As a U.S.-led coalition continues to bombard the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Jordan-based entrepreneur is waging his own fight against the group, in a comic book.
Suleiman Bakhit says the narrative groups such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda sell is spreading “like a cancer” among the youth, which one “cannot defeat with weapons alone.”
As such, Bakhit decided to develop a “counter-narrative,” in the form of heroes, which would go against romanticized ideals of extremism he said are used to recruit youths.
“No police, no wars are going be able to solve that problem,” he said, adding that while military force is necessary to contain extremism or prevent attacks, it is not enough.
“If you really want to defeat extremism, you need to defeat their mythology and narrative by developing a counter-narrative and a counter-mythology,” he told Al Arabiya News.
Bakhit embarked on a journey around Jordan, conducting focus groups with youths. In one, he asked who their heroes were.
“They told me, ‘we don’t really have heroes.’ They were even shocked to hear the word or the question.
“‘We hear a lot about [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi and [Osama] Bin Laden. They defend us, they protect us’.” That, said Bakhit, is “extremist narrative 101.”
He then realized “there’s a huge appetite for positive heroism, for an anti-Bin Laden, anti-Zarqawi.”
The ‘hero narrative’
Bakhit’s work plays on research that suggests most of those who join ISIS or Al-Qaeda do not do so out of piety.
“The majority of those youths... are actually not religious,” he said, referring to a leaked report by British intelligence agency MI5.
According to The Guardian newspaper, the report concluded that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.”
Bakhit attributes their desire to join these groups to a “glamorous call for adventure.” He says the first step toward fighting that narrative is understanding it.
His field research led him to one major trait in the narrative used by extremists to recruit: the heroic journey.
Those who join the likes of ISIS are usually those “who perceived themselves as not worthy or not feeling they want more in life. They come across these narratives, add on top of it the religion, which makes it much more sacred and holy,” he said.
They need an alternative. “It’s not enough to tell them that this isn’t Islam. That’s the problem with the existing counter-narrative, which is ‘don’t be a terrorist, those guys are bad, they’re not protecting Islam, they’re destroying Islam,’ and it’s true,” he said.
However, that narrative “isn’t appealing to youths because extremists are coming to them and telling them to be a hero,” which Bakhit says is perceived to be “much more attractive. We need to develop alternative heroes.”
The resulting comic heroes include “Element Zero,” whose character is similar to the protagonist of hit TV show “24,” Jack Bower. Element Zero is a Jordanian Special Forces officer who kicks extremists to the curb in the punchy graphic strip.
Female heroes come in the form of extremist fighting“Princess Heart” and “Shahrazad.”
Attacked from both sides
Bakhit was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when the 9/11 attacks happened. “Shortly afterward, I get attacked by a group of men for no other reason than being an Arab. Afterwards, I had a choice: leave the United States, go home, stay angry, or deal with it.”
He decided to stay in the United States, and tried to “fight that kind of ignorance and turn that attack into a force of good.”
That decision took him to schools, where he spoke to children aged between five and seven on the Middle East and its culture.
“I realized that the guys who attacked me had one story about Middle Easterners, the story of 9/11. That’s all they knew… so I introduced the kids to more positive narratives... so they’d be able to choose what narrative to adopt when they get older.”
While pursuing a master’s degree, Bakhit decided to drop out and return to Jordan to start his comic-book company.
After the wide acclaim his work received, Bakhit was attacked again outside his office in Amman, this time by Islamist extremists.SHOW MORE