After more than 10 years combatting Salafist-Jihadist groups in various forms, a broad consensus has developed among practitioners and pundits in Washington: We can’t shoot our way out of this problem. We can only win if we manage to effectively undermine their well-crafted and appealing narrative with a better, more convincing one. Common wisdom also proclaims that we are not there yet, although that task that should not be insurmountable for the likes of Hollywood and Madison Avenue who have successfully sold stories around the world for 80 to 90 years. The Council on Foreign Relations, for example, concluded that “To achieve victory, the U.S. and its coalition partners must craft and employ an effective narrative” that speaks to US domestic, international, and local audiences. Last month, The Atlantic opined, arguing “there is a need for more diverse and authentic narratives that can plant seeds of doubt in the minds of those who are considering extremist ideology.”
But is it really as easy as pundits would have it? While the U.S.G. and others have been at it for over 10 years, the Salafist-Jihadist sphere has been continuously growing, expanding its physical footprint in the Muslim world and outside, multiplying organizations and movements, and taking advantage of technological developments (Internet and Social Media) to reach new and growing audiences worldwide. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez who, until recently, headed the State Department Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) put it starkly when he said: “ISIS’ message is that Muslims are being killed and that they’re the solution… There is appeal to violence, obviously, but there is also an appeal to the best in people, to people’s aspirations, hopes and dreams, to their deepest yearnings for identity, faith, and self-actualization” (DefenseOne); A call to which we have not yet found an adequate response.
For that to happen, we first must firmly grasp what narratives are really about and how they work. Narratives are not just stories. In the words of American psychologist Jerome Bruner, “we organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative -- stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing” (Bruner, 1991). His research shows that narratives are not just stories that reflect an otherwise exogenous, objective reality and that we would use to convey a message about that reality. Instead, through the narratives we tell about ourselves and the world around us, we co-construct the reality and our own place in it. This is a never-ending process of constant reconstruction and reinterpretation. Narratives thus play a fundamental role in shaping first our perception and then our understanding of the realities happening around us. As such, they are part of the process of constructing reality and one’s place in it.
Narratives are diachronic. They always relate series of events overtime, the sequencing of which help generate a “mental model” of unique patterns that produces meaning for the audience. The principle of diachronicity postulates that events are not significant in themselves, but as part of a pattern. It helps readers understand how separate events relate to one another. By identifying sequencing patterns, readers can anticipate what will happen given certain circumstances.
Narratives’ particulars are embedded in more generic figures. The particular elements of a narrative (agents, places…) are tokens of broader generic types such as ‘David against Goliath’ or ‘boy woos girl.’ Readers can easily recognize and identify with these broader types (even when some particulars are missing or simply inferred). To be relevant, a narrative needs to be particular enough to be anchored in the reader’s experience. To be effective, its particulars need to be emblematic of a more generic type that is easily recognizable.
Narratives are coherent. In a convincing narrative, what happens to any protagonist must be relevant to their expressed beliefs, desired, theories, and values as expressed or inferred in the story. This does not necessarily mean that the protagonists act in a pre-ordained manner or preclude that they act in surprising/unexpected manner. However, it means that the values, beliefs, or experiences of the protagonists lead him to taking a surprising action. This is a key feature that allows readers to interpret and rationalize why a character is doing what he/she does.
Narratives are interpreted through personal and cultural history. Although this may not be conscious, all narratives need interpretation. This usually occurs as the result of two processes: Narrative seduction (when reality construction is so masterful that it leaves only but one interpretation) and narrative banalization (when the narrative is so socially conventional that we can assign it an automatic default interpretation). Interpretation is context sensitive. We assimilate narratives by taking into account the narrator’s intent, but we do so in terms of our background knowledge as well as personal and cultural histories. It should be noted here that because narratives are not a reflection of an otherwise objective reality; acceptability does not depend on any ‘truth.’ Acceptability is more a function of verisimilitude that sensitizes the reader to his own consciousness and experience.
Narratives are normative tools about canonical breaches. Not every story or every message becomes a narrative. For a story to be a narrative, it must be about breaching a ‘canonical script’ in a way that does violence to the legitimacy of that standard. Canonical in this context means a principle or a value of extraordinary importance to the audience in a given cultural setting. In this context, a narrative is concerned with restoring some form of lost legitimacy.
Only when we have assimilated those principles and defined what is acceptable and not acceptable to our audiences can we start negotiating a working narrative. In the current political and cultural turmoil of the Middle East, it will be neither easy nor fast.