The defeat of ISIS in Middle East and North African battlefields is now a reality. The terrorist group - which brought bereavement to the populations of the Arab region - has been defeated militarily in Iraq and in Syria.
Mosul, Raqqa, Tikrit and Ramadi - once considered as ISIS bastions in the Middle East – are now liberated and an era of brutality, cruelty and violence has come to an end. Although off-shoot factions still exist in countries such as Libya, Yemen, Egypt and in small pockets of Syria, the military defeat of ISIS marks a new era for Arab countries in their endeavours to rebuild societies ravaged by violence and armed conflict. Nonetheless, the “real work” to defeat ISIS and its heinous ideology lies in de-radicalizing returning militants and addressing the root-causes that initially provided fertile ground to the rise of radicalism.
Radicalism is not a new phenomenon. All regions of the world have witnessed the rise and fall of extremist forces at one time or another. Europe was the scene of far-right apocalypse prior to and during the Second World War. Radicalism and violent extremism later became the trademarks of nationalist, radicalist Marxist and fundamentalist groups during the Cold War. In order to counter the invasion of Soviet Union and the “red threat” in Afghanistan radicalization was used as a “weapon of war” to mobilize radical movements to counter the Soviet sphere of influence. The trauma inflicted upon the Middle East and North Africa by relentless foreign invasions - which have been occurring since the beginning of the 2000s – have once again given rise to extremist violence. The result: a generation of radicals with ultra-conservative views motivated to carry out attacks on societies and governments which do not comply with their ideologies.
“Once the genie is out of the bottle, who can force it back in?” One would assume that the adverse effect of Cold War radicalization would serve as lessons learned for decision-makers in their endeavours to address and roll-back radicalization. However, it appears that politicians and policy analysts presume that radicalization will disappear by itself as was initially thought with the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Governments worldwide are now worried by the surge of ISIS fighters set to return to their home societies. And they have good reasons to remain disturbed. In a rushed attempt to identify solutions to counter radicalism, legislation criminalizing the involvement of individuals in extremist movements has been introduced for purposes of enhancing security. But will legislation alone prevent individuals – and in particular youth – from joining or remaining in extremist movements?
Imposing legislation is a step in the right direction, but it must be complemented by a full-fledge analysis of the genesis of violent extremism and radicalism. Inequality, marginalization, xenophobia, unemployment, ignorance, poverty, social exclusion and political marginalization as well as foreign intrusions, among other factors, contribute to the rise of radicalism. Ignoring these factors – and relying solely on criminalizing radicalism – is equivalent to “treating the symptom rather than the problem.” Every country must look into its own characteristics and the interplay between the push and pull factors of radicalization to address its adverse impact. Every society must have an open discussion about the root causes that incite youth to head to the battlefields of Aleppo, Raqqa or Mosul to fight for causes that starkly contradict the true values of humanity. Extremist violence is here to stay for some time. In order to roll it back, a long-term strategy that will go beyond security reinforcements is desperately needed. It will require political, cultural and sociological explanations.
Another factor which demands the urgent attention of decision makers worldwide is Internet radicalization. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has repeatedly warned against the phenomenon of Internet radicalization and urging Member States to work towards “a proactive and coordinated response.” Decision-makers must respond to the rise of Internet radicalism - that is emerging as an invisible force - inciting youth to join violent and radical groups including ISIS and others. Supportive settings and safe learning environments fostering social inclusion, open-mindedness and equal citizenship rights are important prerequisites in creating conditions protecting youth from falling prey to misguided ideologies. Internet must not become a recruitment and radicalization tool for terrorist and extremist groups. Online radicalization of youth must not be left unattended. But the challenge must be addressed without undermining press freedom.
Formal education, particularly early learning education, remain the most effective tool to nip discrimination towards others in the bud. Several countries around the world provide inspiring examples of how teaching the important values of tolerance and equality in educational institutions and through generation specific methods can save generations from the grips of radicalization and xenophobia.
Lastly, reintegration strategies of former combatants and extremists and religious counselling are key to avoid a “return backlash”. Rehabilitation of extremists must start at an early stage. Religious leaders can play an important role in providing counselling to address radicalist thoughts - that underpin the beliefs of extremists - and to promote the values of tolerance, coexistence and dialogue. The panacea to address radicalization is to rejoice in the Other and to break down the walls of ignorance that have insulated societies from some of their segments. Religious beliefs must not be instrumentalized to promote fear as a stepping stone to access power and to fuel indiscriminate xenophobic responses undermining national unity.
Many religions of the world bear a unique fundamental message of peace, harmony, tolerance and compassion. Only through dialogue between populations and regions of all cultures and religious faiths, only through the promotion of equal citizenship rights for all can bridges of understanding and tolerance be built between diverse social components of nations, thereby fostering social cohesion, harmony and a rolling-back of radicalization.