Notes on Radicalization and Daesh

NOTES on RADICALIZATION and DAESH: Prisons, Revolutions, and Poverty


I want to draw out several short arguments here about radicalization in regards to Daesh. I reject the idea that poverty leads to radicalization, and I try to draw a parallel here with existing studies of revolution, where poverty likewise fails to explain their occurrence. I engage, for argument’s sake, the idea that poverty is actually leading to radicalization, and show that economic development cannot be seen as a solution, drawing briefly on the 20th century experiences of various countries with successful industrialization and economic development post WWII. My beginning, admittedly incomplete explanation of what lies behind radicalization points to institutions and the subjectivities formed as individuals interact with various institutions. I argue that mosques are rarely sites of radicalization, and far more often act to moderate individuals, while prisons are often sites of radicalization in very different countries around the world.

I) There’s a lot of evidence that many things besides poverty lead to radicalization. There are distinct patterns of who is more likely to become a jihadi, and they’re disproportionately middle class and educated. There’s also a large number of converts involved, something not explained by inequality. Most recently, the fact that a number of the Belgians involved in ISIS attacks on Paris were actually small time gangsters who owned a bar prior to joining ISIS got significant attention. We see too many factors here that cannot be explained by poverty. Also, many of the people who travel from far away, especially those leaving the developed Global North, are far from poor themselves. There are stories of people fighting for Daesh in Syria and Iraq for salaries they can’t get anywhere else, but I don’t see this necessarily as radicalization, but rather people doing whatever they must to feed their families.

II) Scholars have been debating the issue of poverty for some time in studies of revolutions, with no strong evidence to support the thesis. Instead, key leap here- I argue this is relevant for our consideration in regard to radicalization. Radicalization in this sense is an attempt to overthrow established structures- granted not through mass mobilization but rather through terrorist tactics. It’s explicitly done in the desire of a state exclusively run by Islamic Law. While that’s not the same as various revolutions and failed revolutions that took place over the last two centuries, it’s similar enough to take this point in mind. Evidence has never proven a thesis that poverty leads to revolution, or even attempts at it. It was nuanced to ‘relative deprivation’ by Ted Gurr; for him, ‘relative deprivation’ is the difference between what people have and what they think they deserve.’ This still is not considered a definitive explanation of why people mobilize for revolution, and scholarship continues.

III) Revolution has been extensively studied without reaching any overarching theory that can, scientifically, explain revolutions in different parts of the world at different times in history. I fully expect studies of radicalization to follow the same pattern. We know that jihadis joining Daesh come from dozens of different countries around the world. Why would the reasons be the same for a youth in Tunisia as they are for a person in Sweden? or Belgium? or the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt? This connection (or lack thereof) between studies of radicalization and studies of revolution is illuminating for several reasons. It breaks down the idea that we really don’t know that much about radicalization, and argues instead that we have large bodies of relevant knowledge developed about revolutions. It also breaks down exceptionalist arguments that what we’re studying is ultimately only about Islam. This is a facet of the argument I plan to expand on significantly moving forward.

IV) Poorer_Nations_CMYK-max_221-4101b8724af09b00d65a0aacf9bcb6e5Even if we granted that poverty had a major role in radicalization, it points to an answer in the form of economic development. If one has studied economic development in any detail, it’s clear that our world has no set formulas to bring this about. There exists a small handful of countries that achieved this feat, in which they industrialized and joined the “developed world” post WWII. They did so under authoritarian rulers while blocking out foreign goods to protect their developing industries. They also crushed labor mobilizations at home. They’re sometimes called the “Asian Tigers,” a name I don’t like but that’s beside the point. Arguably Brasil under the military dictatorship and Chile under the dictator Pinochet achieved similar economic leaps. The approach these nations took broke all the rules that countries are forced to follow today by the IMF and World Bank, and arguably had its roots in the post WWII reconstruction of Japan- see Vijay Prashad’s ‘The Poorer Nations‘ for the book-length treatment of that. Since Prashad is very far left and some will find him biased, feel free to find Jeffry Frieden’s Global Capitalism instead, as it covers the issue as well, and Frieden is definitely a capitalist. It will become clear that any honest appraisal of the Asian Tigers must stare squarely at this very dark lesson they teach the world, that industrialization post-WWII has not happened under a democracy, and was not achieved through free market means, but rather with large amounts of government investment and protectionism to incubate their industries.

