Can you change the mind of a jihadist?


Of all the things I’ve read about the latest jihadist terror attack from London, one line in particular from Prime Minister Theresa May stood out.

Terrorism will only be defeated, she said, when we make young people “understand that our values, pluralistic British values, are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”

But at the same time, May spoke about the need to crack down harder on those “young people” and the extremism that feeds them.

So, on the one hand, May wants to get tougher with the killers, while, on the other, convince them that British values are superior.

Maybe that represents, in a nutshell, the dilemma of fighting jihadist terrorism. To really win the war, you have to fight them physically and psychologically, but when you’re so busy with the physical, who’s got time for the psychological?

The focus in England right now clearly is on security, on preventing the next attack. Is there anyone on May’s team working on her goal of influencing values? I doubt it. The mood in the country is to stop the bad guys from killing — not to change their values.

But let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that, simultaneous to the crackdown, May would hire a marketing agency to create a campaign that might positively influence the bad guys. What would that look like?

One of the first things you learn in the advertising business is never to use the word “impossible.” There’s always the “best possible” answer to a problem, however unlikely it is that you can solve it. It’s about moving things forward — will the campaign make things a little better? Will it improve the odds of success?

Something else advertising teaches is to boil everything down to its essence — a few words, an image, a single thought. The goal is to light sparks, plant seeds, break the ice.

In our case, a key question is: How would you plant seeds of doubt in the mind of a jihadist who believes he’s doing God’s work when he slices the neck of a woman enjoying a beer in a British bar, or runs over pedestrians strolling happily on a Saturday night?

The easy thing to do would be to throw our hands up and give up. If someone thinks killing is holy, how do you counter that? But, like I said, this is a thought experiment. If the prime minister of England wants an ad campaign to influence the minds of religious extremists, what do you recommend?

In my mind, I see only one thing: We must fight holy with holy. They say killing is holy? We say life is holy.

The idea would be to rally leaders across all cultures and religions — especially Muslim leaders and preachers — to launch a “Life is Holy” campaign. The advertising would provide the sparks, but community leaders would preach the message on the ground.

A pervasive “Life is Holy” movement will, at the very least, put killers on notice that they no longer own holiness.

The campaign would reclaim holiness on behalf of life. We would promote the holiness of life with the same passion religious killers promote the holiness of killing. Instead of playing defense, life would play offense.

A “Life is Holy” message has some clear benefits: It’s true, believable, simple and passionate.

Of course, no marketing campaign can solve the problem of jihadist terrorism. There are too many jihadists who are moved by verses in the Quran that speak of killing the infidels, and too many preachers who feed this violence.

What marketing can do, however, is provide an aspirational vision. It can tell future generations of potential jihadists that real holiness lies in life, not killing. If enough Muslim preachers throughout the world reinforce this message in their sermons, we might begin to make a dent.

In her remarks, Prime Minister May spoke of cracking down on “safe spaces” online and in self-segregated Muslim communities that can harbor extremism.

If she is serious about doing this, she must infiltrate these extremist “safe spaces” with messages that promote the holiness of life — with billboards and memes, for example, that show the faces of people of all colors and religions as being worthy of holiness. Most critically, she must enlist local Muslim preachers to lead the way.

In sum, a “Life is Holy” campaign, if done right, can ignite an in-your-face pushback to the culture of death that infects the minds of jihadist killers. The “Life is Holy” message must be ubiquitous — it must be on T-shirts, street corners and social media. It must be loud enough to marginalize anyone who doesn’t support it.

In combination with a serious security crackdown, a pervasive “Life is Holy” movement will, at the very least, put killers on notice that they no longer own holiness.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

+