In action

13 / October / 2016

The Search for an Alternative Narrative

On September 28, academics, activists, and former heads of state gathered in Brussels for the launch of Club de Madrid’s new EU-funded Project “Preventing Violent Extremism: Leaders Telling a Different Story.” One of such leaders was Alex Schmid, Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative and Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, who delivered the following address:


Seventy years ago, in March and in September 1946, Winston Churchill, while out of office, delivered two speeches, one in Zurich, Switzerland and the other in Fulton Missouri. These speeches  created two narratives that resonated for more than half a century: the theme of the Fulton speech which was titled ‘The Sinews of Peace’ was that an Iron Curtain had descended in Europe, separating East and West.[1] The Zurich speech’s theme was ‘Europe Unite’. [2] The first speech created the stage for resisting Soviet expansion and led to the creation of NATO. The second speech pleaded for reconciliation between Germany and France as first step to the creation of a European Union of which he, incidentally, did not think Great Britain should be part.

Here we have a leader who created two powerful narratives that spoke to the imagination of hundreds of millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic and especially here in Europe. NATO is alive and still needed in light of the adventurism of President Putin. The dream of a European Union has come true although it is challenged today by forces of nationalism and globalization.

Why have these two speeches of Churchill created such powerful narratives and so many other speeches have been forgotten? What kind of narrative today could sketch a similar trajectory into the future – one that offers each one of us something to hold on to?

Churchill was an eminent leader. The theme of the current conference is ‘ Leaders Telling a Different Story’. I believe there is, in many parts of the world a crisis of leadership. When we talk about ‘ Preventing violent extremism: leaders telling a different story, the effective leaders with a positive vision most needed are, of course, those in the Arab and Muslim world, but with the exception of Tunisian leaders few have been able to offer an alternative narrative to the one of the Salafist jihadists. Yet even Tunisia has a double face since it has produced more foreign fighters for Syria per capita than any other country in the region.

The topic of our session is ‘Constructing and Redefining Effective Narrative’. To counter the narrative of the terrorists we first have to understand the ideological construct of their narrative. Ideological narratives tend to have  a simple three-steps structure:

  1. Step one: There is a problem definition – a broad catalogue of grievances which resonates with a broad spectrum of people as they recognize their own plight and can identify with the message, 2. Step two: there is a solution portrayed at the horizon in the form of the ideal society where the grievances have been overcome and 3, step three.: the ideologue’s narrative outlines a path to the realisation of the vision – sketching who is to be held responsible for the grievances – the scapegoat – and how to overcome the obstacle in order to reach the perfect solution.

Depending on the ideology, the scapegoat held responsible for the unsatisfactory current situation is defined in different terms. In the twentieth century we had two major negative narratives: Communism defined the cause of the problem in terms of an exploitative class – the bourgeoisie – that stopped the masses from emancipating. The solution was to collectivization of the means of production and the method – step 2 – was class struggle. National-Socialism defined the problem not in terms of class but in terms of race and made the Jews scapegoats of all that was wrong in  interwar Germany, its foreign debts, its mass unemployment and its humiliating defeat in the First World War which it had started. The ‘solution’ was to propagate an Arian Herrenrasse (master race) and to eliminate the Jews as scapegoats by ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Today not ‘class’ or ‘race’ but ‘faith’ is used for the mobilization of the dissatisfied with the status quo: extremist Islamist political entrepreneurs  declare Muslims  they dislike as takfir (excommunicated one) and the rest of us as kufar. We are the new scapegoats.

All three violent extremist ideologies – Communism, Fascism and Islamist Extremism -presented a vision of their ideal society where there are privileged insiders who are meant to be the rulers of a uniform ideal Salafist Muslim society and the rest are to be humiliated, expelled, subordinated and, if we resist, exterminated.

Why is such a destructive narrative as the one offered by Islamist extremists so attractive to a small but nevertheless sizeable part of  young people  in Muslim majority countries and even in Western diasporas? And why is it so difficult to come up with an effective alternative narrative that speak in a more constructive way to the imagination of dissatisfied young people in search of meaning and a satisfactory personal role in society?

Here is one answer: the world is getting more complex and this baffling complexity makes many people long for simple solutions. We have populists on our democratic side who offer simple solutions – stop globalisation, stop immigration, get out of the European Union etc. Salafist imams offer as solution for the future a return to an allegedly golden past nearly 1400 years ago when sharia was supposedly in place and the pious ancestors who ruled as first Caliphs showed Muslims the way to become a world power as they conquered in a few generations land stretching from Spain to the borders of China.

The Caliphate which was proclaimed in mid-2014 sparked the exodus of more than 30,000 young Muslims and converts from more than 100 countries to the Islamic State. The narrative of the new Caliph was brilliant and for many persuasive, resonating with the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of young Muslims as various public opinion surveys in the Arab and Muslim world and Western diasporas have made clear. These sympathisers and supporters are not a mass movement when compared to the 1.6 billion Muslims – but they form a sufficiently large group of angry young people to make create havoc in their and other societies.

