Arun Kundnani writes: When opinion polls find that most Muslims think Westerners are selfish, immoral and violent, we have no idea of the real causes. And so we assume such opinions must be an expression of their culture rather than our politics.
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have exploited these reactions with their appeals to Islamophobia. But most liberals also assume that religious extremism is the root cause of terrorism. President Obama, for example, has spoken of “a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction — a tiny faction — within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”
Based on this assumption, think-tanks, intelligence agencies and academic departments linked to the national security apparatus have spent millions of dollars since 9/11 conducting research on radicalization. They hoped to find a correlation between having extremist religious ideas, however defined, and involvement in terrorism.
In fact, no such correlation exists, as empirical evidence demonstrates — witness the European Islamic State volunteers who arrive in Syria with copies of “Islam for Dummies” or the alleged leader of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was reported to have drunk whisky and smoked cannabis. But this has not stopped national security agencies, such as the FBI, from using radicalization models that assume devout religious beliefs are an indicator of potential terrorism.
The process of radicalization is easily understood if we imagine how we would respond to a foreign government dropping 22,000 bombs on us. Large numbers of patriots would be volunteering to fight the perpetrators. And nationalist and religious ideologies would compete with each other to lead that movement and give its adherents a sense of purpose.
Similarly, the Islamic State does not primarily recruit through theological arguments but through a militarized identity politics. It says there is a global war between the West and Islam, a heroic struggle, with truth and justice on one side and lies, depravity and corruption on the other. It shows images of innocents victimized and battles gloriously waged. In other words, it recruits in the same way that any other armed group recruits, including the U.S. military.
That means that when we also deploy our own militarized identity politics to narrate our response to terrorism, we inadvertently reinforce the Islamic State’s message to its potential recruits. When British Prime Minister David Cameron talks about a “generational struggle” between Western values and Islamic extremism, he is assisting the militants’ own propaganda. When French President François Hollande talks of “a war which will be pitiless,” he is doing the same.
What is distinctive about the Islamic State’s message is that it also offers a utopian and apocalyptic vision of an alternative society in the making. The reality of that alternative is, of course, oppression of women, enslavement of minorities and hatred of freedom.
But the message works, to some extent, because it claims to be an answer to real problems of poverty, authoritarian regimes and Western aggression. Significantly, it thrives in environments where other radical alternatives to a discredited status quo have been suppressed by government repression. What’s corrupting the Islamic State’s volunteers is not ideology but by the end of ideology: they have grown up in an era with no alternatives to capitalist globalization. The organization has gained support, in part, because the Arab revolutions of 2011 were defeated, in many cases by regimes allied with and funded by the U.S.
After 14 years of the “war on terror,” we are no closer to achieving peace. The fault does not lie with any one administration but with the assumption that war can defeat terrorism. The lesson of the Islamic State is that war creates terrorism. [Continue reading…]