Teshuva, Tefilah, Tzedaka...and ISIS

Many comments out there suggest that the U.S. brought ISIS on itself because of its own behavior in the Middle East. Of course, nobody deserves terrorism. But there is no doubt that our actions have contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves. 
So from a spiritual perspective we have debts to pay, and either we will pay them the harsh way or through a combination of lesser suffering and G-d's mercy. It all depends on how we understand the problem, and what we do in response. If it seems like a contradiction to say "it's not our fault" but "it is our fault" there are a few parallels in the Bible that illustrate. 1) The mistreatment of Hagar, mother of Yishmael, forefather of the Muslim people. At first Abraham's wife, Sarah, tells him to sleep with her so that he will bear children. Then Sarah feels threatened when she has a son with Abraham, Isaac. She doesn't like Ishmael's behavior, she doesn't want him around and she gets Abraham to send him and Hagar away. From a Jewish point of view, that was all meant to be but from a reality point of view it's pretty shitty and disrespectful treatment at best. Humiliating really. And it created a Karmic debt that haunts the Jewish people to this day. 2) The incident where Jacob, prompted by his mother Rivkah, tricks his father Isaac into giving him the birthright blessing. Rivkah knew that Esau shouldn't have it, since he was not spiritual enough and preferred instead the pleasures of hunting and killing in the field. There's no convincing Isaac. So she gets Jacob to put on Esau's clothes and pretend. He gets the blessing he is supposed to get, but Esau is cheated nevertheless and vows to get his revenge. Jacob hears that his brother is coming after him, and the Bible says that he was afraid - because he knew he was not blameless. 3) Joseph's mistreatment of his brothers in Egypt. In this week's Torah reading, Joseph's brothers (who had previously sold him into slavery) come down to Egypt where he is now second only to Pharoah in power. When things go badly for the brothers - Joseph purposely gets them into trouble, takes one of them hostage and sends them back to fetch their beloved youngest brothers - the Bible recounts their awareness that the sin of the past directly caused the troubles of the present. Again, everyone is responsible for their own actions, and no rationale on earth excuses ISIS or any terrorist. But at the same time, Jews and many others know that karma can truly be a bitch. If we thought something evil about someone else, if we underhandedly tried to hurt them, if we aggressed and hid it, etc. etc. - we will be made to pay, even if they deserved it. "It takes two to tango," most of the time. Jews understand this and we do not rely on our own merits to get us out of a bad situation. Nor do we count on worldly things, like military might alone. Instead we say - "Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harsh decree." Since we are in a war with terrorists whose declared intention is to kill us, maybe it is time to start fighting spiritually and not just physically: 1) Repentance means being sorry for what we did, admitting what we did, and resolving never to do it again. I'll leave it to others to articulate better than I can the various ways we have caused harm to Muslims and pushed them in the direction of extremism. (Again, we aren't blaming ourselves for the entire historical development of Arab nationalism - only taking responsibility for our part in fueling the growth of radical Islamic terrorism). One thing that comes immediately to mind, though, is the relative silence about civilian deaths on "their" side. 2) Prayer means recognizing that there is a Power above us - WHATEVER YOU CALL IT - that created the world, sustains it and makes decisions about which way things will go. It doesn't mean PERSECUTING people who do not share this belief, but it does mean empowering those who have it and making it politically correct again to actually pray to G-d for help. Since by natural means it is a very bad idea to assume that you are "better" or "more deserving" than anyone. 3) Charity is about taking material things that you have and giving them to somebody else in need. I heard a sermon in synagogue today about the tendency of people to be jealous of others' success, rather than wishing them well, because we think that everything is up for grabs. The truth is that G-d has granted you whatever you have, you only think that YOU have earned it, but in fact the entire thing is a blessing from Heavenly channels. Giving of yourself to others, whether through money or service, is a way of acknowledging that you don't win by acquiring but rather by emulating the ultimate giver of all things, which is G-d. All in all I think the fatal flaw of any military strategy is to assume that it's the strategy alone that wins. In reality it's the One above that makes the decision beforehand. All you can do is try your best and prepare spiritually, knowing all the while who's really got the power. This is also why hating on Muslims or any religious or ethnic or cultural group is stupid. G-d made all of us equally with love...is there anybody with a serious, thinking, critical brain who thinks that one kind of spirituality is actually "better" than another? It is further why pretending that we aren't at war is stupid too. You have to face the facts without emotion or distortion. "They" have their reasons and they have a plan as well. To put blinders on and insist that fighting back is a form of hatred is tantamount to collective suicide. May G-d have mercy on all of our souls and give us the strength we need to defend ourselves against those who want to kill us, without losing our sense of perspective or humanity.
All opinions my own. Photo by Leland Francisco via Flickr (Creative Commons).

