Tougaw: The war on ISIS can’t be won with weapons and bombs

Taylor Tougaw

Look out, world — the answer to defeating ISIS is here. No, it’s not coming from the president. No, it’s not coming from a team of academics who have been studying ISIS for years. It’s coming from me, your average, run-of-the-mill political science student from suburbia central, Colorado. You’re welcome, world.

All kidding aside, ISIS has obviously been a massive threat to people worldwide for years now. When watching the presidential debates and other rhetoric coming from politicians, it seems that we have two choices: either bomb them so much as to make the sand glow, as Ted Cruz would advocate, or pull out completely, leave the entire region and let them figure it out over there.


I personally believe that both of these statements are ridiculous and unrealistic. Carpet-bombing ISIS would invariably kill more innocent people than terrorists, potentially making some of those people whose families got wrongfully killed become terrorists themselves. However, pulling out of the region entirely would strengthen ISIS and portray them as victorious to the rest of the region, thus adding to their recruitment rhetoric and overall strength.

I am not advocating the complete cessation of all uses of force, but the fact is, you can’t win an ideological war solely with bombs and bullets. You can’t kill their ideology just by killing all the members of that ideology. You have to make them not want the fight, and when death does not deter them, it’s time to try something new. I believe defeating ISIS comes down to three main components:

1. Stop showing their propaganda videos. Seriously.
2. The use of what we call “soft power.”
3. Higher levels of productive discourse between those in and out of the Islamic community.

First off, how insane is it that ISIS goes through the trouble of brutally executing prisoners of war and making films of it to terrify westerners, and then we show that exact same film on our TVs? We literally are streaming their propaganda through our own TVs. There’s a fine line between reporting something like the Paris or Belgium attacks and showing a 22-minute video of ISIS burning a Jordanian pilot alive. We have got to stop showing their propaganda. We’re doing exactly what they want. Awareness of their violence and vicious attacks is important, but this is not the way to build that awareness. Instead, it builds fear. 

Let me tell you a story: My mom used to work for a huge translation company. Doing this job, she traveled the world and met people from all over. One day, she led a group of Saudi men coming to the U.S. for the very first time. For some reason, they legitimately thought that when they stepped off the plane, they would be greeted by blonde women in bikinis. She could not tell me where they got this idea, but to me it shows something very, very important: Western culture is extremely pervasive. In a country with one of the worst human rights records, especially for women, these men got enough of American culture to be excited by the prospect of blonde chicks in bikinis just hanging out at an airport.

What this tells me is that western values are very alluring, even if to they are exaggerated. Answer me this: How often do you turn on the radio and hear pop music from Egypt, Korea or South Africa? I’d wager never. How often would you hear American pop music in any of those countries? Very often. Additionally, our fast food has taken off overseas. McDonald’s serves in over 100 countries, along with companies like KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.

What does this have to do with defeating ISIS? Well, we have a lot of things that the rest of the world wants. Call me elitist, but western culture is very, very attractive. This is what we call “soft power.” I truly believe that if we fight a war on propaganda, we can seriously challenge ISIS’s ideology. I believe that by providing access to things like pop music, pornography, food and other things predominantly western, the desire for these products will absolutely take over enough people to where western culture is no longer demonized by them. 

Let me be clear here in what I’m specifically not advocating for: I don’t believe we should be flying around dropping Playboy magazines in Raqqa. I’m also not advocating blasting Katy Perry music into Syria, like South Korea does to North Korea. I’m also not advocating for nation-building. We’ve tried that for over a decade now in Iran and Iraq and it doesn’t work. You can’t make somebody want what you want just because you like it. What I am advocating for is making those things extremely visible and accessible.

For instance, providing direct investment to companies in the Middle East can be a great way to show that the West isn’t always an enemy. It can also provide actual jobs and stability in the region, something which ISIS claims to provide. I’m not saying western values are better and that they should overtake Middle Eastern values, but it would go a long way in humanizing western reputations within the Middle East.

For those of you who are latching onto my use of the word pornography, let’s be very clear — I’m talking about sexual freedom. But how would you go about advertising that sexual freedom? As stated before, we’re talking about countries with some of the worst human rights records in the world, especially for women. So the use of “porn” or sexual freedom in those countries can go a long way to de-stigmatizing women’s sexuality, which is something the U.S. saw a lot of in the 1920s and even now (looking at you, “Free the Nipple” campaign). This sexual freedom can do wonders for women’s overall freedom, voting rights, professional rights, as well as women’s health issues and reproductive rights. You can’t solve the problems that you’re not willing to talk about or face head-on, and the West is a place where those conversations are far more acceptable to have. 


My last point, and perhaps the most controversial point, has to do with accountability within the Islamic community. To help me understand this better, I sat down with Deena Duwaik and Amira Noshi, two CSU students raised in Muslim households, as well as Israa Eldeiry, president of the Muslim Student Association.

