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The Quiet Christian Insurgency in the Middle East

While the U.S. government continues to search for an information campaign that can effectively weaken ISIS and other radical groups, Christians have been waging a surprisingly successful war of ideas against radical Islam.

The New York Times recently published an article on an initiative by Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, which brought together a group of experts to figure out a strategy for weakening the Islamic State’s appeal. But according to the article, General Nagata expressed a dismay that has become a common theme of the Obama administration: “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

The State Department’s counter-terrorism messaging initiative equally fails to inspire confidence. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was created in 2011. With a budget of about $5 million and a team of 50 as of 2014, it works to counter the tweets and Facebook posts of jihadists. It is best known for its campaign, Think Again Turn Away. Its current Facebook page, which has 10,455 likes, features the question, “ISIS: Why is Your ‘Caliph’ Hiding?” It maintains a count of the days since Baghdadi was last seen (220 as of February 9, 2015).

But the campaign has about as much subtlety as the “Just Say No” campaign against drugs. As Jacob Silverman, an author who writes about social media, noted, “State’s messages usually arrive with all the grace of someone’s dad showing up at a college party.”

A third key component of the U.S. government’s messaging campaign is carried out by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí). According to the BBG’s website, their mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. They have a massive budget with which to carry out that mission–a hefty $733 million last year. But a 2014 audit of the BBG by the State Department’s Inspector General revealed fraudulent and wasteful purchasing practices, which lead Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to conclude that the BBG’s “wasteful spending, non-competitive contracting practices, and violations of current law point to an organization without accountable leadership.” Rep. Royce went on to say, “For the sake of our national security interests, it is critical that U.S. international broadcasting be effective; that is why we have to scrap this broken agency.”

Thus, to the extent that the United States government is even engaging in the war of ideas, it is not doing a very effective job. As Robert Reilly, a former director of the Voice of America has said, “…the U.S. government has failed to show up for the war of ideas. Strategic communication or public diplomacy, the purpose of which is to win such wars, is the single weakest area of U.S. government performance since 9/11.”

Enter the Christians. With limited dollars and a limited goal, American Christians are having far-reaching success that few outside their circle know about. Their goal is to bring the message of Christianity to as many people as possible. That used to mean sending missionaries to far-flung and often dangerous places. But increasingly, Christian groups are putting the tools of social media and technology to work for their cause. And unlike the U.S. government’s efforts, their messaging is having a profound resonance in the Middle East and Africa.

Take, for example, Isik Abla, a charismatic and bubbly Turkish woman who converted to Christianity from Islam and now broadcasts daily into Muslim-majority countries. Isik’s book, I Dreamed Freedom: An Abused Muslim Girl’s Journey to Find Freedom, describes her dysfunctional family, rife with addiction, abuse and infidelity, and her eventual conversion to Christianity. Today, she shares that story openly with Muslims, and rather than chastising them with messages like “Think Again, Turn Away,” she offers messages of empathy, hope, and love. A recent post on her Facebook page, says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” She uses hashtags that include #GiveittoGod and #YouareLoved!! It is a message people are responding to well: her Facebook page has 1,654,111 likes.

“Brother Rachid” is another popular convert to Christianity who is reaching out to Muslims. Born to a devout Muslim family in Morocco, today Rachid hosts a weekly call-in show entitled “Daring Questions,” in which he challenges Muslims to think hard about their faith, and he debates Muslim scholars. Rachid’s programs air by satellite all over the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, North America and Australia. On one website, “Daring Questions” was streamed 10,763,988 times. On the same website, his program was downloaded 1,648,217 times. This would suggest that Muslims are hungry for meaningful discussion and debate about their faith.

Isik Abla and Brother Rachid are engaging in the war of ideas not only in Muslim countries, but also here at home. After President Obama said in September 2014 that “ISIS is not Islamic,” Rachid posted a YouTube video, where he challenged the president:

I ask you, Mr. President, to stop being politically correct — to call things by their names. ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban, and their sister brand names, are all made in Islam. Unless the Muslim world deals with Islam and separates religion from state, we will never end this cycle.

It is Christians who understand– perhaps better than anyone else– that this is not a war for territory or treasure, but for hearts and souls. It is not a war that can be won on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the majority of those currently in charge of America’s messaging campaign are post-modern secular bureaucrats. They cannot grasp the profound pull religion can have on men’s hearts.

This is not to suggest that the State Department should get into the preaching business or that Christianity is the answer to all of Islam’s ailments. But it is to say that the Islamic world is deep in crisis, as virtually any Muslim can attest. There are wide-ranging debates going on across the Muslim world over the future of Islam. In a recent speech, Egyptian President Sisi admonished the scholars of Al Azhar University to help bring about a revolution in Islam. The United States, in contrast, merely denies that the crisis has anything to do with Islam and offers a gentle hand-slap to would be jihadists: #ThinkAgainTurnAway.

Those currently in charge of America’s information campaign do not take seriously the ideas driving the enemy, and therefore they do not wade into the deep waters where the real battle is taking place—in the world of ideas and beliefs. Christians, on the other hand, know exactly what this battle is about, and they are more than willing to go where the State Department fears to tread.

Katie Gorka is the president of the Council on Global Security. @katharinegorka.

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