The Financial Express

The social causes of Islamic extremism

| Updated: October 22, 2017 20:32:39

The social causes of Islamic extremism

Surveying vastly dissimilar communities as those in the secular modern 'west' and relatively faith-based traditional 'east' may seem a cumbersome approach in pinpointing the social causes of Islamic extremism, but they help distil dynamics that might not, otherwise, have been spotted on the discussion radar. Such dynamics are: 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 the vigorously pursued individual-level identity-search in many societies.
Too many Muslim youths, even those born in western countries, feel alienated from mainstream society. One consequence of ventilating resentment against this has resulted in the expansion of recruitment in terror organisations, often seduced by lucrative incentives. Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain stand out, in alphabetical order, in the degrees of Muslims being unassimilated, living in alienation, a terror-recruitment prospect, and possessing terror-incident connections. Worsening matters, they have also witnessed far-right extremist expansion, partly in reaction, partly secularly, thus generating a tit-for-tat society, exposing it to new perils, inviting external playgrounds to release the built-up resentment. This predicament does not look like it will bent to remedial measures soon simply because of the mindset-change needed, not just individually, but collectively. It is clearly not the playground for bombing out the terrorists either, leaving intelligence and police officers to do the mop-up work. This mopping up is tilted to a violent ending rather than trial by consent since the terrorist may be wearing a suicide-vest or expecting nothing less than a shoot-out finale. Besides, any trial might draw unnecessary sympathy for terrorists.
If that is a 'western' societal predicament, Muslim countries have a growing counterpart: reformers squaring off against radical believers. How this has grown since 9/11 - even a decade earlier under influence of the Khomeini revolution in Iran - is mind-boggling. Bangladesh, for instance, came out of a religiously-driven country, Pakistan, to become a secular state from 1971, but thereafter citizens have become increasingly religious compared to their typical pre-1971 counterparts: the proportional growth of hijab-decked women, per capita growth of masjids and prayer congregations. The phenomenal growth of Islamic organisations and terror-induced recruits must be reckoned  as a critical change since then and now. Even as the country turned to democracy in 1991, the reform-radical divide only sharpened, aided by the Jamaat-e-Islam role then, and the Hefazat-e-Islam now.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries have contributed to this religious fervour, at the minimum by promoting Islam globally, at the most by funding religious causes, such as madrasa teaching. Like other Muslim countries, Bangladesh has become a virtual hostage of this reform-radical divide (which is also surfacing in western countries in one form or another, another reason why the Islamic reform-radical divide is only poised to widen, deepen, and explode).
A third feature pushing especially young students into religiously extreme positions is the secular alienation from education. As education has expanded in many Muslim countries, the typical student alienation evident in the west, is also characterising Islamic countries, but perhaps with a twist. With fragile educational infrastructures, it is far easier for students to 'defect' from classes and education, building up not only the indifferent population proportion, but also, and more gravely, responding to the large number of recruiting agents with lucrative incentives. It is only a short step from this alienation to be told to believe that education is but a western ploy designed to continue post-independence imperialism. The adventure students look for, as in the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s, is often what directs them to something like jihad. Here, too, is a causal factor defying almost all anti-terror measures, and such moments as deciding to enrol in school, then simply drop out, ultimately joining a jihadi camp. These are not a 'lone-wolf' strategy per se, although the indifference alluded to leads to that outcome too.
All of the above dynamics, in conjunction with the growth of terror activities and with a Muslim-bashing mindset becoming a new normal, a fourth causal factor is the spike in apprehending potential and actual suspects, while raising society's suspicion levels vis-à-vis Muslims. Just the fear of something untoward happening, to say the least, has changed so many routine behaviours and attitudes right across the western societal spectrum. Though the ultra-right coming out of the cracks in Donald J. Trump's United States may be a dramatic exemplification, that development still cannot hide how defensive once adventurous western societies have become; and how anything 'Muslim' is being placed in the 'reject' or 'evil' boxes, much like 'communism' and 'the Soviet Union' were before. Nothing can stop this mindset when new terrorist activities happen, which terror groups will never stop taking advantage of. As common citizens find their mindsets hardening, on every side, it is, again, a short-step from acquiring anger, then ventilating it, a process facilitated almost perfectly by a terroristic deed.
Finally, in an age of humongous competition and with too many players on the field (that is, more and more countries being sucked into the Muslim-flavoured terror nexus with the passage of time), as one social segment in every country gets more affluent and mobile, the identity search begins. It not only trickles down from this affluent level, but also creeps up from deep nationalism at the bottom, a free sentiment that can be utilised to ventilate any anger, fear, or bias. This identity-search also benefits from competition; and in out-bidding the other side, an innocent identity search (over, say, what one wears) could easily escalate into a religious skirmish verbally, then deteriorate into a tit-for-tat violent demonstration, such as terror offers. The permutations and combinations are many, but any identity-search in the post-nationalism era boils down to a tumultuous ride on a slippery rope.
Unfortunately, this social stream of causal terroristic activities has received the least attention, certainly where remedy-seeking efforts and resources have been diverted. This only perpetuates the cycle of retaliating massively/militarily against an alienated or agitated Muslim being driven to the extremes: the next round only begins at a higher threshold. Such vicious cycles produce the Dickensian "best of times, worst of times" paradox, the 'worst' stemming from each terror incident, the 'best' from the resolution and patience that cannot but follow from the victim's side, if only to prevent complete anarchy.
Equally unfortunately, there is only so much of patience any society can muster; and we may be approaching the limits at this 21st Century moment. The next and final piece of the series addresses what can be done at this late stage where terrorism is as thick as a brick. 
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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