Empty Suits & Unholy Rage – ISIS vs. the Secular West (Part 1)

The Problem

Recently, a French political scientist was interviewed on National Public Radio. The terrorist attack in Nice had just taken place. France had been on heightened security alert since November 2015, when 130 people were slaughtered in a series of coordinated attacks involving suicide bombers, assault weapons and hostage taking. Now, just this past month, a Tunisian madman who had lived in France for 11 years deliberately ran a 19-ton cargo truck into a crowd along the Nice waterfront on Bastille Day. 84 people died. The 31-yr old terrorist, a man who by all accounts was a drug addict, alcoholic, and all-around petty villain, was surrounded by police and shot dead in the cab of his truck. The media was engaged in the usual post-mortem analysis. What can be done? What should be done? What isn’t working? What would drive somebody to do such a thing? This was the context for Myriam Benraad’s interview with NPR. What should France be doing differently? Her answer was remarkable:

In France, I think there’s a real malaise. There’s a crisis of our political and social model for a number of reasons which I cannot enumerate fully during this interview. But we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.1

How do you persuade angry young men, many of them immigrants from abroad, some even EU citizens, that it isn’t a good idea to butcher many people in the name of Allah? What must be done to counteract this propaganda? Benraad recognizes that there is a problem. She also realizes that France (and its coalition partners) have not yet found the solution. She is not alone.

The Empty Secular Solution

On September 29, 2015, an article appeared in The New York Times which stated, “President Obama called upon a conclave of world leaders on Tuesday to fight violent extremism not just with weapons but with ideas, jobs and good governance, a strategy he has long advocated. There are few signs that it is succeeding.”2 President Obama announced this was an ideological war, not a strictly military conflict. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns,” he exclaimed. “They are defeated by better ideas—a more attractive and compelling vision.”3

What is this “compelling vision” the Western world offers angry young men that ISIS cannot? What “better ideas” was President Obama referring to? This strategy was probably driving the now-infamous statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that ISIS could be defeated if only their fighters had access to jobs. “We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”4

The State Department has admitted “the coalition does not communicate well.”5 An official lamented that the West was always reacting to ISIS online propaganda, instead of advancing its own narrative. The counter-propaganda effort was a failure, a disaster. The Western world was being defeated in social media by the junior varsity team.6 ISIS was “expanding like Starbucks franchises.”7 Something must be done. A solution was nigh at hand—a “full-time coalition communications hub.”8

Thus, we now have something called the “Global Engagement Center.” The director of the center explained that his counter-propaganda mission was to expose the awful truth that ISIS “ ‘is indeed a vicious awful organization that is rife with hypocrisy and everything else…it’s about revealing their true nature so people understand they aren’t what they say they are,’ he said. ‘They’re not paying their fighters what they claim to be paying them, and nor is the quality of life what they’re advocating.’”9 So, for example, the GEC’s Twitter account has graphics of people standing in line for food, with the text, “Under Daesh, the lines of the hungry grow longer.” Another post shows a laptop computer illuminated by the miserable, flickering glow of a tea light candle. “Daesh can’t provide basic services for its people,” the picture warns solemnly.

This is the same approach which Myriam Benraad advocated. Young immigrant men in France are disenchanted. They’re cynical and soured on the life they’ve found in the West. This is why she suggested, “we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.”

Her comments are not remarkable because of their insight. They are remarkable because they betray how shallow and impotent a secular approach to this conflict is. The same could be said about the entire counter-propaganda message being pushed by the Obama administration and its various coalition partners. As Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has observed, “What we are looking at here is a vast collision of worldviews, and one that secular leaders in Europe and in the United States, starting in the White House, seem to be incapable of understanding. At its base, we’re talking about a worldview conflict between Islam and Modernity.”10


1 National Public Radio. “French Men Attracted To ‘Anti-System Utopia’ In Drive To Join ISIS,” on All Things Considered. 19JUL16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Vr37KO.

