Facing Radicalization in the Arab World: the Need for a Cultural Revolution
Over the last decade, the continuous state of conflict in the Middle East has proven that no military and security measures alone are able to neutralize extremism and its terrorist manifestations. After a generation of combating terrorism, it is disheartening to acknowledge that our societies are more radicalized, our cultural heritage is in decline and our people are suffering more and more in a close-minded environment that is not accepting change and progress.
To reverse this trend, there is an urgent need for an effective de-radicalization strategy aimed at thwarting the cultural influence of extremist ideologies and groups, with a particular focus on the educational system. Radicalism has not been created in a vacuum, but it is a product of our schools and universities. The views they mostly spread legitimize political and cultural oppression, thus failing to integrate religiously and ethnically diverse populations.
Therefore, we need a cultural revolution to advance new models and values to oppose the backward-thinking ideological foundations of the current waves of terrorism across the Arab and Muslim world. This is all the more relevant since Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) established the Caliphate, confronting the international community with its violent and sectarian creed which seeks the division and the fragmentation of society on a religious and ethnical basis, especially in the Levant.
Amending Academic Curricula
The de-radicalization battle will be a very long and complicated one and full of ups and downs. It must be remembered that it will be impossible to win without a clear preliminary diagnosis of the problem and without developing a comprehensive strategy. Fighting extremism calls for cultural and mentality changes to set in motion reforms that must start from the schools, as they are the first stage (and target) of the radicalization process.
Education plays a major role in grooming and shaping the way a society thinks and interacts. In this regard, the current educational systems in Middle Eastern countries have failed to instill into the youth basic principles like liberty, pluralism, equality, justice and respect for universal human rights; in schools and universities, critical thinking is stifled and thoughtless memorization rather than understanding is endorsed.
It must be realized that when religious ideology plays such a significant role in developing the academic curriculum, fertile ground for radicalization and terrorism is created. This holds the society back and widens the gap between cultures. It means that the educational system and consequently the population are not capable of comprehending or grappling with the present, let alone the future.
By design, we are all prisoners of a negative utopia of the past, coupled with a patriarchal social setting that does not account for, nor encourages innovation and evolution. In our societies the value of life is not appreciated and having hope in the future through a positive vision for one’s life is not allowed. Instead we live in fear and despair, which radicalism preys on to deliver misguided hope and a vision for the future through hatred and destruction.
Against this backdrop, it is imperative to save children and pupils’ developing minds from the manipulation of extremism. Hence, restructuring and re-designing the educational system and the content of the curricula must be a priority for all governments in the Middle East in an effort to put an end to the predominance of obscurantist ideologies both at school and university.
Indeed, we need an educational system that is innovative, dynamic and able to constantly adapt to technological and cultural progress. The Arab and Muslim world is gasping for enlightenment to break the ridiculous and anachronistic taboos it holds onto. The starting point is the successor generation. The youth must be educated to think critically, internalize a moderate ethos and understand the world in its actual context, and not from a perspective that dates from almost a thousand years. To this end, it is also necessary to undertake a deep change in the mindset of teachers and their educational methods.
The modernization of school curricula must integrate the youth into a new and open cultural framework, one that values life and respects people regardless of their religious or ethnic origins, and discards the idea of imposing their beliefs on others. Literature, theater and art should be taught and actively encouraged, as creativity can be a powerful instrument to counter the attractiveness of radicalism. People’s sense of humanity must be motivated as well to ensure that the damage and pain that the culture of death and blood has caused over the last years are not forgotten and thus not perpetrated.
The overhaul of the educational system and academic curricula must be complemented by social policies for the youth. Soaring unemployment, marginalization and lack of community and cultural activities offer a breeding ground for radical indoctrination and recruitment. Creating more jobs and opportunities targeting the youth would allow the new generation to progress in its human development and escape the trap of extremist ideologies and terrorism.
Defining True Moderation
In the Arab world, I have always wondered about the real meaning of two words: “conservative” and “moderate”. Thus, trying to define the two words would possibly lead us to some serious issues regarding the entire concept of radicalism. Every society has social, cultural, economic and ideological differences. Accordingly, many political tendencies appear, dividing people into moderate and extremist, liberal and conservative. However, those differences are being run by the sense of equality and respect for diversity and pluralism; when these elements are missing and one doctrine declares its superiority over the others, it becomes impossible to apply the above mentioned political categories.
What does the word “moderate” mean? From my point of view, “moderate” is a word used to describe those who accept others and their right to practice their faith, beliefs and convictions − those who believe in pluralism. So I wonder how some political doctrines can be described as moderate. The Islamists who have raised their children by telling them that they will go to heaven while people of different beliefs will go to hell − can they be considered “moderate”? This kind of narrative, which has been established as official doctrine, must be reviewed. Its numerous followers believe to be superior because they have embraced the “righteous” path, and that entitles them to request the others to change or even to impose their creed by force. So they are considered moderate just because they do not have weapons in hand so far.
The other issue is the concept of conservatism. Many defend their closed minds and radical attitudes under the right of being conservative. In reality, the risk behind such a phenomenon is that conservatism is being used as a mask to root radicalism. Therefore, it is normal to be conservative, but what is not normal is when being conservative means refusing the rights of other to live according to their beliefs and wishes, preventing people from having their own lifestyle and ideology, or even trying to impose certain beliefs, convictions, lifestyles and visions on them.
