Thinking Aloud: Acknowledging the Roots of Islamic Extremism

Feb. 17, 2015 by Darius

While I was in Jordan, I of course took the opportunity to talk to a number of Jordanians.  I was living with a Jordanian family, and some of my most interesting conversations were with my host father.  I found it curious that he and many other Jordanians I talked with all seemed to believe in some kind of conspiracy theory regarding ISIS.

In general, among the Jordanians I talked with, ISIS was assumed to be the creation of the Iranian and Syrian governments to help the Syrian regime.  My host father and his sister, though, had a somewhat more elaborate opinion as to the origins of ISIS, believing ISIS was also a creation of Israel.  As evidence, they pointed out that ISIS hasn’t carried out attacks against Israel.  Furthermore, they argued, Israel stirs up similar trouble in the Middle East every ten years or so to ensure its regional dominance.  I tried throwing out a few basic facts, but my host father and his sister remained unchanged in their opinion.

Even among other (more educated) Jordanians I talked to about ISIS there was widespread belief that ISIS cannot possibly be what it seems because its ideology is so far outside what they see as Islam that it could not have originated with Muslims.  To me, this belief is even more troubling than conspiracy theories involving Israel.

One of the initial tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous is admitting you have a problem.  Until you can admit to yourself that you have a drinking problem, you will not take any steps to address it, no matter what those around you think or feel.  Likewise, any social or political reform must start with an acknowledgment of the problem.  As far as I can tell, based on my conversations with Jordanians as well as a few people from other Arab countries, Arabs are still in denial about having a radical Islam problem.

Even (or especially?) after watching ISIS burn their captured pilot alive in a cage – and yes, everyone watched the actual footage, even kids – many Jordanians were unwilling or unable to acknowledge that radical Islam (a) exists in their societies and (b) has led to the formation of such a bloodthirsty group.

It is easy to understand why people prefer to believe far-fetched theories about the origins of ISIS rather than acknowledge that strands of their own religion and culture are breeding hyper-violent extremism.

But until Arab societies can admit to themselves that they have a problem, they will continue to produce fighters for ISIS and similar groups, and there will be little the rest of the world can do to stamp out the problem.  Having been in Jordan when the video of the Jordanian pilot being burned alive by ISIS was made public, I can’t help but wonder what it will take for Arabs to, in the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous, hit rock bottom.

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