Islamic extremism cannot be bombed out of this world. Broadly, a military solution is more likely to exacerbate the threat than extinguish it. That is not to say the negotiating table is where the solution lies: it may be, but the thrust of any compromise or cessation must explore the causal factors, not just the symptoms, wherefrom anticipatory/pre-emptive/a priori measures must be turned to rather than reactions/punitive a posteriori corrections.
Turning to the political causes, four have been mentioned: authoritarian Muslim governments; affinity between them and the United States; refugees/migrants fleeing those authoritarian governments; and simultaneous flux in many, if not all, Muslim countries today. The linchpin here seems to be the cordial relationship between authoritarian Muslim governments and the United States. Just snapping this would go a long way to deprive would-be terrorists of a rationale and casus belli; but the longer the future shadow of that relationship persists, the increasingly more impossible the task will become: the would-be terrorist pool has nothing to lose, the other side far too many things/values to preserve; the former may be carrying generation-long grievances, the latter incident- or policy-specific counterparts; and any climb-down cost for the terrorist will be far larger than for the anti-terrorist crusader. Just the fact that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have gotten more dangerous since the anti-terrorist country-specific crusades began should demand a policy-approach overhaul before other Muslim states join that emasculated group, because, if that happens, the entire world would be imperilled.
The original mistake of fictitiously invading Iraq in 2003 allowed Afghani-based terrorists to recoup their lost land and forces, recuperate physically, and retaliate ever since, making the war there the longest for the United States, and paving for the Taliban return, as of 2017. Given the historical domestic social schisms in each of these countries, concurrent conditions predict another full generation of conflict since an entire generation has been born and bred under this conflict-punctured environment. That generation knows nothing more than surviving and fighting, an unthinkable proposition for their counterparts in bomb-dispatching countries. Somehow this may be the very gap, as it grows, that must be eliminated if Islamic extremism is to go, not target-shooting Muslim suspects or actual perpetrators.
Of all the causes to be remedied, the political must receive most urgent attention. The next would be the social that have been discussed: unassimilated Muslim migrants in western societies; the reform-radicalism schism sharpening in Muslim countries; growing alienation in educational institutions culminating in drop-outs seeking extremist salvation; the growth of a sticky anti-Muslim apprehension; and the zero-sum endpoint of a vigorous individual-level identity-search.
Here, too, a ground-up approach may deliver more than many others, in both Muslim countries and home-countries of Muslim emigrants/refugees. Both also face steep odds of resolution: again, for Muslim countries, the critical steps must include shedding authoritarian governance, since that can easily be wedged and politicised, thus complicating conflict-resolution; western receiving-countries would do better if vetting incoming individuals far outgrows the outright rejection option, much in the line of Chancellor Angela Merkel. True, her approach carries a loaded electoral dice; but should she scrape through, at the least, it will clearly expose how the personality factor can over-ride prejudices, a lesson for all politicians to learn from.
Policies aimed at clearing grassroots grievances would go a long way in reducing the would-be terrorist pool, expand the reform-minded supporters, and extract more inside information of possible terrorist plans than have been the case. In short, the unassimilated, alienated Muslim youth whether in their home countries or host countries, must be vigorously supported to find an identity, then to use that to explore social, transparent opportunities. Otherwise, the same mistake will be made as have been noted over the past two decades or so.
Of all the causes examined, the economic may be the least catalysing or explosive, but its greasy nature makes it the toughest to control. These causes include the following: the very absence of any meaningful economic resources; the extension of economic resources for non-economic purposes; the diversion of economic wealth; and economic wealth directly instigating extremism. Eliminating them necessitates ironing out the political and social causes first: once under control, donations, diversions, extensions, and absences lose their cutting-edge; they may not even emerge, let alone accumulate.
Just as the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia bailed Christian Europe out of their quagmire by pushing the embattled political entities towards the nation-state, Muslim countries, with their western counterparts, must generate their own Westphalian solution for still-suppressed minorities, for example, the Alawites, Druzes, Hazaris, Kashmiris, Kurds, Palestinians, Pashtunis, Tadjiks, and, above all, between the Sunnis and Shi'ites in, particularly, Iraq. This cannot be hard if the reform-turn Saudi Arabia has taken (called 'Vision 2030'), can be utilised as an Arab or Muslim catalyst.
What happens in Saudi Arabia is more likely than any other development to trickle down to other Muslim countries. Softening its fundamentalism and using its leadership to sort out those ghosts still lingering from the Ottoman boundaries and bleeding the people caught in its dubious interpretations would go a long way to heal much of the extant wounds.
If nullifying Saudi Arabia helps arrest the exploitation of Islam by would-be terrorists, expanding social inclusion measures in western/Muslim societies and, particularly, creating upward-mobility pathways through expanded education in Muslim countries might go a long way to both flush out the extremists and supply the alternatives would-be terrorist have not been finding.
In the final analysis, military measures must be made the instrument of last resort. Every military action against Islamic terrorism gobbles up a far larger chunk of the future than we can gamble with anymore.
It is unlikely we will get western and Muslim leaders on the same page over this issue so soon; but to not begin the process only holds evermore slices of our future as a hostage, and ultimately a lost cause. Every next generation expects we perform our comprehensive duty more consciously.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh. The article has been slightly abridged.