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

Narrative is the sum total of how people interpret their environment. Narrative space is what shapes thoughts and actions, and it includes physical space and cyberspace within this conceptualization. It is also the means by which people make sense of their world – especially when their world creates cognitive dissonance. The terrain associated with narrative is a combination of the identity, the liminal narrative and the transient narrative. These terms are explained below.

Narrative, in general, is the processing mechanism by which people understand the world in which they live. It includes, as does the terrain, identity. It also includes culture and history. Narrative is “[t]he stories we tell, the identity we form, the way we understand events in our lives (the way we give them meaning) and our future actions,” according to philosopher Ajit K Maan. In this description, narrative is more than story, which is a necessary part of narrative. It is more than messages and talking points delivered by politicians, government officials and military professionals. It is not simply social media in all its forms. These platforms are important and maybe even essential to communicate the messages and stories that make up the narrative, but they are not synonymous with narrative. Social media is a tool or a medium for delivery of narrative and not the narrative itself. Narrative is not memes. Like social media, memes are critical to convey narrative, but they are not the narrative. They are also a tool or mechanism. Some have advocated for a form of memetic warfare to combat offensive or opposing narrative. That would be analogous to proposing a single weapon system warfare – tank warfare or submarine warfare or bomber warfare – to defeat the opponent. Some, notably early air power theorists, have done so in the past. Those people were wrong, just as are those who overemphasize memetic warfare miss the mark today. Physical warfare is best conducted as combined arms that utilize ground maneuver forces in concert with supporting fires and mobility and countermobility efforts. The same method of thinking is relevant to maneuver in the narrative space. It also requires a combination of “words-deeds-images” delivered through various sources and methods. In this vein, memetic warfare and social media applications are useful and may even be significant to maneuver in the narrative space, but no one method will be sufficiently decisive on its own.

Narrative is a combination of language, religion, culture, history, education and traditions that provides context to the stories created by society to assist individuals in understanding what they experience. A simple American narrative might be: America is a land of opportunity where an average person can make of themselves whatever they want through hard work and great ideas. This is a narrative that has been created over generations with numerous stories and experiences as support. It is promulgated with millions of tweets and posts of hard-working women and men who achieved more than their parents through dedicated commitment. Every weekend, millions of people watch sports events where stories are shared of disadvantaged youth with bad family situations who became elite stars with large salaries and lucrative product endorsements. This simple example provides some shape to the definition of the term “narrative” as well as leading in to the discussion on the construction of this narrative space.

The pyramid

Perspective is crucial to this discussion and not all people(s) share the same perspective. The following metaphor explains the differences in perspectives and how that applies to this discussion (see Figure 1.2). “A visual analogy of this comes through a reference to the geometric pyramid shape. Think of it in three dimensions as the accompanying illustrations try to convey. This is a shape that can be perceived from many different angles and some of the angles present radically different ways to describe or define the shape. If one looks at a pyramid precisely from the top then one will see a square with bisecting diagonals. If one looks at the pyramid from the exact opposite direction then one will see only a square. If one sees the pyramid from the side it is possible to see only a triangle. If one looks at the pyramid from another angle then it is possible to see the pyramid in its complex three-dimensional shape.

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