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OPINION: The Irresistible Attraction of Radical Islam

In this column, Roberto Savio – founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News – offers four historical reasons for jihadism to understand how the anger and frustration now all over the Muslim world leads to attraction to the Islamic State (IS) in poor sectors, and argues that disaffected Westerners who feel rejected by the society they live are also joining Islam as a radical change to their lives, and armed struggle as a way to be part of a tidal change.

ROME, Nov 3 2014 (IPS) - The Oct. 23 attack on the Canadian Parliament building by a Canadian who had converted to Islam just a month earlier should create some interest in why an increasing number of young people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a radical view of Islam. 

Until now, this was dismissed as fanaticism, but when you have over 2,000 people who blow themselves up, it is time to look to this growing reality and put stereotypes to the side.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

It is worth noting that there are a growing number of voices arguing that the Muslim world and its values are intrinsically against the West. Well, basic data do not support that theory, even although it is being used by all xenophobic parties which have sprung up everywhere in Europe.

Let us recall that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, with Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim country followed by India. The entire Middle East-North Africa region has 317 million, compared with 344 million in Pakistan and India alone. There are 3.4 million Muslims in the United States and 43.4 million in Europe, making perhaps one jihadist for every 100,000 Muslims.

There are four historical reasons for jihadism that are easily forgotten.

“Unemployment is a great habitat for frustration with its lack of perspective on a future, especially when you have no participation and no voice in the political system ... And the fact that the Arab Spring did not bring any tangible change in economic terms has exacerbated frustration into rage or resignation”

First of all, all the Arab countries are artificial. In May 1916, Monsieur Picot for France and Lord Sykes for Britain met and agreed on a secret treaty, with the support of the Russian Empire and the Italian Kingdom, on how to carve up the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Thus the Arab countries of today were born as the result of a division by France and Britain with no consideration for ethnic and religious realities or for history. A few of those countries, like Egypt, had an historical identity, but countries like  Iraq, Arabia Saudi, Jordan, or even the Emirates lacked even that.

It is worth remembering that the Kurdish issue of 30 million people divided among four countries was created by European powers.

As a consequence, the second reason. The colonial powers installed kings and sheiks in the countries that they created. To run these artificial countries, strong hands were required. So, from the very beginning, there was a total lack of participation of the people, with a political system which was totally out of sync with the process of democracy which was happening in Europe.

With a European blessing, these countries were frozen in feudal times.

As for the third reason, the European powers never made any investment in industrial development, or real development. The exploitation of petrol was in the hands of foreign companies and only after the end of the Second World War, and the ensuing process of decolonisation, did oil revenues really come into local hands.

When the colonial powers left, the Arab countries had no modern political system, no modern infrastructure, no local management. When Italy left Libya (it did not know that there was petrol), there were only three Libyans with university degree.

Finally, the fourth reason, which is closer to our days. In states which did not provide education and health for their citizens, Muslim piety took on the task of providing what the state was not. So large networks of religious schools and hospital were created, and when elections were finally permitted, these became the basis for legitimacy and the vote for Muslim parties.

This is why, just taking the example of two important countries, Islamist parties won in Egypt and Algeria, and how with the acquiescence of the West, military coups were the only resort to stop them.

This compression of so many decades into a few lines is of course superficial and leaves out many other issues. But this brutally abridged historical process is useful for understanding how anger and frustration is now all over the Muslim world, and how this leads to attraction to the Islamic State (IS) in poor sectors.

We should not forget that this historical background, even if remote for young people, is kept alive by Israel’s domination of the Palestinian people. The blind support of the West, especially of the United States, for Israel is seen by Arabs as a permanent humiliation. The July-August bombing of Gaza, with just some noises of protest from the West but no real action, is for the Arab world clear proof that the intention is to keep Arabs down and seek alliances only with corrupt and delegitimised rulers who should be swept away.

Not many decades ago, a modernised school system started to produce local cadres, with many at university level. But the lack of political modernisation, combined with the lack of economic development, has led to a generation of disaffected and educated young people, who made their voices heard during what was called the Arab Spring.

But that was an outburst, which did not lead to the creation of a vibrant civil society or real grassroots movements. The only grassroots movement remains the Muslim network of mosques, religious schools and assistance structures.

Besides, there are no modern political parties in Arab countries – this is the difference with the large Muslim countries of Asia, like Indonesia and Malaysia, with Pakistan half way between.

Unemployment is a great habitat for frustration with its lack of perspective on a future, especially when you have no participation and no voice in the political system. Rich countries, like Saudi Arabia, can buy people’s allegiance by offering them a generous subsidy system, but other countries cannot. And the fact that the Arab Spring did not bring any tangible change in economic terms has exacerbated frustration into rage or resignation.

It is highly instructive to read David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times in Tunisia ( from where the majority of jihadists come), Steven Erlanger, also of the New York Times, in London (on the phenomenon of women joining the ranks of IS as fighters or as the wives of fighters) or Ana Carbajasa from Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco (onIslam in Melilla and the radicalisation of women). Few newspapers have given a voice to young Arabs, despite the need to understand them.

Kirkpatrick, Erlanger and Carbajasa found that, for many, the Islamic State has an image of historical revenge against the past, a place free from corruption, It is a beacon for the many young people who  have no way to study or find a job, and have nothing to lose.

Those interviewed declared that to join the radical movement – in the Middle East, in Paris or in Manchester – is to become part of an international moral elite, of a global and magnetic movement. It means having a life project and passing from frustrated anonymity to glorious recognition.

What is creating this mobilisation is that IS is a state, not a secret organisation like Al-Qaeda. And its unprecedented use of social media is attracting hundreds of new recruits every week, who feel that they can escape from their daily frustrations to enter a world of dignity and fairness.

Ahmed, a young Tunisian supporter of the Islamic State who did not want to give his family name for fear of the police, told the New York Times: ”The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody orders because he is rich or powerful. It is action, not theory, and it will topple the whole game”.

Another Tunisian, 28-year-old Mourad, with a master’s degree in technology but unemployed, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice”, because it would absorb the oil rich monarchies and redistribute their wealth. He said: “It is the only way to give people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people. It is an obligation for every Muslim.

This dream of a different Muslim world of identifying with the fight to get there finds an easy echo in the European ghettos where a large proportion of the young unemployed is Arab.  We should not forget the Parisian banlieu violence of 2005 or the riots in Birmingham, England, in the same year.

Meanwhile, the French police estimate that there are now at least 1,200 French citizens in the IS, and the British police estimate an equivalent number of British citizens. Those numbers will grow, as long ISIS can show in its efficient social media campaign that it is a successful reality.

So now we have the phenomenon of disaffected Westerners who have drifted away because they feel rejected by the society they live in and are joining Islam, as a radical change to their lives, and the armed struggle as a way to be part of a tidal change.

In their time, European anarchists were not drifters – they were convinced that to have a new world of social justice and human dignity, it was necessary to destroy the present one – and they were part of a very large political movement.

If some in Europe were able to a dream with violence as a necessary instrument, why can the Muslim world not have a similar dream, with much more justification? The attraction of radical Islam is destined to continue, especially if the Islamic State is destroyed by the West. (END/IPS COUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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  • Mwekaman

    The concept of a modern caliphate could be more appealing to the outside world if the enthusiasts fighting for it showed that they stand for “fairness and dignity”, rather than beheadings and slaughter. ISIS needs a vocal leader with the perspective and compassion of the writer of this article.