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Key Reasons for Spread of Extremism in Middle East

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Jeffrey Haynes
By: Kourosh Ziabari

It’s said that ISIS has recently conceded significant parts of the territories it used to dominate since 2014.

Rebels and Daesh militants have been driven out of the northern parts of Syria through the combined effect of separate operations by pro-government forces and the U.S. and Russian airstrikes. Foreign Policy reports that at the end of 2014, ISIS ruled over around one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria, but now, according to IHS Jane’s 360, they’ve lost 22% of that territory.

With the major losses in territory it has suffered and the diminution of its fighters, ISIS still poses a valid threat to peace and security not only in the Middle East but across the world, and it’s imperative to investigate their origins, their goals and identify the best conduits to eradicate them.

On the sidelines of the workshop “D-Goals of Preventing Violent Extremism through Education: Educating for Development, Diversity and Dialogue” on the final day of the 7th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum and Youth Forum in Baku held from April 25-27, I had the chance to talk to a noted British political scientist who is the author and co-author of more than 40 books on international relations and religion. Jeffrey Haynes is a Professor of Politics and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Conflict and Cooperation at the London Metropolitan University. Prof. Haynes is the Chair of the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee, “Religion and Politics.” His most recent book is “Faith-based Organizations at the United Nations” published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Prof. Haynes says it’s self-evidently clear that terms like “Islamic terrorism” are misleading. He believes “Islamic terrorism,” which some media outlets draw on to describe the atrocities of ISIS, is an inflammatory term used in the context of the “clash of civilizations.” He notes that the media have not been objective in giving coverage to the stories surrounding ISIS; however, according to Prof. Hayens, the people do not read newspapers or watch television channels because the media tend to be objective, but because these outlets reinforce their preconceptions.

In the following conversation with Prof. Jeffrey Haynes of the London Metropolitan University, we discussed the media narrative pertaining to the rise of ISIS, religious elements influencing the public perception of terrorism and the international community’s response to the outbreak of ISIS disease in Iraq and Syria.

Q: What is plaguing the region at the moment is violent extremism instigated by ruthless terrorists draped in an Islamic covering. Some people tend to use the term “Islamic terrorism” to describe the modus operandi of Daesh. Do you agree with the use of this term and do you believe there is basically such a thing as Islamic terrorism, implying that Islam inherently endorses violence and killing?

A: I think it’s like most labels. It’s easy for people to use such a label when seeking to describe the actions which they associate with certain groups, but no, I think it’s self-evidently clear that there are no such things as Christian terrorism, Buddhist terrorism or Islamic terrorism. Terrorism is a political title for what people do to gain political ends via the indiscriminate use of violence. I think any group – secular or religious – could use such a title. I think it’s indicative, however, of a context whereby – well, we’ve heard this term “clash of civilizations,” and of course that is a term which doesn’t have much capacity to enlighten, but it is something which a lot of people relate to. So, I think “Islamic terrorism” is an inflammatory term, which is used in that context. But turning to your question, no, I don’t think there is such a thing as Islamic terrorism at all.

Q: But the militant group we know as ISIS identifies itself as the representative of Islamic faith that aspires to establish a Caliphate in the modern-day Iraq and Syria and expand its reach to the rest of the world. Are they genuinely driven by ideological and religious motives that make it condonable for them to routinely kill the people en masse, including Christians, Yazidis and even Muslims and Shiites, or are there other determinants at work?

A: I think the first issue about Islamic State is actually to give quite a good description of what they aim to do; they aim to cover a territory with an administration, with laws, with structure of a government and in that sense, I understand why we use the term Islamic State. In terms of the motivation, there seems to be plenty of evidence that they do believe their motivations are religious from their reading of the Muslim holy book and I think it’s like all interpretations of holy writings: they are subjective. Their extremism, however, sets them apart from other groups and I think partly that extremisms is to attract recruits who perhaps paradoxically are turning to such violent outburst of killing various groups indiscriminately. That too of course is justified, they claim, by the Quran. So I wouldn’t be dismissive of them and say they’re just evil killers who are creating mayhem simply because they’re evil. I think they have a – what many of us see as a perverted version of Islam. But it’s something which like any extremists can be gained subjectively from their reading of holy books and I think this is the tragedy; there is in their view a theological justification for what they do.

Q: Something which is so much bizarre to us in this part of the world is the pace at which large groups of people from the Continental Europe and even the United States are being absorbed by ISIS, joining ISIS and fighting in the ranks of this death squad. Many of them are deeply radicalized and primed to be killed for the cause. Why do you think so many Britons, French citizens or Germans are joining ISIS, whereas many of them are native European nationals and not necessarily dual citizens or immigrants? How is the ISIS captivating them?

