How to Make Enemies and Influence People

Why ISIS’s atrocities will destroy it.

Jordanian protesters

Jordanian protesters hold up pictures of Jordanian King Abdullah and Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, as they chant slogans during a rally in Amman to show their loyalty to the King and against ISIS, on Feb. 5, 2015.

Photo by Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Abdullah, the king of Jordan, had a problem. Just across his northern and eastern borders, in Syria and Iraq, a bloodthirsty Islamic insurgency was raging. The insurgency was building a nascent medieval empire it called the Islamic State. And the empire’s next target was Jordan.

But Abdullah couldn’t get his own people to face the threat. Many of them didn’t see ISIS as an enemy. Thousands sympathized with ISIS. Last fall, when the king’s government joined the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS, Jordanians broadly opposed the move. After ISIS announced the capture of a Jordanian pilot in December, there were chants at home to disengage from the war.

Then, two days ago, ISIS released a video of the pilot’s death. Its fighters hadn’t beheaded him. They had locked him in a cage and burned him alive. The video showed the whole horrifying scene.

In Jordan the video has changed everything. ISIS remains a threat. But Abdullah’s domestic problem is gone. He no longer has to persuade his people that ISIS is their mortal enemy. The video took care of that. Jordanians are rallying behind their king and demanding an all-out war on ISIS. “Now the Jordanian masses are angry and hitting out at [ISIS] and not the Jordanian government,” says the editor of a Jordanian newspaper. “There is a strong public determination … to fight the Islamic State.”

The backlash against the video in Jordan, and throughout the Arab world, underscores two things. One is that ISIS is fundamentally suicidal. Its barbarity is its undoing. But the second lesson is broader: The most effective method of persuasion isn’t seduction. It’s antagonism. The surest way to push somebody’s thinking in one direction is to attack him, and alienate him, from the other.

Noxious, belligerent people are the world’s most powerful persuaders. Nobody does more damage to Israel than the hyper-Zionists who go around blasting anyone who questions an Israeli policy. Nobody does more to destroy feminism than the bro-bashers who delight in purging heretics from the movement. That’s why Fox News books the most extreme liberals and MSNBC features the most galling conservatives. The best salesman is the villain on the other side.

Remember when President Obama was having trouble rounding up votes in Congress to delay tougher sanctions on Iran? House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took care of that. Boehner, apparently under the impression that he was elected last fall to run his own foreign policy, invited Netanyahu to address Congress. Boehner’s office and Israeli officials negotiated the plan privately for nearly two weeks. Neither side told the White House until two hours before Boehner’s office announced the negotiated invitation—and Netanyahu, without waiting, promptly accepted it.*

Congressional Democrats, infuriated by both men, snapped into line behind Obama’s sanctions policy. Iran’s most effective lobbyist turned out to be the prime minister of Israel.

Violence is even more persuasive. The Islamic militants who murdered cartoonists, police officers, and shoppers in Paris last month thought they were serving Allah. In reality, they were serving the French far right. In the days after the murders, 54 assaults and other hostile incidents were recorded against Muslims in France. A poll published a week ago found the head of France’s anti-immigrant movement, Marine Le Pen, leading in the next presidential election.

ISIS has a unique gift for provoking revulsion. It doesn’t just kill people. It beheads them and posts videos of the gore. Even in Japan, a country with a pacifist constitution, this behavior has backfired. Japan’s prime minister is trying to amend the constitution to expand his authority to use military force. In that domestic campaign, the ISIS murders of two Japanese hostages in the last two weeks have become his most effective weapon.

In the case of the Jordanian pilot, ISIS went further. It burned him to death in a cage. Then it pretended he was still alive and tried to trick Jordan into exchanging prisoners for him. Then it posted the video of his fiery death for the whole world to see, complete with grotesque close-ups and gloating narration. ISIS displayed the video on giant screens in its territory and posted video of people’s reactions to it.

The atrocity has backfired for at least two reasons. One is that the victim was Muslim. The other is that in Islamic teaching, death by fire is a judgment reserved for Allah. To burn a man alive isn’t just sickening. It’s blasphemous. Now the “Islamic State” has earned the condemnation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and even some jihadist Sunni clerics.

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, which had recently scaled back its cooperation with the U.S. against ISIS, has denounced the pilot’s murder. So has the president of Turkey, which had been dragging its feet in the campaign against ISIS. So has Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. So have newspapers across the Arab world.

ISIS set out to inspire hatred. It has succeeded, but not in the way it intended. “These people are in many ways their own worst enemies,” one expert told the New York Times. “You just have to give them time and space and their extremity will alienate their own base.” ISIS has ignited itself. Now it will burn.

*Correction, Feb. 9, 2015, 8:14 p.m. The article originally misstated that Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation behind Obama’s back. Actually, it was the negotiations between Boehner’s and Netanyahu’s aides, not Netanyahu’s formal acceptance of the negotiated invitation, that were conducted before the White House was informed. (Return.)