Following the collapse of the so-called caliphate in March 2019, Islamic State (IS) has “repositioned its propaganda narrative to one of a ‘battle of attrition’”, assuring followers of its eventual victory in a protracted struggle. IS has also “re-envisioned the caliphate as an overarching global state rather than one territorially confined to Iraq and Syria.” In this respect, within Southeast Asia, IS remains the primary terrorism threat. In recent years, the violent IS signature has been manifested most clearly in Indonesia and the southern Philippines. For instance, in October 2020, a young Indonesian woman was arrested in Jolo island in southern Philippines for her involvement in a suicide bombing plot. She was also the daughter of an Indonesian husband-and-wife suicide attack team that had bombed a church, also in Jolo, in January 2019, killing at least 23 civilians. IS had claimed responsibility for this attack. The ongoing threat of IS-inspired attacks in southern Philippines is sustained by the appeal of violent Islamist ideological tropes that continue to permeate Muslim Mindanao, which had long been wracked by decades of separatist conflict. This is despite the defeat almost five years ago of pro-IS violent Islamist groups that had tried to capture the Islamic City of Marawi in a brutal five-month-long battle between May and October 2017, in an effort to establish a Southeast Asian outpost for IS. In an IS recruitment video posted in May 2020, the attackers explicitly praised the role IS played in sparking conflict in Marawi, as well as the lack of Shariah and poor governance of the Philippine government. Observers have thus called for a serious ‘counter-ideological approach’ to tackle the threat of virulent IS narratives justifying violence against the supposedly morally decadent Philippine state.
This Insight attempts to suggest one such counter-ideological approach: what can be termed a ‘4M Way’ to employ Alternative Narratives against violent extremist ideology. The basic thrust of the ‘4M Way’ would be to gradually steer vulnerable constituencies of Mindanao Muslims—the Bangsamoro—away from ‘rigid and fixed’ violent Islamist extremism toward ‘flexible and tolerant’ Islamic values and beliefs that are both theologically authentic and compatible with the lived realities of the Bangsamoro. In essence, as applied to Muslim Mindanao, the ‘4M Way’ seeks one strategic objective: to ensure that powerful, culturally authentic Alternative Narratives in particular gain Information Dominance over competing for violent Islamist storylines. The 4Ms refer to Message Content, Message Framing, Message Dissemination, and Message Receptivity. It is worth noting that Counter-Narratives (CNs) are not necessarily identical to Alternative Narratives (ANs). CNs address “a terrorist narrative on its own terms,” questioning, undermining, and deconstructing the way “the narrative problematic is formulated.” ANs on the other hand “should not directly address the terrorist narrative” but rather proactively “present an alternative” that does not “define itself by recourse to the problem as defined and framed by terrorists”—as this would limit one “to playing by someone else’s rules within someone else’s narrative.” With this in mind, how could potent ANs be propagated using the 4M Way?
First, the content of the message encoded in countervailing ANs must be ‘more appealing’ than that of the virulent narratives of the Islamist extremists. While higher-profile ANs such as the Amman Message, A Common Word, the Medina Charter, the Marrakesh Declaration or the Letter to Baghdadi may have captured the imagination of international audiences, local religious leaders opine that they have had somewhat less traction amongst Bangsamoro Islamic scholars, and laypersons in Muslim Mindanao. That said, on-the-ground research suggests that there exist countervailing AN themes that arguably offer more potent, culturally authentic, material for gradually diminishing the relative appeal of violent extremist narratives in the southern Philippine milieu. For instance, local religious and community leaders already promote prosocial messaging such as “respect the for rule of law and government leaders, being active, responsible, and participative citizens who love their country; preserve traditional beliefs and unique cultural practices as these represent their unique culture and understanding of religion – Islam does not destroy these beliefs but provides a proper context for them; and not using violence to impose one’s beliefs on those who believe differently, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, because differences in faith are mercy among believers.” These ad hoc, piecemeal messaging efforts need however to be promoted in a more sustained, systematic fashion.
