Maneuvering within Islam`s narrative space
January-March 2018
By: Brian L Steed

Almost by definition, any invading force will approach the narrative space terrain at a disadvantage, fighting uphill, if you will. What is being advocated here is the importance of understanding just how much uphill the struggle will be. Is this a gentle slope, a steep mountain ascent or a vertical cliff? “Words-deeds-images” before and during the conflict can influence the morphology of the terrain. It is possible to erode and create advantageous or, at least, less disadvantageous terrain.

Conclusion: Implications for conflict

The center of gravity for opponents in 21st-century conflict lies within the narrative space. For groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, that center of gravity lies in the specific belief that salvation may be obtained through martyrdom while battling infidels and apostates. This belief can only be engaged, and effectively countered, through maneuver in the narrative space.

Global leaders, policy makers and military officials need to recognize the vital role that influence plays in virtually all contemporary conflicts. Those who seek to prevail would benefit from acknowledging the need to maneuver within narrative space, to acquire the desired influence. For to triumph, they must understand the morphology of any contested narrative space and master the history of this morphology. This knowledge provides contestants with an understanding of the refraction angle for any given engagement and the attendant perceptions. Successful maneuver in the narrative space thus requires an effective combination of ideology, strategy and tactical execution (ie, specific actions) in order to achieve the desired results. State and nonstate actors around the globe are constantly engaged in such maneuver. For example, Russian actions in Syria, Crimea and eastern Ukraine perfectly illustrate maneuver in the physical and narrative space. China’s conduct in regard to the South China Sea also provides a textbook example of combined maneuver in the physical and narrative space.

The following essay in this edition’s cover package, “Lessons from Islam Nusantara,” describes how inhabitants of the Malay archipelago have successfully maneuvered in the narrative space for more than 500 years, to produce one of the most pluralistic and tolerant Islamic societies in the world today.

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