Rethinking radicalisation in the aftermath of the Paris attacks

Ziad A Akl
Thursday 17 Dec 2015

Military intervention and religious reform will not counter terrorism without genuine democratic transformation

It has been over a month since a string of terrorist attacks took place in more than one location over a timeline that did not exceed 72 hours. Whether in France, Lebanon, Nigeria, or Egypt, the decentralised pattern of terrorism struck hard all over the world.

Due to several reasons that have to do with various dimensions, the Paris attacks were the ones that generated the most sympathy and attention. Similarly, the Paris attacks were the ones that stirred up the most significant set of international reactions and strategic decisions.

This does not mean that the value of human life differs from one place to another or that individuals’ sense of security matters more in Western Europe than it does in the Middle East or Africa. It is just an indication of how the international community is unjustly run by power politics and mechanisms of strategic influence.

However, the wave of response following the Paris attacks was huge, ranging from worldwide solidarity and compassion with the French to open aggression and blunt hostility towards Muslims.

On the heels of those initial popular responses came a number of political and strategic revisions of the extent, intensity and pattern of Western involvement in countering terrorism, specifically in Iraq and Syria.

The statements made by political leaders did not reflect anything other than responsive necessity and a crisis-inspired intention to amplify security strategies and further consolidate military presence and intervention in the Middle East. Although it is understandable that such measures are taken after the attacks, instant responses do not necessarily reflect detailed strategic thinking or thoroughly handle causal factors.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the perceptions of radicalisation and violent extremism before a comprehensive course of action is envisioned.

Debating the causes of radicalisation and violent extremism has been extensive in the past few years, specifically after ISIS became difficult to ignore or label as a mere domestic or regional threat. In the Middle East, Egypt and some Gulf States in particular, the most dominant rationale was that which related radicalisation and extremism to a violent religious discourse and offers doctrinal ground for terrorism.

Another popular rationale in the Middle East and some Western countries relates causal factors of terrorism to political instability and an obvious lack of sufficient security measures as a result.

A third (less popular) perspective relates causal factors of radicalisation and terrorism to the dominance of authoritarian repression, the closure of political opportunities and the absence of democratic political procedures.

In fact, recent events have proved that it is very difficult to dismiss any of those rationales or to single out one of them.

Despite the difference in the manner in which each rationale is conceptualised, there is a tangible degree of resonance to every one of them. However, adopting one rationale as a base for strategic action while ignoring others reflects some misunderstanding of present day terrorism.

The lucid nature of current terrorist entities like ISIS and its affiliates worldwide, the decentralised pattern of leadership in those groups, the tactical diversity in their operative strategies and the ongoing geographical diffusion of their influence all point to a multi-dimensional problem that cannot be cornered with a single perspective strategy.

Cracking down on terrorist infrastructure in places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya is important, but it would neither stop the various manifestations of those entities in different parts of the world nor will it affect the persistence of a violent religious discourse. Similarly, combating a violent religious discourse or restoring political stability through empowering authoritarian regimes will only transform the problem or merely relocate it.

Therefore, we need to revise some facts before envisioning and implementing a counter-terrorism strategy.

A violent religious discourse does indeed exist in most Muslim Societies. Whether this discourse is a product of the Islamic doctrine or of the different power institutions that helped shape some ideas into practices is a philosophical and a socio-historical debate that will not affect the fact that a body of violent and militant ideas exists within some namely Islamic groups or entities.

At the same time, the security-based approach in handling those ideas has resulted in nothing other than their adamant persistence and their political re-contextualisation. International military intervention in response to terrorist attacks has been applied more than once since 2001, and the result of this intervention was nothing other than further domestic complications, regional tensions, and negative international consequences.

Another indispensable fact is the legacy and the ongoing robustness of authoritarian regimes in the Arab World. These regimes have repeatedly utilised religion for political interests, consistently banned political diversity, and systematically avoided democratisation through repression, legislation, and interest-based international alliances. Reconciling the different causal approaches to radicalisation requires careful considerations of those facts and an actual political will to effectively address what they signify.

Looking beyond the Paris attacks must be based on the realisation that neither direct military intervention nor institutional religious reform will effectively counter terrorism without a tangible interest in a genuine process of democratic transformation.

The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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