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Root Causes of International Terrorism

Nov 27 , 2015
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The terrorist attacks in Beirut, on the Russian flight and in Paris, and the killing of Chinese and Norwegian hostages have aroused new, robust condemnation against ISIS and international terrorism. Unfortunately, despite the bloody lessons, the root causes have not been sufficiently discussed. The West, beyond the obsolete thesis of blaming terrorism on the Islamic religion, does not have new ideas.

While it is certainly true that some of the evil and extreme ideologies are more or less connected with religion, that is far from being the full story. Terrorism originated from the Middle East is fundamentally rooted in the poor employment situation and poor governance in the region. The West, including the U.S. and European countries, should in particular reflect on its policy toward the Middle East region.

Any religion can have extremist ideology. In this regard, Islam is no different from any other religion. According to some experts, Islam, which was born in the 7th century, is actually an Arab version of Christianity. The two religions share a lot of same stories and characters. The real problem lies in why so many young people of the Islamic world have become followers of an extremist ideology.

Amid numerous reasons, extremism is mainly inspired by three failures in the broad Middle East region. The first is the failure of industrialization characterized by employments in the Middle East. Arab Middle East can be divided into two: the wealthy Gulf countries and the vulnerable rest, but neither has solved the problems of employment. The young people either do not need to work because of being too rich or they have no job opportunities because of being too poor. The wealthy Gulf region has become rich because of oil wealth but without real industrialization, while the vulnerable rest has neither industrialization nor meaningful employment. And when the young people are not kept in the factories or office buildings, they may become followers of extremist ideologies, and ultimately go to the battlefields.

The second failure is in nation-building with a strong central government. It is true that modern political structures are visible in the Arab Middle East, including the post of president, the institution of parliament and judiciary sections, and even monarchies have different kinds of councils functioning as legislative. But these structures are often weak in the ability to command real rule of these nations and societies. Or to put it another way, they do not have the substance that a modern country should have.

Arab Middle East actually is still a messy combination of tribes, sub-tribes, religions and sub-religions and races with little organic links between each other. Because of these features, identification with religions, races and tribes is far stronger than that with nations. As a result, central governments commands little authority or prestige over the different tribes and religious sects. Over time, poor governance has become another cause of the rampage of extremism.

The third failure is in the regionalism defined as active roles of regional powers in a coordinated way. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey should be regarded as four of the major Middle East regional powers. Their cooperation and coordination should be crucial in efficiently fighting against terrorism. External powers, however strong they are, cannot necessarily defeat a local enemy deeply seated at home, as a Chinese saying goes.

But they are either in quagmire of domestic problems like Egypt, which has greatly prevented that country from playing a capable role in regional affairs, or in fierce conflict with other regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is a major obstacle for any meaningful coordination. Turkey, despite its ambition for leadership, is located in the periphery of the region. Turkey is also suspected by other regional powers of seeking to dominate the region again, stirring fears because of the bitter history of the Ottoman Empire.

Terrorist elements and organizations can easily pass from nation to nation. The reason is simple: There is no meaningful border control as a result of regional tensions. ISIS could even set up a political and religious entity across regions of both Iraq and Syria. That is one of the major reasons behind the spreading of extremism.

Though all the three failures are of the Arab Middle East itself, the West’s policy is also a part of the problem.

The Middle East never stepped on the stage of industrialization, because they have been facing European countries’ advantageous competition being geographically so close to Europe. European countries, meanwhile, had never seriously thought about how to benefit the neighboring Middle East with its own development, regarding the Middle East as a mere market.

The West’s various interventions have added more difficulty to the long-term nation-building efforts of the Arab Middle East. The political structures of Arab Middle East are truly vulnerable. Saddam’s Iraqi regime could be one example while Muammur Qaddafi’s Libya could be another. But the military interventions from outside, even made out of purely noble cause, as a matter of fact brought down the already vulnerable structure and created more chaos, making reconstruction difficult.

The West’s involvement in regional affairs also affected negatively the growing of regional coordination. The notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement at the end of World War I printed the picture of today’s Arab Middle East. While they were having coffee, the two ministers of the two strongest European countries drew the border lines between Arab countries, which is the origin of today’s fragmentation of the region. Such fragmentation leads to conflicts.

The West’s role in modern times also contributed to the conflicts between major regional powers. Instead of promoting reconciliation and coordination among major regional powers, the West had actually been instigating conflicts between them. The coordination between Saudi Arabia and Iran, representatives of Sunnis and Shiites, should be extremely important in regional governance and fighting against terrorism. But no coordination actually happens between the two. Their mutual hostility is certainly one of the reasons, but the Western media, academia and decision-making circles, if not intentionally, at least encouraged their divisions by emphasizing their differences in religion. The U.S. in particular has troops stationed in Gulf Arab countries obviously for the purpose of containing Iran, another source of their conflicts.

All in all, failures of industrialization with meaningful employment, nation-building and regionalism are major root causes of Islamic extremism. Changing of all these features needs strenuous efforts and persistence as well. It will first depend on whether the local leaders and elites can have right policy to improve the employment situation, build strong and efficient political structure, and jointly fight against terrorism.

It will also depend on whether external powers can really help them to achieve these objectives. China’s Belt and Road Initiative should be an opportunity. Global powers should particularly work together to promote reconciliation and coordination among regional powers. A kind of regional security structure including major regional powers and external powers is urgently needed. In this regard, the U.S. can do a lot.

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