Second, how the AN message is framed in the eyes of the target audience matters. It has been observed that potential AN creators may excel in public speaking, lecturing to student audiences, or writing – but not necessarily all three at the same time – and that they lack the personal and professional skills, such as web design and social media expertise, to more effectively frame their content for online audiences. Additionally, the substantial number of indigenous languages spoken in the southern Philippines enables the publication of violent extremist content directed at specific ethnic groups. Thus far, Facebook has been able to monitor pro-IS content in English and Tagalog and post messages in these languages. However, a considerable number of violent extremist posts in local dialects such as Maranao, Maguindanaoan, and Tausug strongly suggest that popular social media platforms require a more diverse range of linguistic abilities to frame AN messaging in order to reach out to underserved audiences as well.
Third, AN message dissemination mechanisms count too. While there are several potential religious and civil society networks in existence, the arguably most strategic for ramped-up AN messaging in Southeast Asia and the Philippines would be the Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaah (ASWJ), which follows the Ash’ari aqeedah (creed) and the Shafii madhab (school of jurisprudence in Southeast Asia), which emphasise an orthodoxy based on a sensible blend of theological authority and rational analysis. The educational institutions of the ASWJ network are especially vital frontline nodes in building mental firewalls against violent Islamist ideologies through intensified AN messaging. Formal face-to-face dissemination methods are already used by these entities and should be exploited. These include formal classes—either regular classes or boarding school classes. These classes would typically include memorisation and mastery of books (talaqqi), a traditional method. Such classes could partially be repurposed for AN messaging as well. Meanwhile, daurah, or special classes, should be held for teachers to correct any misconceptions about extremist ideology and strengthen their understanding of AN themes. The educational nodes of the ASWJ networks should also intensify the organisation of public dialogues, symposia, and roundtable discussions to intensify AN message dissemination.
Finally, the Message Receptivity of the target audience to countervailing Alternative Narratives must be promoted through good governance that helps ensure that target audiences in Muslim Mindanao are more receptive to such narratives than extremist storylines. Message Receptivity can be enhanced if there exists good governance that seeks to reach four goals. First, good governance must identify and empower suitable AN interlocutors that would have credibility with specific target audiences. Second, financial support for moderate religious and public educational initiatives is sorely needed. Third, local authorities, especially the security forces, need to foster greater rapport with target at-risk audiences. Fourth, key political and socio-economic grievances that empower Islamist extremist narratives, need addressing. In this respect, the battle for Marawi in 2017 resulted in the extensive destruction of the city and economic livelihoods, as well as mass population displacement. By July 2020, approximately 17,000 Marawi residents were still living in transitional shelters rather than returning home. These shelters were not only overcrowded, in some cases, they lacked regular water supplies as well. Complicating matters has been the COVID-19 outbreak. As of late July 2020, there were 178 coronavirus cases reported in Marawi City and Lanao del Sur. Observers noted that the glacial pace of reconstruction meant that Marawi was “still on its knees” and with the pandemic outbreak on top of all else, represented a “ticking time bomb” that could “fuel conflict.”
In sum, the Message Receptivity perspective suggests that the general situation in Mindanao post-Marawi, despite the creation of the much heralded Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in 2018 to attain meaningful Moro self-governance—still is concerning. The BARMM in theory “provides a regional governance system, addresses both major political and economic redistribution issues, and important religious and cultural identity needs and grievances of contemporary Moros,” thereby representing a “crucial step in ensuring [southern Philippines] from the threat of IS.” The BARMM certainly represents a significant attempt to operationalise the decades-long quest for meaningful and substantive Bangsamoro autonomy and dignity. It is nevertheless still unclear if BARMM is equipped to effectively address long-standing Moro grievances driving conflict in Mindanao. Observers hence warn that a weak BARMM would only “fuel the recruitment drives” of pro-IS Philippine threat groups. The ‘4M Way’ to promote potentially potent Alternative Narratives that can attain Information Dominance over competing violent Islamist storylines, therefore, ultimately requires a concerted whole-of-society effort to realise its fullest potential.
Dr. Kumar Ramakrishna is a tenured Associate Professor, Provost’s Chair in National Security Studies, Associate Dean in charge of Policy Studies, as well as Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Commissioner Yusuf Morales is primarily focused on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE) and was responsible for facilitating the formulation of the National Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism. He also was active in training and conducting seminars in PCVE for the AFP, PNP PCG and other stakeholders.
Sheryl ‘Sharima’ Renomeron Morales is currently an Associate Professor and Faculty researcher at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Her community work in the National Capital Region are primarily focused on youth advocacy. She was awarded the Bayanihan Award by the Armed Forces of the Philippines in 2014 and CMO Soldier in 2013.