‘Principled realism’ needs better ideas to combat extremist ideology


A “coalition of nations” in the Middle East is needed to stamp out “extremism,” U.S. President Donald Trump told the weekend’s Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” he said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion — people that want to protect life and want to protect their religion. This is a battle between good and evil.”

He called on the leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations to “take the lead in combating radicalization” and to “take on the burden” of battling terrorism.

The U.S. would adopt a policy of “principled realism,” Trump added.

“We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes — not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms — not sudden intervention.”

Trump called Islamist terrorism and extremism an “ideology,” suggesting that he understands it is a belief system, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

“But he appeared to be arguing that military action alone would defeat it,” he writes for The National Review. “It won’t: Islamist extremism is a terrible and dangerous idea, and it will not be defeated by military action alone. We need other, better ideas to battle against extremist ideas.”

The U.S. delegation visited the Saudis’ new Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology (right) – aka “Etidal,” or “moderation” — which will reportedly host 350 technicians and a media monitoring system capable of processing as many as 100 television channels in 11 languages. The centre will conduct research on how terrorist groups function, as well as train governmental and civil society bodies on ways to spread moderation and combat violent extremism, said Riyad Qahwaji, CEO of Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

But others suggest that an approach to combatting jihadist groups based on a coalition with Ryadh and the Gulf States “totally disregards the fact that Saudi Arabia has provided the ideological structure upon which these organizations stand.”

For decades, there has been bipartisan concern in America about Saudi Arabia’s role in disseminating radical Islamist ideology around the world, notes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It, founder of the AHA Foundation, and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution:

President Obama’s former representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, visited eighty countries between 2009 and 2014. “In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence . . . funding all this was Saudi money, which paid for things like the textbooks, mosques, TV stations and the training of Imams,” she wrote in 2015.

Most leadership in the region will heartily welcome the new approach, as it frees their domestic hands while ensuring U.S. support for anti-ISIS and anti-Iranian foreign goals, says Michael Leiter, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011. And without being too blunt, they see it as not just permitting, but rather endorsing many of their authoritarian tendencies, he writes for The Atlantic.

Theology key to combating extremism?

“I am reassured that there wasn’t anything extremely offensive said about Islam,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Weekend Edition Sunday. “It’s a low bar I guess, but Islam here is included as part of a common civilizational front.”

But perhaps the most glaring problem is the assumption that theology holds the key to combating extremism, Hamid writes for The Atlantic:

Religion matters, of course, but the U.S. is on weakest ground when it inserts itself into internal debates over Islam and its role in politics. More importantly, though, the focus on religion runs the risk of distracting the U.S. from the political factors that it can more readily shape. It is no mistake that the two countries where ISIS gained the most ground were the two most riddled by civil war. The collapse of the state in Iraq and Syria left a vacuum that groups like ISIS could easily exploit.

Other observers say it is unhelpful to consider Saudi Arabia, a repressive regime that enforces Wahhabism, an extreme version of Islam, as representative of the faith, The Washington Post adds.

“Much of what Saudi Arabia encourages as proper Islam is not what many Muslims in the West would accept,” said Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a terrorism expert.

It would be a mistake to ignore the dysfunctionality and failure of the region’s authoritarian regimes as a contributory factor to violent jihadist militancy, experts suggest, “as if….the terrorists were aliens from outer space, rather than the twisted product of broken societies that have yet to divine how to stop churning them out.”

The administration has “offered no explanation of what was producing this phenomenon,” notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “Trump had no theory, and therefore could not suggest what might be done to prevent more extremists from rising.”

Others questioned the value of working with autocrats to fight terrorism, The Times adds.

“The worldview that we are fighting against needs to be countered with liberal ideas, not Salafi ideas,” said Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, referring to Saudi Arabia’s conservative branch of Islam.

“Although Saudi Arabia is afraid of some forms of Islamist extremism, it supports others,” columnist Anne Applebaum (right) notes.

“Saudi Arabia sponsors extremist Wahabi mosques and imams all over the world; Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, as were 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers,” she adds, questioning whether it is wise “to denounce human rights in Iran while standing in Saudi Arabia, a place where there is no political freedom and no religious freedom.”

To say we have shared “values” with Saudi Arabia shows a deficient understanding of American values and their role in American foreign policy, adds the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. Diminishing the importance of human rights sacrifices our moral authority, she contends.

“If countering violent extremism is a priority for this administration and it wants to defang this ideology, then Saudi Arabia is a very odd partner for that project,” Sarah Leah Watson, Human Rights Watch Middle East executive director, told VOA. “The Saudi government and its policies are among the biggest sources of violent extremism.”

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