What is causing radicalism in the MENA?

Publication date: 6 Feb 2017 Organization: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies

The emergence of Al-Qaeda as a global terrorist organization carrying out devastating strikes across the USA, Europe, Middle East and Africa shed a spotlight on terrorism, and by extension on radicalism. The attention has intensified with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), its atrocities and the regional surge in terrorist groups pledging allegiance to it. This in turn has pushed the issue of radicalism to the top of the international agenda. Current efforts to defeat violent extremist groups such as ISIL are dominated by hard security measures, with no guarantees that military action alone can ensure permanent solutions to the specter of terrorism. Assuming the current wave of terrorist groups can be defeated militarily, foreign terrorist fighters may disperse to the rest of the world, creating new problems. Even in the case that foreign fighters are contained; radicalism will not disappear but will find ways to manifest itself. 

It is impossible to counter what is not well understood. Therefore, there is a need to come to terms with the causes of radicalism. Such understanding is essential if efforts to counter, or better yet, prevent radicalism and terrorism are to succeed. Radicalism however, is not a simple phenomenon, but rather multidimensional by nature, thus a reductionist approach will consistently fail to account for its complexity.

This study is an attempt at explaining the root causes of radicalism in the MENA region which serves as a hotbed and magnet for radicalism and terrorism. It assesses multiple root causes of radicalism and begins with examining the socio-economic conditions of the MENA region to determine whether the region suffers from socio-economic deprivation that can explain the rise of radicalism. To paint a comprehensive picture of the region’s socio-economic realities, this study reflects on poverty, inequality, and human development levels. Subsequently, it addresses political drawbacks in MENA, which can be cited as root-causes of radicalism, using indicators of political participation; political and social integration; rule of law; and stability of democratic institutions. It further addresses issues of western intervention in the MENA, and how this serves as a catalyst for radicalization. In examining the role of western intervention in radicalization, the study analyzes the issue along two dimensions: Western support for autocratic regimes, and direct western military interventions. The study goes on to argue that the ideological element is a significant root cause of radicalism in the MENA, instrumentalized by radical movements to attract and manipulate recruits. The paper explores ideologies that lead to radicalism in the MENA region, commonly underpinned by a distorted, selective interpretation of Islam. Finally, the paper considers the unhealed rift between modernity and traditional societies as a root cause for radicalism; not as a form of reactionism or cultural-religious intolerance. Rather, it argues this was a failed process leading to the marginalization of endogenous moderate thought and movements seeking to engage with modernity constructively; the failure of which resulted in societal anomie and propensity for violence as a means to change.

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