I was lunching with a colonel of the Egyptian intelligence at the Holiday Inn, Riyadh on January 26th, as we watched on flashes of the unraveling anti-Hosni Mobarak crisis in Cairo and Alexandria.
It will remain manageable, no worries, the over-confident colonel told me. He, however, also made another statement, that must serve as a warning to all those who are weighing the challenge by Islamist radicals in numerical terms. “It is not one or two organisation any more, it is an ideology and this will keep spreading,” the colonel said before we left for the concluding session of an international conference titled “Use of Internet to Counter the Appeal of Extremist Violence.” The conference was held at the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the German Foreign Ministry to discuss the use of “internet” in countering religious extremism.
During one of the sessions, the issue of Tunisia also came up for discussions and one of the scholars from Yemen attributed the change to internet. “Internet was responsible for changes in Tunisia,” said the scholar, advising it would not be a bad idea to manage, if not control, the use of internet. A Saudi scholar called the Internet as an Open University, a means of communication and teaching, even teaching how to produce bombs. Unchecked use of internet – public net cafes – is also a source of spreading terror and extremist views, he said. (Note: the conference proceedings took place under the Chatham house rules, so the names of the participants cannot be disclosed).
The purpose of leading off this write-up with the statement by the Egyptian intelligence official, and the Yemeni delegate’s remarks on the internet primarily is to underscore a malaise that afflicts most of Arab and Muslim countries i.e. the state of denial, refusal to introspection and the tendency to externalise sources of internal problems.
The conference provided a good insight into how representatives from the western democracies and those from within the Muslim world look at the spiraling issue of extremism, particularly the narrative being peddled by Al-Qaeda and its auxiliaries. One of the objectives was to work out a counter-extremist communication strategy, based on the analysis as to why young people become radicalised even in the west. Is it a crisis of identity, or exclusion by the local community, or lack of their own ability to integrate in the communities they live in? All the participants consented that any counter-narrative must take into account the causes that help extremists prey on young, disenchanted people even in the liberal western countries.
While the gathering offered an excellent opportunity for exchanging notes and developing synergies for a counter-narrative through the internet and other means of electronic messaging (radio and TV), it also exposed some divergences on the causes and effects of the Al-Qaeda inspired violence.
Most experts and officials agreed that multiple factors such as economic deprivations, social injustice, and suppression or total denial of fundamental liberties served as the primary ammunition for extremist narrative not only within the Muslim world but also elsewhere.
But the conference also brought to the fore, for instance, the divisions between the west and the Muslim world on how to define terrorism, or the inter-Muslim conflicting discourse on the definition of jihad.
We also witnessed a heated debate on whether to brand militant activities and acts of subversion by Al-Qaeda and company as Jihad or neo-Jihad, as most western scholars tend to. The “neo-Jihadi” characterisation of the violence by a former CIA operative, who also had served in Pakistan, sparked a lively debate because most Muslims present in the hall objected to it.
Most of the participants, particularly those from within the Muslim countries, outrightly rejected Al-Qaeda and its non-Arab affiliates as non-Muslims. Islam by no means asks for or justifies killing of innocent people. These people (extremists) have only tarnished the image of Islam. They do not represent the Muslim world at all. That is why, argued these scholars, even words such as jihad must not be attributed because this is pure violence and not jihad.
Scholars and officials from Lebanon, the UK, USA, Germany, Pakistan, Holland, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Australia and Afghanistan inter alia, pointed out that while several grievances within the Muslim world (such as the Palestinian issue or invasion of Iraq) may be difficult to address in the short term, they need to be addressed for permanent remedies (a consensus within Europe, for instance, as to how to engage with the Muslims of Europe, whether to work only with non-violent Islamic organisations, how to engage with those radiating a radical view). However, they suggested, weaknesses within the Islamist radicals led by Al Qaeda can still be exploited by questioning the modus of violence these organizations perpetrate, and the radical views they project and propagate.
As a whole, the conference entailed agreements for the need to develop a strong and comprehensive narrative. But it also made clear that while the West is seized with how to contain the spiral of terrorism, the East, led by Arabs, is still seized with the Palestinian and wants a differentiation between terrorism and freedom struggle. The West is looking for a counter-terrorism narrative rooted in democratic values and universal charter of human rights. The Muslims, Arabs in particular who are mostly ruled by undemocratic rulers in an extremely patriarchal social milieu, take exception to the western love for democracy and human rights and insist national security in their particular context might take precedence over human rights.
Arabs are fighting among themselves over definitions of Jihad and Taghoot (satan). There are some who consider Al-Qaeda and its followers as Taghooti (satanic) forces bent upon creating disorder and instability through acts of violence. The other group of Arabs calls for looking at the root causes of violence and use the Palestine as the primary reference. Most Arabs also insist a distinction is needed between Islamic jihad and Arab Jihad.
The debate often winds down into trivial and inconclusive disagreements, which also underline the deep divisions and confusion within the Arab and non-Arab Muslim societies.
The east-west disagreements as well as the intra-Muslim social and political divisions therefore make the job of Al-Qaeda and its auxiliaries much easier. They basically feed off these conflicting positions on issues such as jihad, terrorism and human rights.
It therefore becomes imperative for all the stake-holders both in the west and the east to narrow down differences to the bare minimum on these issues, which would certainly help them develop a consensus approach on countering extremism. If the Muslims and the Arabs in particular, remained locked in trivial matters such as base definitions of terrorism and jihad, they will only broaden the scope for the al Qaeda’s extremist narrative.