Calling Islamic State militants a cancer that will spread, University of Montana professor Mehrdad Kia warned that the problem could become global if not countered intellectually and dealt with directly by established Islamic nations.

Kia, head of the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center at UM and an expert on Middle Eastern history, held a short news conference Friday to discuss current events in Syria and Iraq, and the long history that led to the rise of the Islamic State.

“Calling them ISIS gives them the prestige and recognition they’re looking for,” Kia said, adding that the new campaign led by a coalition of forces, including those in the Middle East, should have taken place some time ago.

Kia touched on the region’s troubled history stemming back to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of Iran as a regional power and the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

He also discussed the role that social media has played in the rise of the Islamic State, and the new role international journalists play in covering the conflict. The value of the journalist no longer lies in his or her work, Kia said, but rather in their value as a hostage.

“It used to be that the leader would call, say, Barbara Walters for an interview,” Kia said. “Now with YouTube, social media and tweeting, they don’t need a journalist. They need the journalist as a hostage or a corpse. It tells you that even the terrorists have caught up with what modern journalism is all about.”

Recent videos released by the Islamic State have made news around the world, giving terrorists an international platform from which to spread their propaganda and recruit new members to their cause.

Kia believes recent clips on U.S. evening newscasts and reports in newspapers across the country showing journalists before their beheading have been overplayed. Airing such propaganda has played into the hands of the Islamic State militants, helping them step closer to their goal, he said.

“It actually generates interest and recruitment among the radical fringe,” said Kia. “It’s a way of pulling in the U.S. and its European allies into the conflict to create this intense hatred, so this battle between Islam and the West can really become a reality.”

The Islamic State and other terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and the Taliban, have long argued that Islam is engaged in a war with the West, something the U.S. has denied.

“That’s what they (terrorists) want to prove, that the West is an enemy of Islam,” Kia said. “One of the pilots who did the bombing the first night was a woman from the United Arab Emirates. Symbolically, that’s so important. It becomes a counter muse to ISIS’ narrative.”

The Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center at UM has contacts across that region of the world, along with those in Washington, D.C.

Kia said the program strives to provide current and accurate information on events to both the university and state communities.

“We see ourselves as being the instrument through which the public can get a more in-depth analysis of what’s going on,” Kia said. “The situation is so complex and so dynamic and volatile that it can change at any time.”

While the allied bombing campaign is a start, Kia said, the long-term challenge remains unresolved. Young recruits from the U.S., Canada, England, France and Germany have passports and could bring terrorism home.

“They will come back,” Kia said. “This will become a major threat if we don’t look at it and deal with it, militarily yes, but also culturally and intellectually.”

Islamic countries must also play a part in quashing the movement, he said.

“They have to counter it and stand against it, and they have to perpetuate a culture in their media and everyday life that would say this is not Islam,” he said. “This is a violent, cultish movement that cannot be allowed to spread its wings.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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