Tackle early the conditions that breed extremism
Tackle early the conditions that breed extremism
Op-Ed / Global

Tackle early the conditions that breed extremism

The recent murders of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto are tragic illustrations of the global reach of violent religious extremism.

The violence carried out by the Islamic State is particularly horrific, and a bitter first-hand experience for Japan. But it is part of a broader trend of extremist groups operating in deeply unstable pockets of the world and employing brutal tactics, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Pakistani Taliban, among others.

Closer to home, Islamic militants have attempted to blast their way on to the agenda in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and India: all countries where Japan has sizable investments. They have had little success selling their ideology within these countries on any scale, but they remain a threat.

Rooted in local conflicts

What unites these diverse groups is not so much their international jihadi ideology. More striking is that they are all rooted in local conflicts. Jihadi groups like ISIS may proclaim global ambitions, but they tap the local grievances of communities -- grievances more often initially related to access to power and resources than to religion. Jihadi movements often present themselves as an antidote to political or economic exclusion, injustice, corruption, even in some cases brutal treatment by the state. In fact religious extremism nearly always starts more as a symptom than as a cause of deadly violence.

While these extremist groups are diverse, and generic prescriptions therefore of only limited value, some key considerations can inform how we understand and respond to the threat they pose.

Engagement is crucial

First, it is important to tackle early the conditions that breed extremism. This means pushing governments to address communities' local grievances and shoring up states that are weak. For those states that are stronger but repressive, it means nudging their leaders towards more inclusion.

None of this is easy, of course. But it is better than trying to deal with a conflict once local groups adopt the jihadi franchise and benefit from the flow of money, weapons and recruits that it brings. Once the circular logic of militancy takes hold, violence becomes its own end, and finding a mediated solution becomes harder. One community's radicalisation, particularly along confessional or sectarian lines, can lead to the radicalisation of a rival community -- a recipe for deepening societal divisions and intractable violence.

Second, different currents of Islam should not be conflated. Lumping the Muslim Brotherhood and other strands of moderate political Islam together with jihadis, as some governments in the Arab world are currently attempting, is a mistake. Groups prepared to participate peacefully in politics should be the first bulwark against extremism.

Third, engagement is crucial. It may seem repugnant to open a dialogue with the kind of people who killed Mr. Yukawa and Mr. Goto. But dogmatic declarations of who we can or cannot speak to are unhelpful. In the short term, a channel of communication is essential to negotiate hostage releases. Over the long term it can reveal openings for more substantial dialogue. Our tendency to talk solely with those who share our views is unlikely to advance peace.

Fourth, responses should not be overly militarized or securitized. Where force is necessary -- and clearly sometimes it is -- it must be used in the context of a broader political strategy that seeks to engage in dialogue and address the grievances of marginalized communities, if only to isolate those beyond the pale. The only hope of weakening ISIS, for example, lies with other Sunni groups.

Beware of quick fixes

Finally we should beware double standards and quick fixes. That major Western powers have stepped up to try and defend minorities, like the Yazidis and Kurds, but have left Sunnis to be killed in the thousands by the Iraqi and Syrian regimes and their allies has deepened the sense of Sunni alienation driving support for ISIS.

For their part, as liberal democracy, moderate Islam and monarchs lose their allure for many young men, leaders in the Muslim world should do more to build alternative narratives of honesty and justice.

The wider international community needs to support both fragile states and those emerging from war -- given that the scars of war heal slowly, and the risks of sliding back into conflict are high. The world's crisis management capacity is already overstretched, and a new collapse in Central Asia, the Gulf, or any of the other regions of simmering discontent, could push it beyond breaking point.

High-profile tragedies like Mr. Yukawa and Mr. Goto's brutal murders garner media coverage and draw attention to extremist violence. But the solution lies in seeing beyond them, responding with the right mix of politics and force and doing more to address root causes.

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