Cutting off extremism’s fuel supply
Extremist and terrorist groups run on fuel. I am not talking about the oil resources that the Islamic State (ISIS) has seized in Iraq and Syria. I am talking about a different kind of fuel: the powerful human emotions of frustration, uncertainty, humiliation, fear and hopelessness.
In the Middle East and North Africa today, these emotions run rampant in virtually every society, as they are among marginalised groups — Muslim communities in particular — in Europe. And where these emotions predominate, terrorist recruitment is made easy.
Writing prior to the “Arab spring”, French scholar Dominique Moisi said: “Too much fear, too much humiliation and not enough hope constitute the most dangerous of all possible social combinations; the one that leads to the greatest instability and tension”. That social combination virtually defines the Arab World today. Economies that do not efficiently provide goods and services or offer the prospects of social mobility, educational systems that do not educate, a bulging youth population that sees few prospects, sectarian leaders stoking conflict with the “other” — these conditions are creating fear, humiliation and hopelessness.
But the question remains: Why do these conditions and the emotions they arouse lead one to join a violent extremist group? One answer has been provided by Michael A. Hogg, a prominent sociologist at the Claremont Graduate University in California. Hogg argues that “societal change and personal life events sometimes make one feel uncertain about one’s self and identity. This self-uncertainty can motivate people to identify with social groups, particularly groups that provide a distinctive and clearly defined identity… This process can make more extreme groups attractive as a source of identification.”
In short, groups such as ISIS provide an answer to people who are uncertain about their futures and even their identities. They do not join these groups out of devotion to Islam — theology has little if anything to do with it. They join out of a need to belong to something greater than themselves. And because of the chaotic and divisive environment in so much of the Arab world, their own nations no longer provide this. In many cases, even their families no longer provide a sense of meaningful belonging.
French scholar Olivier Roy, who has studied the jihadist phenomenon in both the Middle East and among European Muslims, says that radicalisation is largely “a youth revolt against society”, especially societies in which their hopes and expectations are frustrated. “These rebels without a cause,” Roy said recently at a conference in Germany, “find in jihad a ‘noble’ and global cause and are consequently instrumentalised by a radical organisation that has a strategic agenda.”
This analysis suggests several things. First, jihadist terrorism and extremism will likely be with us for a long time to come. Even if ISIS’s “caliphate” is defeated in Iraq and Syria, the group probably will continue to recruit followers for terrorist missions in the region and abroad.
Second, focusing on shutting down or interfering with extremists’ social media activities — or offering a “counter-narrative” social media platform — is worth pursuing but will have only a limited effect. One way or another, these groups will find ways to get their message out and they know exactly which segments of society to target.
Finally — and most importantly — the scourge of extremism and terrorism will only be defeated by addressing the root causes of fear, humiliation and hopelessness.
This is a generational task, which is why the problem will be with us for some time to come. It will require deep societal reforms, especially in educational and economic systems. It will require influxes of aid and investment from the West and the wealthy countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. And it will require political systems and social organisations that offer hope to the millions of people who now face uncertainty and hopelessness every day.
Make no mistake: This is heavy lifting. It will be a massive undertaking, a global project. But if there is anything that global terrorism has taught us, it is that the world cannot build a wall around a troubled region and quarantine it from the rest of the planet. And the truth is, the MENA region’s crises derive in part from historical actions by outsiders — European colonialism and the manipulation of local regimes by Moscow and Washington during the Cold War, in particular — so the West’s contribution to this undertaking is as much restitution as it is charity.
But any way you look at it, the bottom line is clear: Because of globalisation, the world simply cannot allow such a geographically large, heavily populated and resource-rich area of the planet to fester in violence and chaos.