to a variety of motivations: anger, hatred, fear, sexual desire, bloodlust, adventure, religious devotion. But a big part of its lure is that it offers simple answers to the questions all young people struggle with.
As Arab democracy activist Iyad el-Baghdadi explained in my recent interview with him:
When you talk to them [young people attracted to ISIS's ideology], there are many themes. There are themes of heroism, meaning, belonging, forgiveness, feeling like they have a purpose, feeling like they belong to something bigger than themselves. All of these are things that any young person goes through. It's just that they're finding the wrong answers. The people that are giving them the answers are basically the wrong people, the worst people.
So Obama gets it — but does that even matter?
Obama's comments in France, to a remarkable degree, exemplified this understanding of ISIS's attraction. But how much does that matter? Are the would-be jihadists listening? Do they care what Obama has to say?
Sadly, the answer in most cases is probably no — nothing Obama says is likely to change the mind of someone who is already headed down the path to radicalization. And his call to live a good life and focus on changing the world by doing something positive and building rather than destroying?
That's what these recruits think they're doing by joining ISIS.
They're changing the world by building a caliphate based on the enlightened principles of Islam — or at least that's what their ISIS recruiters have made them believe. They've warped them into thinking that raping, pillaging, and beheading to spread a vile, perverted, barbaric vision of Islam is somehow good for humanity.
But Obama's message still has value in that it communicates to the world — and to parents, religious leaders, and governments — that we have to move beyond simply bombing and condemning ISIS and its ideology and actually offer alternatives.
In addition to bombing ISIS, we need to give frustrated, isolated young people outlets to express their views and real, concrete ways to make a positive impact on their communities. Without such alternatives, ISIS will continue to draw people to its dark vision. But generating those alternatives is a lot harder to do, in concrete policy terms, than it sounds in the abstract.
Which means that for all of Obama's nice rhetoric, it's not obvious what he can do to act on it.