Feb 09 2015

How to Win the Ideological Battle Against Extremism

Published by at 11:28 am under Arab Issues,Articles


By Daoud Kuttab

I am quite certain that the military war on DAESH (ISIS) will be largely won in 2015. The anger that has engulfed Jordan after learning of the heinous crime against the pilot Muath Kassasbeh will certainly help ensure that this war is won militarily. This is the second time in six months that a young Arab Muslim is burnt alive by extremists. Last July Jewish settlers burnt alive a Palestinian teeanger Mohammad Abu Khdair.

However I can’t say that I have the same confidence of such a success in the ideological war on extremism. Both battles need to be fought simultaneously and won.

The physical rise of the self appointed Caliphate-run DAESH; (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has provided Arab and western military with a clear tangible target which can be defeated. Finding and defeating the intangible causes that prepared the welcoming environment for these extremists needs an effective strategy.

To fight ideological extremism in the Middle East the main starting point must be youth. It is vitally important that Arab/Muslim youth are given satisfactory answers to their economic, community and spiritual needs. The challenge is difficult and there are no magic solutions.

If a fraction of what is being spent to defeat DAESH militarily can be spent on providing economic opportunities, a major source of anger among youth can be eliminated. Young people in the Middle East and North Africa are being added annual to the labor market which is unable to provide them with jobs at alarming rates. The IMF estimated back in 2012 that at 25% , the region has the highest rate of unemployment in the world. The situation has gotten worse since.

A look at the often tragic efforts to illegally immigrate to Europe is the best proof of this problem. From January to July 2014 alone 100,000 tried to illegal cross the Mediterranean. This issue needs to be addressed from both sides of the Mediterranean. In addition to providing jobs at home, Europe which has an older population and has many job opportunities needs to loosen up its policies to help share with the burden of this huge block of unemployed Arabs and Moslems.

At the same time western countries must not allow the new immigrants (whether legal or illegal) to feel as unwanted strangers, otherwise they will latch on to whatever extremist movement is interested in recruiting them.

Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa region also must institute major economic changes that can help absorb this growing, and naturally angry, new crop of unemployed youths. Part of the vast sovereign wealth in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, estimated at $1.7 trillion, should be invested in job-creating economies, rather than horded in sovereign funds or invested in the highest earning worldwide stocks and investments. Western nations should also invest in such job creation programs in the MENA region rather than waste their funds in new wars.

But giving angry Arab and Moslem youths a job is not all that is needed. A strong effort must be employed to satisfy the aspirations of young people who are able through the information revolution to see what living in a free and open society means. Autocratic rulers and undemocratic policies carried in the name of security, or fighting extremism, further alienate these young people. The Palestinian struggle as well as the aspirations of minorities in various Arab countries needs to be solved quickly in order to remove these poison-producing national conflicts. The fight against violent terrorism, as is the case in Egypt, should not be used to excuse genuine forms of protests and opposition.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this ideological struggle is the need to address the emotional and spiritual needs.

Arabs and Moslems feel that they are a defeated nation and are easily excited when they see the short-term successes of organizations like, Daesh. Defeating extremists militarily without satisfying this yearning for success will further exasperate the problem even if it may buy time. Angry and defeated youth will no doubt latch to the next group of extremists who will mesmerize them with short term success.

Young people looking for successful role models need genuine spiritual leaders who treat them with respect and address their intellect as well as their heart. Such a level headed spiritual approach is lacking in the region and in the prevailing religious government controlled establishments a situation which makes renegade religious leaders so popular and so dangerous.

While the message to young people needs to be thought through and effectively address their needs, it is just as important to use the right communication means to reach out. It is inconceivable that in the 21st century when radical extremists use the latest IT digital communications tools, that the good guys are still sending weak messages using analogue tools authored and approved by older men. Both the message and medium must be truly revolutionized if we are to have a chance at effectively reaching the target audience.

The current war on extremism might very well end up with a military victory and yet an ideological defeat. This means that the retreating and defeated extremist will look for another location and another time to restart the war. A much better strategy would be to simultaneously win both the military and ideological wars.

This will require effective out of the box enlightenment thinking, an open ear to hearing (and not just listening) to young people and the courageous political will to do what is needed to reverse the current situation which favors the wrong people and their disastrous dark ideas.

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