Hearts, minds of youth key to beating ISIS

Story highlights

  • Gordon Brown: Thousands of refugee children are vulnerable to child traffickers and extremist ideologues
  • West must present vision that shows Islam and other religions can co-exist peacefully, he says

Gordon Brown is U.N. special envoy for Global education and former British Prime Minister. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)As the West has slept, propagandists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Da'esh, have turned social media into a 21st century recruitment agency for extremism.

Across the Web, there have been as many as 46,000 confirmed Twitter accounts brazenly broadcasting support for Da'esh and, according to U.S. think tank Brookings, there may be as many as 90,000 such accounts. Every day, more professional quality videos, using film, poetry, posters and essays to accuse the west of violence against Islam, are posted from three main production centers -- the al-I'tiṣām and al-Furqān Foundations and the al-Ḥayāt Media Centre -- as well as others focusing on specific regions.
Gordon Brown
Few will disagree that we are now in a generational battle for hearts and minds that cannot be won by military means alone. But whilst hard power can eliminate the hard-core of extremists, there is no alternative to a war of information to win over the 200 million young people of the Middle East and North Africa, millions of whom are unemployed or underemployed.
The Da'esh objective is crystal clear: to challenge the very idea of coexistence, summon these young people to Jihad and, most of all, force Muslim young people into making a choice.
Of course Twitter, Facebook and others can simply suspend accounts -- recently thousands of accounts were reportedly closed by Twitter. Yet far more effective is posing an alternative vision that shows Islam and other religions can co-exist peacefully.
Under-the-radar operations to counter extremist notions across the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East are not new. Indeed, they have been widely used in the form of magazines for children in Pakistan, in videos to draw in teenagers in North Africa, in radio stations across the Middle East and in a variety of anti-al Qaeda books and publications. The aim has been to create a space -- the space Da'esh calls the "gray area" and longs to destroy -- where Muslims and non-Muslims could discover their shared values.
But these efforts were cut back just at the time when the majority of the Middle East's teenagers were acquiring mobile phones and gaining access to the Internet.
Up against the reality of ingrained inequalities within the region, a storyline that blames the West, and what one survey found amongst Da'esh converts -- namely righteous indignation, defiance, a sense of persecution and a refusal to conform -- we need to consider what messages will persuade young people from close-knit families of strong believers to question Da'esh.
This is all the more necessary when Da'esh presents every "issue" -- such as surveillance, shoot-to-kill, interviewing refugees and Palestine -- as proof of both discrimination and humiliation and claims that there is no choice but terrorism.
Still, while Da'esh's violent videos may have shock appeal, when we look at what attracts recruits, it is not the violence as much as being part of a common cause. As a recent Quillan Foundation report on radicalization states, Da'esh play on the "youthful desire to be part of something worthwhile. ... It is the organization's utopian offer that is most alluring to new recruits."
But in this lies their weakness: On the ground exists a real world of brutality, corruption and inter-Sunni purges. And, as the study of defectors concludes, "the very existence of defectors shatters the image of unity and determination that the group seeks to convey."
One anti-terrorism expert, Professor Peter Neumann of King's College in London, has proposed a prize for a YouTube contest for videos explaining why Da'esh is wrong. He states: "You would receive 5,000 videos in no time. Four thousand would be junk, but 1,000 of them might be effective -- that's 1,000 videos against the ISIL propaganda."
One such video that has already captured people's imagination is of Canadian children welcoming Syrian refugees with the same song for refugees that was sung to Mohammad when he sought refuge in Madina. It has already had some 1 million views.
And last month came a report out of Mandera, Kenya, of how, during a terrorist attack, Muslim passengers on a bus shielded Christians from attack. Al Shabaab fanatics were known to have singled out Christians while freeing Muslims when they killed 147 people last year. But on this occasion, when the terrorists ordered Muslims to separate themselves from Christians, Muslims reportedly continued to stand with the Christians and dared the attackers to kill them as well.
In Jaffa, Israel, in a unique school project run by the Church of Scotland, Muslims, Christians and Jews are taught the values of tolerance. In Lebanon, a common school curriculum is already being taught to Sunni, Shiite and Christian children from the age of 9 years and upwards championing religious diversity.
If troubled Lebanon, hit hard by sectarian violence and religious division, can not only champion the teaching of coexistence, but offer every Syrian refugee a place in their schools, no matter their religion, so can every other country in the region.
Across several hundred schools in Lebanon, under a double shift system where locals share their school buildings with the refugees, 220,000 Syrian children are now enrolled as pupils. This month, we are asking aid agencies across the world to fund a total of 1 million school places for Syrian refugees across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey at a cost of $500 million.
Today, thousands of refugee children are vulnerable to both child traffickers and extremist ideologues. Our aim is that within a year, every single refugee child is taken off the streets. By doing so, we would send out a message that even in the least promising places, every child has a right to education.
The choice could not be clearer: Ether we simply accept a new generation of Web-using, disaffected and Islamic Arab youth questioning the very idea of coexistence, or we act on the view that, like young people elsewhere, they too want education, employment and a chance to make the most of their talents.
The region's 200 million young should hear from us that rejecting Da'esh's battleground in favor of finding common ground is not only possible, but the only way forward.