To start off, let me say a few uncomfortable things. There absolutely is a problem with Islamic terrorism. In modern discourse, we often think of it in terms of either you’re ISIS or you’re not. This dichotomy is unrealistic. This does not count groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Muslim Brotherhood and others. But this only covers one area of the problem. There is a second group of people we aren’t talking about, called Islamists.

According to Deena Duwaik, this is a different group of people who want hardcore Islamic values like Sharia law to spread through the world. They are known as Islamists, which is a fundamental or militant branch of Islam. These people contain terrorists and non-terrorists, and they advocate Islamism through diplomatic means as well as violent means — same end goal, different methods. Some of these groups have been voted into power, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which is a group that the U.N. has listed as a terrorist organization, and others take power, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. 

In 2013, Pew Research did a study on thousands of Muslims in 39 countries. Rahaeel Raza, a Sunni woman and leader of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, shows this in her video By the Numbers: Untold Story of Muslim Opinions and Demographics.” In this Pew Research study, of all the Muslims interviewed, 39 percent said honor killings are sometimes justifiable for a woman who has had premarital or extramarital sex. 26 percent of American Muslims between ages 18 and 29 believe suicide bombings against civilians can be justifiable. It’s 42 percent in France and 35 percent in England (look up the video, I’m not making this up).

On top of this, twice as many British Muslims are fighting for ISIS than are fighting in the British Army against ISIS. These numbers absolutely shocked me. Just because someone isn’t a terrorist doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of the problem. This kind of behavior is propagated by people like Anjem Choudary, a British imam who is openly anti-western and supports Sharia law, even praising the 9/11 attacks. This is a western Muslim who preaches messages of hatred. This man is constantly denounced by the majority of western Muslims, but the fact is, he still has enough appeal to draw in enough supporters to from anti-western groups.

If you don’t think this is a problem, then I don’t know what would be.

After talking with Israa Eldeiry, I told her that it really isn’t that hard to understand why so many westerners are wary of Muslims as a whole. She agreed with me, because that’s what we’re shown on the news every day. But there is a component of this that I, as an American, will never understand. Amira Noshi told me, “It’s really hard to be an Arabic American. … I’ve chosen to lie about my ethnicity to people before.” We, as westerners, will never know what it’s like to live in a country that is so anti-Arab/Muslim.

Take a moment to place yourself in the shoes of someone who lives in a country where 95 percent of the population really does not like you. It absolutely can create an atmosphere of disdain. While that’s never an excuse to just take that dramatic leap to terrorism, it does help paint a picture of the bitterness between people when talking about this issue. If you multiply this from a personal level to the world stage, it really isn’t hard to understand why there is so much animosity. Especially because we are blind to the fact that a depressingly overwhelming majority of terrorism victims are other Muslims. If we are ever going to have the conversation about the Middle East, we need to understand that these people have been embroiled in violence for the last 40 years. That kind of atmosphere does not lend itself to warm hugs and happy feelings.

After sitting down and talking with these women, I think it’s extremely important to have open discourse about what we feel and why. Israa told me things that I didn’t know. Muslims practice the faith very, very differently around the world, just as Christians do. A lot of Muslims have different interpretations about the Qur’an, and believe that lumping them into one category isn’t fair. I told her that I felt Muslims should have a higher level of accountability within their mosques for children and teenagers to not be introduced to radical messages.

She looked at me and said, “Okay, what can we do? Every time there is an attack, we (Muslims at CSU) text each other saying, ‘Oh, no. I hope it wasn’t a Muslim this time.’ We always denounce these attacks. So what else can I do?” and to that, I really don’t have an answer.

This is my final word. We, as Americans, need to have a serious discourse between those of the Islamic faith and those outside of it. And not the politically correct kind that doesn’t get to the heart of people’s feelings. I’m talking about the passionate, no-holds-barred, heavy kind of conversation. Not the screaming and shouting that drowns out all discourse, but the kind where you really, really get into people’s deep-seated beliefs. Only in that atmosphere can we really get into the meat of this issue. The whole politically-correct, don’t-offend-anyone kind of “understanding each other” just wont cut it. After sitting down with these women and talking about their perspective, I could really feel and hear their discontent and anger.

I asked Deena how many times she had had this conversation with people like me and she said she has them a lot, because her ethnicity has become a political ethnicity. However, those conversations are often emotional and contain knee-jerk reactions to commonly-heard sentiments. The conversations don’t always solve anything. 

If we’re going to deal with Islamic terror, we need to actually deal with it instead of stepping lightly around the issue. We have to stop showing their propaganda, we need to show them that the West really isn’t that bad and, above all else, we truly need to face the tough, uncomfortable facts. Only then can we have conversations that will create change.

Collegian Columnist Taylor Tougaw can be reached or on Twitter @TTougaw.