Exploring the roots of radicalism
from the Asia Times, By David Isenberg
Back in the fifth century, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote a classic work called The Art of War . One of the key components of the book was his belief in preparation and in "knowing the enemy". Indeed, one point is widely cited to this day, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
Now fast-forward to the ongoing United States global "war against terrorism". How well does the US and its leader, President George W Bush, understand the enemy? Not well enough, if one relies on public statements. Consider his remarks to the American Legion National Convention on August 26.
"They attack the civilized world because they bear a deep hatred for the values of the civilized world. They hate freedom and religious tolerance and democracy and equality for women. They hate Christians and Jews and every Muslim who does not share their narrow and violent vision ... because America stands for freedom and tolerance and the rights of all, the terrorists have targeted our country."
This sort of rhetoric reminds one of the saying of the American writer H L Mencken, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong."
But if the motivation of terrorists is not hatred of freedom, et cetera, then what is it? The answer, at least in regard to Islamic radicals, is that the motivation is complex, according to a recently-published monograph put out by the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.
The report "Socio-Economic Roots of Radicalism? Towards Explaining the Appeal of Islamic Radicals" by Alan Richards, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, argues that explaining the appeal of al-Qaeda and other followers of Osama bin Laden requires a "nuanced, complex, historical analysis of social, economic, political and cultural factors".
In Richards' view, radicalism is a political response to the deepening economic, social, political and cultural crisis in the Muslim world. Rapid demographic growth, educational changes, government policy failure and rapid urbanization are among the causes of high unemployment and increasing poverty, which together with other forces have alienated large sectors of Muslim youth. The regional crisis has deep historical roots, and "simple solutions do not exist. A long-term strategy is needed. Elements of that strategy include recognition of the limits of American power in the face of this multi-dimensional crisis, concrete steps to resolve the Palestinian problem, and improved intelligence cooperation and covert actions."
Richards believes the unless we try to understand the roots or radicalism, an effort opposed by neo-conservatives due to their fear that it will lead the US to go soft and wobbly, the US will not change any significant aspect of its behavior, especially its energy and foreign policies. Rather, the status quo approach where "We simply have to keep bashing the miscreants militarily often enough, and then they will come to understand that we are right and they are wrong" will prevail.
Such an approach would be an American version of the "Iron Wall" strategy that Vladimir Jabotinsky advocated in Palestine.
But, as Richards points out, the American version of the Iron Wall is likely to be no more successful than it has been in Israel, where 50 years after the proclamation of the state, Israeli citizens feel at least as insecure as ever in their history. While military action, and even more, covert operations may be appropriate elements of a long-term strategy, they are hardly likely to be sufficient.
An effective strategy would take into account the multi-dimensional crisis unfolding in the Muslim world. One aspect of it is the "modernity" crisis. It is a simple fact that changing from a society inhabited by illiterate farmers, who are ruled by a literate, urban elite into an urban, mass-educated society with an economy based on industry and services, has always and everywhere been traumatic. In the West it gave rise to two world wars, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Tojo Hideki , Mao Zedong and his Great Leap Forward, slavery and the US Civil War.
Much of the violence of this transition has been perpetrated by Utopian Islamist fanatics who have imagined a future that involves the restoration of conditions of life in 7th century Arabia.
These fanatics are part of a larger social phenomenon, the transnational Wahhabi (Salafi) movement, which believes that imitation of the behavior of the Prophet's closest companions should be the basis of any social order. The ideology asserts that a return to the practices of the earliest Muslims constitutes a solution to the many difficult problems facing Middle Eastern and other Muslim societies.
Such radicals have their greatest appeal when the transition to modernity is most acute. For example, without World War I, the Bolsheviks would not have come to power in Russia, and Hitler would not have succeeded without the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression.
One factor accounting for the rise in fanaticism and the popularity of groups like al-Qaeda is entirely demographic; the huge numbers of young Middle Easterners. Two thirds of them are below the age of 30, half are younger than 20, and 40 percent of whom have yet to reach their 15th birthday.
Thanks to this population growth, the Middle East now has the most rapidly growing labor force in the world. It is growing four times as rapidly as the American labor force and eight times as rapidly as the European labor supply. This, at a time, when the demand for labor has grown sluggishly at best. Given this mismatch, classic economics says the results must be a falling wages, a rise in unemployment, or a combination of both.
As a result current levels of unemployment are high and the problem will get worse in the near-to-medium term. Second, real wages have stagnated for roughly a generation and, depending on the specific country, either remain the same or increased during the past decade.
Furthermore, the discontent of young people is exacerbated by the fact that most of them now live in cities that are crumbling. This will likely only get worse. The number of urban Middle Easterners is expected to rise from its current level of over 135 million to over 350 million by 2025. Such rapid urbanization strains budgets, legitimacy and governance, while swelling the ranks of regime opponents. Government incapacity and the abandonment of public space to private Islamist schools, mosques and welfare agencies have done much to advance the cause of Salafi extremists.
Traditionally, during such times the safety valve has been international migration. But Muslim migrants to Europe have tended to stay. Their children have faced difficulties with respect to education, employment, housing and identity. Thus, many of them have been attracted to Salafi doctrines.
Meanwhile, migrants who went to Persian Gulf countries often returned home richer, but also more socially conservative, associating their good fortune with Wahhabi customs and outlook.
The consequences of poverty are that it provides a recruiting ground for regime opponents. Some poor people, particularly the young, join violent opposition movements. Of course, as Richards is careful to point out, poverty alone is not the causal issue. Political structures and ideological environments also play a role. Just like the 1960s generation in America youth, politics also focus on issues of identity, justice and morality.
And, for the first time in history, many of these youths have received some education, although there has been a gap between girls and boys in education, with girls being under-enrolled.
A consequence of this mass education has been what is called the "crisis of authority" in Islam. The widespread diffusion of education, together with the absence of hierarchical controls on religious edicts in Islam, unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, produces "religious anarchy that provides the cultural space for radicals to promulgate and advocate their messages".
Another consequence is that much of the education received has been mediocre. It has emphasized memorization, with little emphasis on analytical thinking and problem solving. In countries like Saudi Arabia, 30 percent to 40 percent of all course hours are devoted to the study of scripture. Thus, while expectations have been raised, the skills to meet them have not been acquired. It should be noted that this has long been accepted in the West as a reason for revolts. Among social scientists it is known as the J-curve, for the academic James Chowning Davies who posited it.
In the end, according to Richards, there is no easy solution. Inevitably, in the current transition in the region, there will be failures, as well as successes. He writes, "The truth is that outsiders are largely irrelevant to the process of deep institutional and cultural change which, alone, can ultimately overcome the profound, multi-tiered crisis facing the Muslim world."
Yet, the US can at least take steps to keep things from getting worse. Aside from seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it should modify its policies toward the Gulf, and, especially, towards Iran; recognize that past US policies contributed to the origins of the problem; understand that genuinely democratic Arab and Islamic polities will include a strong representation of Islamists; adopt energy policies that speed the transition to the post-oil era.