Mosque preachers who call for supporting mujahedeen on microphones, or speak against Christians and the West can never be described as moderate or conservative, confirming the incompatibility between moderation and such ideology. It is quite significant to highlight these crucial differences between reality and the definition in order to figure out the kind of diagnosis required to address radicalization and terrorism today.
Sectarianism: Risks And Illusions
ISIS’s capacity to expand and dissolve borders between countries is urging many to prefigure a new geographical structure for the Middle East, perhaps with new borders and states. Such ideas are consonant with the division status that have been dominating the mind of the people recently (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Kurds and so on), and this makes the perspective of new ethnical and religious cantons look bizarrely logical, similar to a renewed “balkanization” model.
The new trend is being promoted by those who wish to take up a role in any religious or ethnical structure that will replace the current nation states, which seem to be collapsing like the project of a big and unified Arab State did before. Many politicians and writers have started to adopt new terminologies that root the conviction of the incapacity to achieve coexistence among the people of the Middle East, as well as simultaneously support the notion of sectarian state. Division on sectarian standards appears to be the only solution to the unceasing conflicts marring the broader region.
While these ideas are not new, many decision-makers and military leaders view the disappearance or emergence of some states, or even the expansion or shrinking of some others, only as a part of wishful thinking. However, “marketing” such scenarios is counterproductive in facing radicalism and terrorism, as it matches with the extremist propaganda of ISIS and of other groups and individuals promoting a sectarian discourse and violence.
Therefore, saving and fortifying the concept of civic state is necessary to avoid the trap of sectarianism. We need to start building national and enlightened projects, focused on citizenship, sustainable development and human formation. It would be a kind of political suicide in favor of extremism to believe that promoting division and defragmentation of states in the Middle East would really give direct benefits to some specific actors or countries.
The Case Of Jordan
From a regional standpoint, Jordan is facing numerous challenges imposed by its geopolitical reality and the wider dynamics underway in the Middle East. Finding a quick solution to the crises in Syria, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be necessary for the security and stability of Jordan. Close cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt is increasing Jordan’s standing as a moderate reference in the Sunni world, but this important role entails the domestic responsibility to address the radicalism issue that is severely affecting the lives of the Jordanian citizens.
However, a religious reform will not be sufficient to remove the fertile climate for the growth of extremist ideas and radicalization. The first step is to solve concrete problems at the grassroots level, then tackle the ideological complexities. This requires a process of conceptual change of the way the local government and society operate in the political, economic and social spheres, including a transformation of the context in which the life of the Jordanians is taking place.
The history of the city of Zarqa is emblematic. Given the explosive potential of the radical background therein since the appearance of the famous terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, it would be natural to think that governments would work hard to defuse the situation, at least by improving conditions to ensure that his example will not be repeated. Regrettably, nothing has been done to change Zarqa for the better. Anybody who pays a visit to the city can witness its degradation and evaluate the lack of initiatives put in place to change the situation in Zarqawi’s childhood neighborhood.
Zarqa’s model of extremism is common throughout Jordan. Many other towns and villages where radicalism is emerging have devolved into a state of terrible emptiness, especially in the Ma’an governorate. They need new urban planning and development that pay more attention to beauty and form. The creation of cultural radiation points such as theaters, artistic centers, bookstores and pen clubs must be encouraged, along with community entertainment opportunities. Offering sports programs and the construction of new sports facilities must be enhanced. In general, the young people must avail themselves to multiple avenues to develop their skills. In addition, the quality of services must be improved and the set-up of small and medium enterprises in the agricultural and industrial sector must be facilitated.
This comprehensive change must be driven by specific public policies at the national and local levels, but all Jordanians must be involved in the process. This will help to empower the civil society and create a strong popular movement able to advance the demands of progress in front of the opposition of radicals and most conservatives groups.
The political leadership in Jordan and in the other countries of the Middle East bear the primary responsibility of combating and ultimately defeating extremism in their own jurisdictions. However, the transnational nature of the terrorist threat and the wide membership of the anti-ISIS coalition make it so that facing radicalization in the Arab and Muslim world is an issue directly affecting the international community as a whole. Amid the ongoing regional turmoil and domestic instability, an increased international commitment would embolden the troubled local governments and the frail civil society to meet the challenges tied to the fight against radicalism. For instance, the outcome of projects in the field of de-radicalization and economic development would greatly benefit from more effective support and cooperation by the international organizations, such as the United Nations and its programs and specialized agencies (UNDP, FAO, ILO, UN Women, UNESCO etc.), the Alliance of Civilizations, the European Union, through its European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), and the Union for the Mediterranean. The Arab League and the Organization for the Islamic Conference are also called on to step up their contribution, which would be a major stimulus for the introduction of an overall reform of the educational system and school curricula.
The Future Of The Arab World
In the fight against radicalism, we are running out of time fast. The moment when the rapid rhythm in which Daesh is growing should make governments in the Middle East reconsider their policies and the way they deal with citizens, particularly the youth. They must bear in mind that unwise policies could push some people towards extremism and to regard the state as their enemy. Regrettably, there does not appear to be any substantial evidence that our leaders are seriously willing to engage themselves in a real struggle to rescue the Arab world from the scourge of radicalism and its terrorist manifestations.
We need much more than the usual rhetorical statements, symbolic provisions and the distribution of books and other materials. Concrete interventions on the ground and practical steps in the social, educational and cultural spheres are required. Legal and legislative avenues must be courageously used in order to end the supremacy of these groups and close all spaces that allow extremism and recruitment to grow. The longer we fail to halt their progress, the longer they are allowed to spread and the more we will surrender to their dominance in all aspects of our lives until complete submission.