Why the United States should wage a culture war against ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, has created a terrifying presence for itself. For a while, Americans were afraid of ISIS in the way kids are afraid of the boogeyman; they saw the organization as a scary, yet distant force of evil. But now, with the recent cutting of art and education programs in Iraq, ISIS seems much more real—and even more dangerous. These cuts to education represent serious attempts at indoctrination as well as a consolidation of power in ISIS-controlled territories. The elimination of literature, art, history and music education will isolate the youth from the rest of the world and make the indoctrination of the new generation a simpler process.

The significance of a liberal arts education isn’t that it simply allows our creative juices to flow. Rather, the arts exist in schools to create a direct link to a shared global culture. The goal of ISIS is to create a separate Islamic State. Of course, nationalism may be all well and good in healthy doses, and I’m not advocating the creation of one world culture. But if a nation allows itself to be removed from the shared stream of global culture, isolationism is sure to follow.

This is exactly what ISIS desires. By deleting the liberal arts from education, they are effectively cutting the Iraqis off from the river that is international culture, dehydrating them and eliminating their social knowledge. All ISIS has to do is create its own cultural pool to fill up the thirsty masses and the brainwashing is complete.

Suddenly, there is no struggle for control, because the population won't even remember what it was they were struggling for. And this is what truly scares me about ISIS.

ISIS is not just fighting a physical war; it is fighting a mental war and I’m afraid the United States is not prepared to win a war on those terms. Nothing in the history of our foreign involvement, especially in relation to the Middle East, has led me to believe that the U.S. can act as an ambassador of culture, at least not in any positive way.

Many would argue that the international idea of American culture is fast food and ignorance, which is not what you want when you attempt to win over the hearts and minds of a foreign population. Now, even the scant positive images of Western culture that did make it to Islamic nations through the study of liberal arts are being removed, and all that’s left is McDonalds and memories of the Iraq War.

Ultimately, we as a nation need to shift our efforts in fighting this threat. The concern should not be finding and fighting as much as it should be convincing the Middle East that we’re not just a bunch of gun-toting killers.

If we are going to stand any chance against ISIS, we have to stop fighting a physical war and start fighting a war of culture, and support and advocate for the global and creative freedom of those who are deprived of a chance to express themselves artistically.