West ‘losing the war of ideas’ against extremist ideology


After more than a decade, efforts to counter the ideology of terrorist networks by the United States and its partners have yet to accrue a tangible return on investment, according to Losing the War of Ideas, a new report from the Center for American Progress.

“Following the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration linked its global war on terrorism with its freedom agenda, an effort to promote political reform in the Middle East,” say analysts Alia AwadallahHardin Lang, and Kristy Densmore. “These efforts failed to produce greater overall stability in the region. Nor did they lead to significant advances in democratic development or major achievements in the battle against violent extremism.”

To succeed in defeating violent extremism in the Middle East and arrest negative trends, the report recommends the following four actions:

  • Make the case to partner countries that repressive policies are counterproductive, and encourage leaders to support basic freedoms and respect for pluralism and inclusivity.
  • Abandon Islamophobic and inflammatory rhetoric.


“Battlefield victories will prove short-lived without a more focused strategy to tackle terrorist ideology,” said Awadallah. “The United States should continue to play a role in guiding and developing data-driven strategies that do not rely on repression or counterproductive policies.”

Despite the differences in jihadist and neo-Nazi, white-supremacist ideologies, the two movements and how they attract and retain followers are often studied side by side by scholars of extremism. When the problem of mass recruitment by jihadists emerged in the West, researchers turned for guidance to what they had learned studying the psychology, behavior, and structure of neo-Nazi groups, Julia Ioffe writes for The Atlantic:

Scholars have often observed a radicalization process that goes something like this: After a first contact with the ideology, a person’s curiosity drives them to seek out more information, often through social media. After trying it on for size, they decide that the ideology sufficiently addresses their grievances, usually by framing it as the result of their group—their Muslim brothers and sisters, or their brothers and sisters in the white race—are being victimized by another group, say infidels or non-white immigrants. Then, the new adherent will consider whether he or she is doing enough to advance the cause, and if the answer is no, the person will act.

“The process and structure of radicalization and extremism,” says J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Efforts to combat violent extremism and its root causes should address three key points, democracy activist Salaheddine Jourchi (right)  told a recent forum of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy:

  • First, Muslims face an intellectual religious dilemma that has direct repercussions on the political, economic and social spheres. This predicament was not plotted from outside the Islamic world, as often supposed, but is an internal dilemma that has deep cultural roots. ….  
  • Secondly, the termextremismis a vague term with no clear mechanisms or definition. It is therefore essential to define the nature of extremism in order to build our analysis and work on a solid foundation so that we can achieve concrete results on which we can all agree and that we can all develop.
  • Thirdly, the extent to which extremism can be linked to the context of political isolation and tyranny, which is still a powerful factor in Tunisian society.

“Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct,” says Berger. “The in-group”—the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members—“is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group”—people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites—“and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.”

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