2 Gardiner Harris and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Call at U.N. to Fight ISIS With Ideas Is Largely Seen as Futile,” in The New York Times. 29SEP15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Ru4yKS.

3 Ibid.

4 T. Beckett Adams, “State Department spokeswoman claims jobs are key to defeating ISIS,” in Washington Examiner. 17FEB15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/3WXpDk.

5 The New York Times. “State Department Memo on the Islamic State Group.” 12JUN15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/ipNTiK.

6 See the discussion by Glenn Kessler, “Spinning Obama’s reference to Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team,” in The Washington Post. 03SEP14. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/yw2eRg.

7 New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

8 New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

9 Kristina Wong, “How the US is working to defeat ISIS online,” in The Hill. 25JUN16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/bWktxW.

10 Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 12-7-15. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/07/the-briefing-12-07-15/.

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There are 5 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks  Tyler, for an insightful article.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

The argument of the State Department appears to be, more or less, that they will stop when they are more comfortable, as if the heir to the Bin Laden construction company was at a lack for comfort or job opportunities.  It is as if they're incapable of believing that people will actually believe something to the point of acting on it.

Long habit, really.  I remember back in the 1970s and 1980s, people as prominent as Carter would not believe that Communism actually posed a threat.  It was as if he had ignored Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, or Gulag Archepalago in 1973, or the cultural revolution in China, or any number of other atrocities from that ideology.  It's a lot like the left's view of the PLO/PA, really--let's ignore the atrocities and assume things will be just fine if they get some nice elementary schools.  

It goes beyond mere secularism, really. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture


Yesterday, during his return to The Briefing for the season, Mohler said this about France's response to these kind of attacks:

But there is another issue the Financial Times clearly understands, and that is the fact that France is ardently, in terms of its government, committed to secularity, if not to secularism. That, of course, makes France uniquely vulnerable to those who are animated and motivated by a theological worldview, and it also makes France almost singularly incompetent to know how to respond. There is amongst the French intellectuals now a virtual inability to understand anyone who might operate in terms of worldview from any kind of theological motivation and basic structure

This is precisely correct. There is a complete inability in the modern West to even understand somebody who could be motivated by a deep and passionate commitment to a particular theological system.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Aaron Blumer's picture


True or not, it's now widely believed that America was never "Christian" because vast numbers of those who identified in one way or another with Christianity only held to it superficially. Similarly, the case has been made (and more often assumed) that early colonial settlers weren't really driven by faith to find religious freedom, but were looking for wealth, political power, etc.

I'm leery of either-or perspectives. But my point is that if we're going to assume most professing Christians aren't really Christians or motivated by Christian belief, it seems reasonable to suppose that most professing Muslims are not really all that deeply Muslim/driven by Muslim beliefs either.

I don't doubt that there are theological factors. I believe there are lots of other factors as well.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture


Well, some of the original settlers clearly were influenced by Christianity. John Winthrop and his followers were one of them, and his "city on a hill" analogy is well known. If only Winthrop had been a good dispensationalist! But, undoubtedly some others were clearly not. With regards to our founding fathers, I think that a good deal of the Christianese of that day (and many days after) was little more than a Christian gloss with little substance. George Marsden, in one of his books, called this outward gloss of morality and religiosity "a dime-store millennium." I think he's right.

But, I think the issue with ISIS is a mixed bag. I think the leaders are true believers. Are all the foot soldiers? Probably not; undoubtedly some of them are simply psychopaths who are looking for an excuse to kill. What about the lone wolves, like the Tunisian in Nice? It seems like many of them are true believers. Of course, we can debate whether their beliefs accurately reflect Islamic theology (and I'm not competent to discuss that). The fact is that many of these lone wolves do seem to be genuinely influenced by Islamic theology. The point is that the worldview which prompts these so-called lone wolves to kill people in Nice, Orlando, and California is significantly more persuasive and compelling than the secular naturalism which has become the de facto public religion of the West. I don't believe you can fight this kind of theological mindset with secular tools.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

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