The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama stayed away from rhetoric that traced the ideological roots of terrorism to Islam and a political-religious movement within the faith that endangers Western civilization, The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman writes, in part because of their assessments of the jihadist threat.
“But they also did so because they worried that bolstering the clash-of-civilizations narrative would undermine their efforts to eliminate that threat,” he adds. “Treating radical Islam as a monolithic ideology tends to swell the ranks of enemy fighters.”
Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and author of numerous books and articles critical of political Islam, compared the current campaign against stealth Islamists [allegedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood] to the McCarthy-era purge of academic Marxists, notes Bloomberg’s Eli Lake.
“These people are spreading ideas we don’t necessarily like,” he said. “But the way to counter them is to promote our own ideas.”
Indeed, religious commitment is not a primary factor in the motivation and recruitment of jihadist fighters, says the Final Report of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force.
In 2010, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) released a study investigating why people leave their homes to join Islamic terrorist groups abroad. Based on interviews with more than two thousand jihadists, the evidence showed that religion was not the primary motivator of the foreign fighters. Instead, groups such as al-Qaeda filled a deep-seated need for purpose and belonging on the part of the recruits. The most popular explanations the fighters gave to justify their choices fell into four categories:
• Revenge-Seeking: Looking for an outlet for frustration at perceived personal slights or social victimhood
• Status-Seeking: Looking for recognition and respect
• Identity-Seeking: Looking for a group to belong to, sometimes to replace ruptured family ties or as a result of exclusion from more positive social spaces
• Thrill-Seeking: Looking for excitement and adventure
Since Daesh has come on the scene, researchers using the same methodology have broadly confirmed the results of the USIP study, the report adds:
In March of 2015, Lebanon-based Quantum Communications released a report based on interviews with extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq. As with the USIP study, Quantum found that “a majority of fighters were identified as ‘status’ and ‘identity’ seekers,” demonstrating consistency between the motivations of current Daesh fighters and their forebears.
Notably absent from this list of terrorist motives are two of the biggest reasons people in the West think people join violent Islamist groups: religious conviction and poverty. Religious radicalism is cultivated after recruiting through an elaborate and documented process of brainwashing. Furthermore, statistics show that many terrorists come not from poverty but from middle-class backgrounds and are often well educated. In Palestine, for example, suicide bombers are four times more likely to have completed high school than the general population, and half as likely to come from impoverished families.
In the Middle East, “weak governments and societies have made differences in identity more salient and toxic,” the report adds:
Unlike conflicts rooted in politics, which can be solved through negotiation, identity-based conflicts are zero-sum by nature. Generally, they can only be managed, not resolved. Likewise, they exacerbate violence by creating group grievances, which draw in broader populations and interests, and often provoke external intervention. This has especially been the case in Syria and Iraq, where identity politics have fueled sectarian proxy wars between Iran and the Sunni Arab states, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront.
“While religious justifications are strong motivators for those in leadership positions in groups like Daesh, they are less important to the rank-and-file members whose participation turns the cause into a Movement,” the report notes. “Thus, once ordinary people living amidst these conflicts can regain some sense of immediate security and a stake in their country’s governance they can be steered away from non-negotiable questions of identity and back toward questions of politics, where deal making and compromise are possible.”
The report’s working group members included Laith Kubba – Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Endowment for Democracy; Leslie Campbell – Senior Associate; Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Democratic Institute; Larry Diamond – Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and Amy Hawthorne – Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy.