How Should We Respond to the Threat of ISIS?

We will get nowhere other than where we are today if we all refuse to analyze the deeper drivers of radicalism that feed tens of thousands of recruits to these killer organizations.

Throughout many private and public encounters across the United States in the past two months, I have repeatedly heard Americans ask whether they are doing the right thing in their current policy to counter “Islamic State” (ISIS), and whether they should be doing other things besides military attacks. This is now even more urgent since the United States government has issued a worldwide travel alert for Americans traveling abroad. Existing policies to counter Islamist terror groups have not worked very well, it seems, to judge by the last seventeen years of non-stop military attacks against Al-Qaeda which have seen Al-Qaeda persist and expand recently, and ISIS come to being and wage terror attacks in several countries beyond its borders.

Many Western and Arab governments also have attempted to slow down the flow of recruits to Islamist militant groups by using social media to offer “counter-narratives” on a range of issues that would prevent young men and women from joining ISIS or Al-Qaeda; but all these efforts have been an embarrassing waste of time and money. These groups did not exist twenty-five years ago, and now they are fast growing threats across the region and increasingly around the world.

What caused these groups to come into being? Why has the world’s response to this problem been so incompetent? Why have these groups emerged primarily from within the heart of the Arab world? The world needs to grasp and address the relationship between these three questions, if this threat is to be dealt with once and for all in an effective manner. Bombing away for decades on end will not do that, and has not done that.

Amazingly, no serious effort has been made to date by Western or Arab-Islamic countries to define a strategy that could effectively stop the growth of ISIS and Al-Qaeda by addressing the many underlying causes that have allowed such organizations to come into being, persist, and even expand. We will get nowhere other than where we are today if we all refuse to analyze the deeper drivers of radicalism that feed tens of thousands of recruits to these killer organizations.

That radicalism occurs not when a young man suddenly discovers tough religious sermons, or connects with internet recruiters, but rather after years of slipping into conditions of poverty, hopelessness, vulnerability, alienation, humiliation, occupation, colonization, joblessness, subjugation, voicelessness, exploitation, and other numbing conditions that all—all—result from the consequences of policies that governments pursue. Not acts of nature or acts of God, but dreadful life conditions that accumulate over many years, because political elites in Arab-Islamic, Western and other foreign governments pursue long-term policies that demean and ultimately dehumanize men and women, and turn some of them into animals and killers.

Arab and Western power structures seem to prefer to deal with the surface manifestations and symptoms of the problems that created these radical killers, rather than trying to deal with the problems themselves and why these problems persisted for so many decades: Corruption, fake parliaments, poverty, lack of civic rights, no accountability, security-dominated governance systems, family-run states, crony-capitalism, massive environmental mismanagement, incompetence in addressing the challenge of Zionism, hollowed education systems, abuse of power, subservience to foreign powers, lack of freedom of expression, non-independent judiciaries, and many other problems that are each important on their own, but together form a crushing weight that has shattered many of our societies.

It is time now for a serious effort jointly conducted by Arab-Islamic and Western institutions to dare to go beyond the self-imposed constraints of their power structures and ruling elites, and to respond clearly to a set of critical questions about: why youth become radicalized, why groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda come into being, why many people around the world support or join such brutal organizations, why existing responses to them have largely failed, and—the most important question of all, because the others are easy to answer—how much responsibility for these terrible phenomena must be assumed by governments and other institutions around the world whose policies and actions contributed to their coming into being?

Our governments will not do this, so this critical task must be carried out by universities, research institutes, civil society organizations, the media, religious institutions, and others in society who have the ability and the will to analyze their countries’ policies honestly. Arab-Islamic and Western governments have miserably and repeatedly failed the test of acknowledging that radicalism, violence, terror and other plagues we suffer emanate from a modern historical legacy that comprises three related concentric circles: Arab autocratic mismanagement is the first and most important one, followed by foreign support for those autocrats, and the consequences of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict. Identifying those underlying drivers of radicalism, acknowledging how each of our countries’ policies contribute to them, and then formulating a strategy to rectify and remove them from our world seems an obvious foundation for any serious strategy to fight the terror that threatens us all.

Such a strategy would require serious political, social, and economic reform of Arab societies, and changes in the policies of leading foreign powers and Israel. That is a huge agenda, with many sub-themes, that will take years to navigate. The longer we wait to embark on this path, the more suffering we will all experience. And by waiting longer to act diligently and honestly we would have added criminal negligence in diagnosing and analyzing our current dilemma to our existing collective responsibility for pursuing the misguided policies that brought us to this point of death and confusion, manifested so sharply this week by the U.S. government’s worldwide travel warning.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global