We’re Losing The Brand War Against ISIS. Here’s Why.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War (513 BC)

Defeating ISIS messaging should be a piece of cake — right?

After all, as everybody knows, “they’re a bunch of loony radicals.”

How hard can it be to unmask them for what they are?

But we are struggling. As the Washington Post reported (December 2, 2015), a panel of private-sector branding experts commissioned by the U.S. State Department to review anti-ISIS messaging did not come back with a positive report.

According to one official quoted on background, the group “had serious questions about whether the U.S. government should be involved in overt messaging at all.”

While the State Department has declined to release the actual report, The New York Times (June 12, 2015) reported receiving a “sensitive but unclassified” memo dated three days earlier from a source in the Administration. In it, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel says bluntly: “The coalition [to fight ISIS through coordinated messaging] does not communicate well internally or externally.”

From an external communication perspective, says Stengel, “our narrative is being trumped by ISIL’s. We are reactive — we think about ‘counter-narratives,’ not ‘our narrative.’

But the reality is even worse than that. In a commentary on the Post story, Gizmodo (December 4) Kate Knibbs tore into the government’s failed attempts to respond to ISIS messaging effectively: “Scrolling through the questions and answers [on Ask.fm, an anonymous Q&A website used by the State Department as one way of combating ISIS through social media] is an exercise in rapidly losing confidence in the governments’ ability to wage a propaganda war.”

Here is an example of one well-intentioned but nevertheless groan-worthy interchange:
Screenshot of U.S. State Department interaction with ISIS on Ask.fm [11 months ago], via Gizmodo.com

There’s no other way to put it: Surely we mean well, but the government is just so very uncool — so incredibly out of touch — when it comes to doing what it takes to fight ISIS and win.

The first mistake we made was underestimating them. ISIS recruitment tactics, targeted both at young men and women, are working; they are experiencing “frighteningly rapid global growth,” despite President Obama famously calling them the “JV [junior varsity] team.”

Their recruitment tactics are highly sophisticated, speaking the language of their targets, using the preferred communication methods of their audiences, telling them precisely what they want to hear. Boys are lured by the promise of sex; girls, ironically, are told that joining the group is akin to feminism.

Just like any strong brand narrative, ISIS content represents messages that matter to the target, and that are extremely different from what they hear, at least in the Western mainstream. It isn’t just one thing, of course — there are dimensions of empowerment, of religion, of making the world a more just and less decadent place.

ISIS also is the classic cult: offering a self-contained, secret world, initially appealing but with no chance of escape, to a population that frequently feels lost, alienated, and perpetually in transition. In a world where the choices can feel like a blizzard of dead ends, ISIS inserts itself as a ready-to-wear community with a winning path toward the future.

They do not operate arbitrarily or off-the-cuff, either: ISIS has more than one playbook, each for specific ends, and they follow the strategy carefully.

We’ve made a lot of other mistakes as well, some of which the Washington Post covers pretty comprehensively, especially here and here.

