What fuels violent extremism in the US?

What fuels violent extremism in the US?
5 min read
16 Jun, 2016
Comment: With overwhelming evidence pointing to issues of group-based injustices, the US must implement a strategy to prevent racist rhetoric and attacks against Muslims, writes Dr Tamara Kharroub
Counter exterminsm strategies should address issues of alienation and discrimination, says Dr Tamara Kharroub [Getty]

While some US programs in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) since 9/11 may have weakened al-Qaeda, new offshoots that are even more extreme and more brutal have surfaced with increasing worldwide support and unprecedented lone-wolf attacks by US citizens.

In particular, extremist ideologies and groups such as the Islamic State group (IS) have gained greater power and support. What could possibly drive young people to commit such horrific atrocities as rape, sexual slavery, beheadings, and other forms of brutal killings?

What attracts men and women from Syria and neighboring countries, and even all the way from Kazakhstan, Russia, Europe, China, and the US to join IS?

Socio-economic conditions?

Economic disadvantage, low income, and lack of education might seem central in causing personal grievances and predicting violent extremist tendencies, however the research literature provides no evidence for this hypothesis. In fact, some studies have shown that extremist violent organisations tend to recruit smart well-educated members, whereas poor and less educated individuals often focus on immediate and basic needs.

Religion?

The issues of religiosity and Islamic scripture are often blamed for the IS phenomenon. However, there is no evidence for the relationship between religiosity and support for violent extremism.

Some studies have shown that extremist violent organisations tend to recruit smart well-educated members, whereas poor and less educated individuals often focus on immediate and basic needs

The persecution of groups by other groups, backed by ideological justification (religious or otherwise), has been going on throughout history (eg white supremacism, Nazism, slavery, neo-Nazis, Jewish extremists and right-wing attacks in the West). Studies in Muslim countries show that religious devotion does not predict support for militarised jihad.

Lack of democracy?

Some analysts argue that young discontented individuals seeking to express their views and improve their conditions under repressive regimes have no outlet for political participation except violence. However, there is no empirical evidence supporting a direct link between the lack of democracy and extremist violence.

Research on this topic has shown that some aspects of democratic regimes that afford freedoms and political participation reduce personal grievances, while other studies suggest that democracies can provide open and free spaces for violent extremist ideologies to grow. Most notably, violent extremism is known to surge in the context of weak or recently democratized states.

Group-based injustice

There is sufficient evidence that economic inequality between groups, as well as political and social injustices, facilitate an environment of violence. Countries with higher human rights abuses, exclusion of ethnic minorities from the political process and socioeconomic discrimination against minorities have been found to experience higher rates of violent extremist attacks and radicalisation.

Narratives of discrimination, human rights abuses, and injustices are often used to recruit individuals and justify violent ideologies

To this end, narratives of group victimisation and existential threats play a significant role in the radicalisation process. For example, Jordanian fighters joining IS and other Islamist militant groups in Syria cite the systematic rape of Sunni women by the Assad regime and the need to fight for 'social justice' as reasons for joining these groups.

IS leaders such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his associates - who have been detained by US forces in Iraq at Camp Bucca - often use Maliki's marginalisation of Sunnis in Iraq to recruit Sunni Iraqis to join IS.

Muslim men and women in Europe, including those who travelled to join IS, reference their experiences of discrimination in the West for being Muslims. Even Osama Bin Laden had revealed that the Palestinian cause "fueled [his] desire to stand by the oppressed".

US policy on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

Narratives of discrimination, human rights abuses, and injustices are often used to recruit individuals and justify violent ideologies. Meanwhile, multi-million dollar CVE efforts by the United States and its allies focus disproportionately on economic development, government reform, religious education and promotion of moderate Muslim voices, intelligence efforts, securing borders and military campaigns.

While such measures are very important in building democratic inclusive civil societies and functioning economies, these CVE strategies do not address the problems of alienation, discrimination and oppression increasingly faced by many Muslims worldwide.

The United States must implement a systematic strategy to prevent and discourage racist rhetoric and attacks against Muslims whether in the US or around the world

With overwhelming evidence pointing to issues of group-based injustices, the US must recognise that wars and divisive rhetoric in political campaigns will only exacerbate and spread extremist ideologies.

In order to counter Islamic violent extremism the United States must implement a systematic strategy to prevent and discourage racist rhetoric and attacks against Muslims whether in the US or around the world. It must adopt a serious, multifaceted and sustained long-term strategy to engage with the Muslim world, which goes beyond "counterterrorism" and political and economic alliances.

Any CVE efforts addressing only the symptoms while overlooking the root causes will leave the United States chasing a ghost of the "Islamic State" that will continue to multiply and evolve in new and different forms.

Understanding Violent Extremism: The Social Psychology of Identity and Group Dynamics can be found in full on the website of the Arab Center in Washington DC.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center, Washington DC.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.