The narrative of Al Qaeda and later ISIS is one of first victimhood and oppression (‘the problem’) and one of rebellion in the form of jihad (the step two – ‘the path forward out’ of a blocked situation) against a distant or near enemy (‘the scapegoat’) and a return to a future that resembles a glorious past (‘the solution’). This narrative is rooted in the  history of Islam and supported  by appropriate quotes from sacred texts of a world religion – texts which are taken literally but de-contextualised and de-historicised. Al Qaeda and IIIS have managed to instrumentalise for their mobilization purposes an interpretation of  Islam that is close to Wahhabism. Since the oil crisis of 1973 Saudi Arabia has spent up to 100 billion dollars in propagating abroad its particular version of Salafism and that – and, in combination with the pernicious doctrine of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – has over several decades  created the ideological basis for the violent Islamist extremism we witness now in the Muslim world and beyond. The jihadist narrative is based on the heritage and prestige of a world religion. In that sense it is an identity-based narrative. That gives it its extraordinary power.

Any alternative narrative that seeks to counter this strong Muslim narrative should also be identity-based. What do I mean by this? First of all we have to distinguish between ‘counter-narratives’ and ‘alternative narratives’. ‘Counter-narratives’ focus mainly on ‘what we are against’, Alternative narratives’ focus on ‘who we are and what we are for’. Both try to challenge the extremist Islamist narrative by invalidating and degrading it by means of rational persuasion as well as by psycho-emotional influencing.

Counter-narratives and counter-messages are necessary – but in the end what we need is a persuasive alternative narrative that gives the discontent Muslims in our societies as well as others who feel that they are not fully part of our communities something constructive to go for. We cannot return to a Christian narrative in Europe since our societies have become too secularised and too heterogeneous. However, we should not forget that we also have a humanist heritage, the the enlightenment, the heritage of science and philosophy, the heritage of rule of law, human rights and solidarity that created the welfare state.

After two disastrous world wars we have a European structure that, while challenged, still stands. It has taken the form of the European Union and it is something worth defending. Yet we have not been very good at articulating its benefits. A new generation of young people with little sense of European history takes those goods delivered by the European Union and its democratic member states for granted – goods which in many parts of the world are absent. These good things make Europe so attractive for many immigrants. However, we can maintain the Europe of the rule of law, of human rights and of the social welfare state only if we create a narrative that stresses human obligations as much as human rights. These are two sides of a coin.

We have to socialise young people and newcomers to our societies much more than in the past to our core values – gender equality, freedom of speech, democracy, freedom of and from religion, and all those other freedoms and rights – there are now, according to my count, 75 rights. The idea that as individuals we have human rights and that the democratic states or the European Union have the obligation to guarantee these rights for us is short-sighted because the state consists of citizens who are taxpayers, politicians who must have the political will to prioritise these social, political and economic rights and freedoms, and voters who have to go along with guaranteeing these rights to newcomers, and others who in the eyes of some are less deserving. We have to redefine the social contract by rebalancing rights with obligations, defining clearly those of those who belong for a long time to the host societies and those of the newcomers, showing them a pathway on how they can become full citizens by fulfilling obligations that come with participation in our societies. We cannot tolerate parallel societies in our states that are governed by foreign religious authorities rather than by our own laws.

When we talk about ‘Constructing and Redefining an Effective Narrative’ we have to do so with a clear view about our identity: who we were, who we are and who we wish to be. If we have a strong positive identity that encompasses and inspires all those who are citizens and all those who have become legal residents in our countries, there will be less danger of radicalisation towards violent extremism in our midst. Our societies are open to change based on what democratic majorities decide and while we have to show respect for minorities we cannot tolerate the intolerant in our midst, those who want to turn women into second class citizens and in the end all others  who do not share their regressive religious interpretation of what a good society should look like.

To sum up: A narrative is much more than merely a series of  messages, a narrative is a series of stories that come from the heart and go to the hearts, stories with a soul or, in more abstract terms, a good narrative is an ‘interpretative device through which people present themselves, both to themselves and to others’.[3] Our alternative narrative has to be rooted in our culture and tradition.

As important as that rooting is this: for a narrative to be effective, words must be matched by deeds. The say-do gap must be closed, otherwise credibility and trust will evaporate. The gap between what we preach and what we actually do – between ideal and reality – that exists in our societies is considerable. Yet it is small when compared to the one of the Islamist jihadists in their so-called ‘Islamic State’. We must expose their ‘say – do’ gap to the fullest extent while narrowing our own gap by hold the moral high ground all the time. The stories of defectors from ISIS are, in my view, the most powerful indictments against ISIS – more powerful than fatwas by moderate imams who simply claim that ISIS has nothing to do with their religión.

Yet we ourselves have to go beyond counter-narratives and find for our own generation in the 21st century an alternative narrative. In my view this ought to be based on a humanist vision – one that is more inclusive, more  emancipating and more enlightened than the neo-liberal free market ideology that has dominated the Western world in recent years. We have a richer heritage than laissez-faire capitalism. Of the slogans of the French revolution – liberté, egalité, fraternité, it is the fraternité we need to cultivate more –  and add a good dosis  more egalité too. Only then can all enjoy liberté – but a liberty that also comes with greater social responsibility and greater individual obligations from each and every one of us. There is work to be done to construct an alternative narrative that speaks to the imagination of  all.

[1] Literally he said on 5 March 1946:“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

[2] Literally Churchill said: “The first step in the re-creation of the European Family must be a partnership between France and Germany. (…)If we are to form the United States of Europe, or whatever name it may take, we must begin now.” – URL:
[3] Lawler, S. (2002) “Narrative in Social Research,” in T. May (Ed.) Qualitative Research in Action (London: Sage), pp. 245-246 at p. 242.


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