They include:
  1. Denying reality: underestimating the enemy; refusing to not only name the enemy but describe the nature of its identity; failing to talk about our role in creating the problem; overestimating our successes; delaying for a lengthy period of time to admit that we are at war. 
  2. Playing defense: failing to tell our story; over-focusing on the enemy’s tools of choice; insisting on explaining over and over again “why they’re wrong and we are right.” 
  3. Incompetence: “talking the brand talk” but failing to put expert communicators in charge; confusing the message with the medium; unrealistic ideas about metrics; overemphasizing logic versus emotion, or emphasizing the wrong emotional points; condescending to the audience. 
  4. Bureaucracy: Letting infighting derail the process; overemphasizing internal reactions; short-term thinking; delaying the formation of the team for a significant period of time; failing for too long to insist on staff and money from partners; failing to effectively leverage the national and international partners on the team. 
  5. Insularity: Refusing to bring in competent help from the outside for too long; failing to give the private sector the reins and invest in their expertise as needed. 
ISIS is a new kind of enemy, and it was inevitable that we would make mistakes in fighting them — yes, even significant ones. We can’t afford to look back and indulge in hand-wringing. It’s time to chart a new course.

We begin at the beginning: In branding, as in war, constantly playing defense is a good way to get killed. This is because brand equity depends on constantly telling the consumer why they should pick you — not on telling them why they shouldn’t pick your competitors.

By communicating proactively and positively with the customer, you develop the three key characteristics of a strong brand. This is the framework provided by top market research firm Millward Brown:
  • Salient: It’s top-of-mind when it’s time to buy. 
  • Meaningful: It’s the most meaningful to you — you’re emotionally and intellectually attached to it. 
  • Different: It’s the one that stands out as unique. 
Al Ries, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on branding, explained the importance of playing offense in Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (2000). Not only that, said Ries, but the key to success is knowing your customer, knowing how they think, and shaping their perceptions. As he put it: “Positioning is not what you do to a product. It’s what you do to the mind of your prospect.”

With that in mind, here is what we need to do right now:
  1. Be honest: The enemy is not just a particular group. It is a brand that can loosely be described as “radical Islam.” Elements of this group are fundamental to Islam itself, albeit the nonviolent version. We must understand who we are dealing with and take them out. 
  2. Playing offense: There is a version of Islam that does not embrace elements that pose a threat. Many Muslims live their lives by this version. We need to immerse ourselves in their story, and combine it with the story of America, integrating the two in such a way that our nation evolves. What began as a “Christian nation” can no longer be described that way: We are a patchwork of religions and cultures and the story of that diversity is more compelling than an ideology of hate. 
  3. Competence: The government must hire, from within, professional communicators well-versed in branding — not just antiterrorism experts or Middle East subject matter experts. You shouldn’t drive a car unless you have a driver’s license. 
  4. Prioritize Efficiency & Effectiveness: Those of us who work in the government are familiar with the ways bureaucracy thwarts success. The Administration must act to eliminate the barriers currently faced by the State Department in its public diplomacy mission. 
  5. Controlled Openness: There is a balance to be struck here between the one extreme of insularity, and the other extreme of letting the private sector “take over.” The balance is achieved by having a government communicator oversee a large and diverse team, with a clear chain of command and well-defined roles and responsibilities. 
In his address to the nation on December 6, 2015, President Obama assured us that we would ultimately defeat ISIS. Reassurances are nice, and I believe the news reports suggesting that the President is frustrated by our messaging failures thus far. But as they say, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

We can do a better job at this. We can render ISIS irrelevant. But if we’re going to do it, we need to go in strong, play hard and finish the job.

Under Secretary Stengel is correct: The task is not about crafting a good “counter-narrative.”

It is about giving the microphone to Muslims all over the world who seek to redefine Islam itself in the eyes of the world. In a sense, what's needed here is to rebrand a religion and our nation at the same time: Islam as peaceful, in the manner suggested by many prominent religious reformers, and the United States as inclusive and respectful of many faiths.

We ought to invest in this. Branding is much more important to our security than fighting: It can save many lives, and leave us with a lasting peace.

Telling a better story isn't just about selling soap flakes. It can be about changing the world for the better. And when we embrace a better narrative -- all of us, not just the USA -- we will see an end to terrorism once and for all.

Copyright 2015 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author’s own. Photo by Wayne Grazio via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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