On January 18-19, 2017, the IPEV kick-off gathered 100 IPEV members, researchers and practicioners in Paris for the first time. During the 2 days of conferences, meetings and debates, the members met up with their working groups and started collaborating.

Tarek Mitri is a member of the IPEV International Advisory board. Find out more about the speech of the Director of the Fares Institute on Public policy and international Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Reflections on policies of prevention and de-radicalization

Unsurprisingly, issues of radicalization and the so-called de-radicalization, as well as those concerning the genesis of violence and exit from it, are widely and rather confusingly debated in recent literature. Taking note of its wealth and diversity evokes a paradox of the plenty. The more there is, and there is a lot, the less many people understand and more is needed to learn the lessons and produce a comprehensive and better articulated knowledge.

It is my hope that this International Panel, with the tools it possesses and the people it purports to energize, will significantly contribute to a wide-embracing and not always conventional knowledge, a knowledge that proves to be more relevant to those who are in the policy world and various types of public action.

To be sure, we miss among many of those who are focused on Islamic jihadism or Islamic terrorism, a sustained interest in a comparative approach. We equally miss the intellectual curiosity to examine the links between political violence and criminal violence. In addition, there does not seem to be enough effort to make the necessary distinctions between religious motivation and religious legitimation, between the end of massive cruelty and the exit from violence, and between modes of individual persuasion, manipulation and subsequent recruitment of fighters on the one hand and communal appeal on the other.

In addition, some of the discussions around de-radicalization tend to tap into psychological research and scholarship with the risk of underestimating the indispensable use of sociological investigation. Similarly, the enquiry into radicalization processes could not be exclusively informed, not even primarily, by trendy political studies that are inclined to overstate perceptions, attitudes and opinions. It cannot shy away from the study of history, not just the history of ideas, and beyond the confines of Islamic history, whether early or medieval.  The modern, and more specifically recent, history of Islamic and Muslim-majority countries deserves greater attention. A careful scrutiny of continuity and discontinuity between the evolution of movements lumped into political Islam, as often called, and the more recent emergence of violent radical groups, especially Da’ich, is crucial. For this organization could be singled out only for its brutality as a policy, but for its ability to reinvent apocalyptic dreams, control swathes of territories and rule over its inhabitants.

For the policy institute we are, and we are not a think tank, our association with your Panel would enlighten us in dealing more intelligently, and perhaps less reluctantly, with requests from governments and organizations to convene, join or contribute towards initiatives of violence prevention and exist from radical extremism. More importantly, the preparation of the June 2018 conference, and the event itself, may open for us, and other policy oriented bodies, new avenues for policy discussions and recommendations.

More often than not, there is not enough patience among politicians and in the media, for making distinctions between various actors and even less between concepts, or quasi-concepts. Terms like Islamic, Islamist, radical Muslim, Salafist, Jihadist and terrorist are used indiscriminately. There is little taste for conceptual precision and contextual differentiation. In all likelihood, the International Panel would be capable of addressing this deficit in knowledge and intellectual honesty and contributing, therefore, to a new policy conversation. Such a conversation will lead, inevitably, to a critical assessment of present policies and revision of previously templated recommendations.

For us, policy conversations are invaluable, provided we are aware of two pitfalls. The first is to assume that the concerns of researchers and policy-makers are, with respect to this specific issue, identical. The second is to lay emphasis on separation between the worlds of serious academics and experienced practitioners. In the first case, researchers risk turning into experts, responding to specific needs and requests, rewarded by bridging the gap between reflection and action but loosing part of their independence. In the second case, they isolate themselves, may fall into irrelevance and develop the illusory self-sufficiency of interaction among peers. It is therefore essential to tread a narrow path between these two pitfalls, thus engaging in a relationship between producers of scientific knowledge and decision takers and opinion makers, without confusing roles while trying to insure a benefit for both actors through bringing closer evidence-based knowledge and policy thinking.

Today, much of the government driven policy recommendations, as well as those who proposed to governments pivot around debilitating, short of completely defeating, ISIS. While recognizing that only one part of the solution must be military, the clarity of recommendations about denying territorial gains, continuing to focus on high-value targets and shutting down the foreign fighters pipelines contrasts with vague references to countering Islamist ideology. This task is often outsourced to specialized institutions and NGO’s. There is a principle of subsidiarity at work as state-led efforts are considered, with only a few exceptions, largely inadequate. The ideological battle revolves around convincing Muslims of a putative moderate interpretation of Islam. The center-piece of prevention as well as of de-radicalization is the ideological/theological re-education. An inculcation of an understanding of Islam as a religion that rejects blind violence is regarded as the most effective and durable reform. By means of dialogue with scholars, clerics and other authority figures, as well as highlighting testimonies or stories of former militants and other dissidents, many programs aim to convince the general Muslim public through imprinting messages about peace and an Islamic view opposed to the killing of civilians. Some other programs place less emphasis on ideology and insist on the aim of “behavioral disengagement”. In short, de-radicalization involves a shift away from the views and ideas about justifying the use of violence. For its part, disengagement aims at a change of behavior.

