Thinking Aloud: “Religious Radicalism After the Arab Uprisings”

Dec. 22, 2014 by Darius

A week ago, I saw a panel discussion on “Religious Radicalism After the Arab Uprisings.”  Of the panelists, Dr. Jon Alterman, currently at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, offered the most interesting comments.  I’ve share his remarks below.

According to Alterman, the prevalence and persistence of radicals in many Middle Eastern countries is the direct result of government policy.  In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, many Middle Eastern governments have adopted the strategy of polarizing their own societies.  To achieve that end, these governments find it helpful and even necessary to preserve “a nugget of radicalism.”  This nugget of radicalism, while not a major threat to the government, allows the government to oppose it and rallies the majority of citizens behind the government.  It also crucially helps maintain Western, and especially American, support for the government.

Alterman also said that it might have made sense to assume that radicalism would decline and ultimately vanish as societies became more open.  However, regional governments have taken the opposite mode of thinking.  According to Alterman, there is a prevalent strand of thought that if radicals are allowed into political life, they will poison the entire system, so radicals must be kept out, even if doing so results in further radicalization at the margins.

Alterman also said that radicals can persist in societies because they aren’t trying to win a majority or gain widespread public support.  He cited ISIS as an example: ISIS and other jihadi groups have done an excellent job mobilizing social media not to woo the majority but to galvanize and activate a minority.  However, even small minorities of radicals can cause major disruptions both within their societies and internationally

Alterman also pointed out that he could find an analogue in the West for just about every radical group in the Arab world and vice versa.  The difference, he said, is in their place within their societies, their goals, and how the rest of society reacts to them.

Instead of a consolidation or convergence among radicals as might have been expected, Alterman explained that we are seeing sustained differentiation between groups, in part because of competition and “entrepreneurship” among radicals to find chinks in the armor of governments or the political order.  As one of the other panelists, Haim Malka (also of CSIS), pointed out, the Arab Spring uprisings included a parallel uprising of radicals against al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda’s leadership was seen as weak and its agenda as too incrementalist.  In this light, it is not surprising that ISIS and other religious radical groups no longer look to al-Qaeda and are increasingly willing to go their own way.

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