A: I think it’s something like 20 or 30,000 people from around the world have joined the Islamic State and as you say, a significant proportion are from Europe. I think the largest country is Belgium with 2 or 3,000 fighters and UK, I think has several high hundreds. Well, what attracts them? It certainly isn’t theology! I think it has to do with alienated youths, which is a cliché but it’s to do with people who see themselves as marginalized from society; they might be educated, they might not be even especially poverty-stricken. For some reason, psychologically and in a community sense, and I think the propaganda of Islamic State is exceptionally effective. The internet of course is a medium by which most people get their knowledge about Islamic State. It’s a world of black and white. It’s quite a world of ups and downs; it’s a question of infidels versus true Muslims. And I think that the impressionable people – not only young people, but of course there are also some older people – see as an adventure; they see as to do with the injustices perhaps and they see as something which they feel they have to do in order to fulfill some kind of objective but I don’t think it’s clear-cut and I think those people who’ve joined the Islamic State and come out, talk very much about finding the reality not like they imagine. So, I suspect it’s impressionistic people taking chances that they often wish they hadn’t done but it’s something which doesn’t seem to be ending. I mean, the number of recruits is maybe diminishing but its’ not stopping.

Q: Let me put forward a frank question. Do you hold the United States and its partners in the European Union responsible for the growth of ISIS? Well, some of them are said to have indirectly funded and abetted the Al-Nusra Front, which was an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, and a precursor to the emergence of Daesh. Or do you believe it was the nature of policies adopted by Bashar Al-Assad that inflated ISIS?

A: Well, I think that the actions of the West over the last 15 years have not been helpful and I think the key reason for the spread of these extremist groups in the Middle East more generally is the failure of governments to rule well; the failure of local governments to rule well and to rule wisely. And very often, these governments have corrupt totalitarian systems without any legitimate interaction between populations and the government. So, I wouldn’t blame the West; the West has a role to play in blame, but I see it as largely coming from domestic factors which have encouraged state failure – the Arab Spring is a good symbol and a sign of that state failure and it does tend to be the case with terrorist groups who thrive where state normally breaks down. Whether the West is the responsible party for the failed states is an interesting question, but I think that the West is partly to blame, and not solely to blame.

Q: Well, there are already a number of politicians in the West and even U.S. military officials who candidly admit that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake and laid the groundwork for the nurturing of extremist ideologies that gave birth to groups like ISIS...

A: Well, you know, in 2003, many of the people who are now saying it was a terrible mistake were backing the war. People’s memories are short! And I think it’s easy now to say that it was a terrible mistake, but at the time, it was a popular move in Britain, in France and in many Western countries. It didn’t turn out right, but it’s easy to have a different view now.

Q: Yes, of course! So, the panel you spoke on explored the theme of education and I think education is partly a responsibility of the mass media and they have a big role to play in enlightening the public and raising their awareness of the current affairs. How do you think the media fulfilled their role in giving coverage to and analyzing the cruelties of ISIS including the recent Brussels explosions, the blast in Lahore and crimes they’ve committed elsewhere? Do you believe the media have been sufficiently objective in depicting ISIS as it is? Many Muslims worldwide share the feeling that the media portray ISIS as a genuine Islamic entity and that’s why they intentionally use the term Islamic State instead of referring to it as Daesh, instilling this thought that it’s a fundamentalist Muslim group.

A: Well, in the United States and in France, the term Daesh is used. I think the media has its own goals and in certain parts of the media in UK, for example, there is some hostility towards Muslims and Islamic State is used as an example of why such people should be hostile towards Muslims. But you know, it’s pushing an open door because many Europeans have already a sense of awareness of Islam and awareness of Muslims and they don’t particularly like what they see. So, in a way, the media is kind of feeding pre-conceptions which are already there. But just to answer your question, “is the media fair and objective?” I think the answer is definitely not. I think that people buy newspapers or watch TV news programs or go to the internet not because of the objectivity but to get information which really reinforces their own prejudices. In fact, that’s probably what has been happening.

Q: Alarming comments are being heard from the presumptive GOP nominee for the November presidential election in the United States about Muslims. Donald Trump has called for “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. Is the life going to get more complicated for the American Muslims, and generally Muslims in the West, as right-wing, hawkish politicians emerge and influence the discourse on ethnic and religious minorities?

A: Yes, it’s very difficult. In the United States, there is no major Muslim community. Muslims come from many, many countries whereas in France, say, the Muslims are from North Africa or in Britain they’re mostly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, and in Germany they’re predominantly from Turkey and so on. I think there is both a racial and a religious element to this and I feel the problems are that objectively, Muslims in the UK have less income; they’re less educated and have less access to life chances. At the same time, many Muslims do very well in the West. So, I don’t think it’s entirely a one-sided relationship but certainly the prevailing conditions do not aid the genuine rights of the Muslim community and as I say, it’s rather fed by prejudices amongst many people who are fed by the media, too. So, I think probably life is getting tougher, but this has not only to do with life chances; it has to do with Muslims being perceived as actual or potential terrorists and the restrictions on their life which occur as a result. It is a very complicated but very difficult situation and I think it takes some very wise, cool-headed policies that are needed to be enforced to correct things. That’s the best scenario, I think.

Q: Do you have any practical solution for tackling and countering Islamophobia while it’s on a critical surge?

A: Well, it comes right through education! The trouble is children and adults indeed learn about life from a variety of sources: schools, colleges, parents, and the media. I don’t think there is a magic bullet, a smoking gun to do that. I think it’s a long hard road to change ideas over time throughout a variety of means.

Key WordsFailed States, Extremism, Middle East, Islamic Terrorism, Rise of ISIS, Religious Elements, International Community, Iraq, Syria, Daesh, Caliphate, Europe, United States, Al-Qaeda, Bashar Al-Assad, Presidential Election, Religious Minorities, Arab Spring, Haynes

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