It is currently not possible to draw conclusions about the merits of such approaches, or the lack thereof. Skeptical voices have rightly cautioned that attempts at re-engineering complex socio-psychological phenomena that shape world views, beliefs and behaviors presume far more than what seems to be reachable objectives.

Last year, I got to know a number NGO’s in Lebanon and the region with unconventional designations such as “Seeming” or “Haven Square” and who are part of a “peer to peer challenging extremism” broader competitive initiative. Some of them target the general public others are pre-occupied with committed Muslims, the Salafist particularly. In my discussions with them, I was surprised by their insistence on being non-political, not only in the sense of not positioning themselves politically but also in avoiding to look into the politics of savagery and the role of foreign occupation, dictators’ tyranny and social marginalization in breeding  violence. Equally surprising was their reductionist understanding of the role of religion. The Sunni/Shiite divide, political at first and subsequently religious, is not seen as a determinant. Lastly, their perceptions of potential recruits of radical movements were significantly blurred. These conversations invite four comments with self-evident policy implications.

The weakness of state institutions and the fragility of national cohesion, exacerbated further by the rapid and unanticipated collapse of the old order, favored a tendency to over-emphasize the strength of communal lies. One could not ignore the resurgence and reinvention of sub-national identities and the centrifugal forces at work in many Arab countries. Many members of communities, not only minorities, seem to have lost their aspiration to a state for all. They beg for a power structure that can protect them from another community. Weakened states and strategies of mobilization accentuate communalism and encourage the surfacing of narratives of victimhood, often emotional and aggressive. Ethnic groups, and ethicized religious groups, are both actors and victims of identity politics. Throughout the twentieth century, their members struggled to assert themselves, and be recognized, as citizens. But many retreated into community-centered organizing principles. Some opt, if power relations permit, for autonomy and advocated separatist solutions to the weakened states and fragmented societies. Many leaders and political movements across the region do little more than draw from the sense of persecution felt by communities without offering them alternatives to fear and uncertainty.

The very conflicts that undermine what is left of the state became, for many rulers of the region, a source of legitimacy, a cause for further entrenching and a distraction from addressing problems that they are not capable or unwilling to solve, such as in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. It is not therefore a surprise to see violence becoming a policy by default.

The debate regarding the relationship of jihadi violence to Islam is often caught between the argument that the former is driven by the latter and the insistence that Islam has little to do, it any, with violence. It is contaminated by the expediency among politicians and polemicists to speak of Islam’s essence as pacific or violent. Religions, and not only Islam, are a spiritual world and intellectual resource on which people draw and use for a variety of private and public purposes. Recognizing that religions respond to such needs could not obscure the fact that they limit what is acceptable or recommendable. Some argue that Quranic interpretations lead to political violence and suggest that a causal relationship. In fact, it is more often the case where political violence creates the proper conditions for an interpretation of the Quranic text in a way that justifies violence or even calls for it. If Islam is a legitimizing source of real potency, religious ideology is not the cause, and not even the main case, of violence carried out in the name of religion. But it remains essential in explaining its occurrence and sheds light on conditions that enable people to kill, no matter what the real reasons are, for self-proclaimed religious purposes.

The instigation of an all-out war against Shi’as by ISIS is deemed sensitive to be underlined as a determining factor in its strategy by some of those who counter radical Islamists. Needless to say that this strategy takes advantage of an existing and severe polarization and manifests itself as a defining principle in regional and national politics, especially in Iraq. The greatest threat perceived by Iraqi Shiite government leaders is less jihadism than Sunni revanchism. For many of those who recognize the force of communalist or sectarian enmities, they tend to depict them as modern manifestations of ancestral hatred. They fail to see that wars, conflicts and power struggles reinvent the so-called ancestral hatred.

A number of studies, in the Arab world and in Europe, conclude that a large number of people involved in terrorism are far from being pious, in fact, many are not literate in things Islamic. They could be petty criminals who have turned to superficial religiosity and they do not kill or die for religion but for themselves. The westerners who travel to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS are not acting out of a commitment to the community of historical Islam. Rather, they are acting as isolated individuals and the Islam they embrace is fragmented and patched together out of the remnant of a large narrative. In the Arab world, Da’ich also looks for people who have little knowledge of Islam. There is limited violence in Upper Egypt which was a hotbed of radical Islam thirty years ago. It seems that the long tradition of radical Islam have inoculated many against new waves of radicalism. In Lebanon, a number of studies such as the book on Salafism authored by Saud al Mawla and a study we are about to conclude, show that most Salafist were hardly tempted to join the ranks of violent jihadist.

There is no single explanation for what drives a person to embrace violent extremism. Da’ich is far from being homogeneous. It actually includes people of different backgrounds: Baathist of Iraq, ghaddafists of Libya, former tortured prisoners, pragmatic tribal Yemenis or Syrians, psychopaths, opportunists and war profiteers, join the ranks of religious zealots. Without acknowledging this reality, policies countering extremism and promoting de-radicalization are bound to be deficient.

Tarek Mitri, Paris, January 2017