I think it’s fairly self-evident why such an approach of relying on secular autocrats to usher countries through industrialization is fraught with pitfalls. It’s  very possible that all the country gets is authoritarian rule without real economic development. That prescription sounds all too much like the autocratic leaders around the Arab World who are widely revered by jihadists as “tawagheet” or tyrants who oppress Islam. These men were also the targets of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, so I really don’t see this as a potential solution. Moreover, I’ve written at length elsewhere how this term taghut/tawagheet (pl.) is a central pillar of Daeshi discourse, used to characterize leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and others. So relying on a secular autocrat, the likes of whom are the bane of Daeshi discourse and the targets of the Arab Uprisings can somehow bring economic development and ease radicalization? It makes zero sense.

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Sayyid Qutb, influential Jihadist thinker, imprisoned in Egypt in the 50s and 60s.

V) There is significant evidence that other factors, especially institutions are involved. If Islam is institutionalized through mosques and connected charities, radicalization happens just as often outside of these institutions, which often serve to stabilize and moderate interpretations of religion. Those who speak up in sermons or events with extremist views can be confronted, ridiculed, and potentially ostracized. There are, certainly, a small handful of mosques that do promote radical and violent interpretations, but they are a tiny minority of the total. The video below is a good example of the moderating forces I argue come from many mosques. The men with extremist views in the video find no refuge in or in front of mosques- they are confronted, shouted down, and ostracized.

Prisons, rather than mosques, are consistently sites of radicalization, showing that no simple solution lies in imprisoning jihadis to rehabilitate them.  In many Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, prisons have become hotbeds for jihadis and many who entered with no connection to violent jihad, sometimes with no connection to Islam as a whole, come out radicalized. A central example is Sayyid Qutb, who is universally revered by jihadis. He spent the better part of two decades in prison in Egypt under Nasser’s rule. His writings from this time have come to inspire thousands of jihadis in later generations and are widely translated. Similarly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a man central in the violent roots of ISIS in Iraq, connected with Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi in Jordanian prison, radicalizing Zarqawi before his release. Maqdisi is still an influential jihadi scholar, though one very critical of ISIS. Camp Bucca, the prison run inside Iraq during the American occupation by the CPA, became the site for the coalescence of the first iterations of ISIS.  Similar issues with radicalization inside prisons have been documented in the USA and in France. We don’t know nearly enough about this, but it’s surprisingly consistent in that it happens in countries in very different parts of the world, as listed above.

VI) Thus, I have argued here that we cannot isolate poverty or inequality as a driver of radicalization. Instead, we need to focus on the roles that institutions play and how individuals negotiate their subjectivities in relation to these institutions. Right now I am thinking most in regard to mosques and prisons, but I am sure there are connections to be drawn to courts and to schools. Again, this is nothing unique to Islam. This argument breaks down barriers between what we’re focusing on here and other forms of subjectivity. I think these directions can help us grasp most of what happens in radicalization, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure out an overarching explanation that would apply to radicalization where ever it happened. In that sense, it’s like revolution- we can usually figure it out ex post facto, but the answer to why it happens then and not at other times remains elusive, and likely always will.

A lot of this is thought in progress so please share your comments.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Radicalization and Daesh

  1. Michael,

    I’m a big fan of your blog in general but with all due respect, your arguments here are not especially strong. Not to mention that they don’t actually engage what is being said on this issue.

    (1). Your thesis is based on a Straw Man argument.

    No one I know of is arguing that “poverty” is the root cause of radicalism in the ISIS context. Truly poor, illiterate peasants or slum dwellers, aren’t joining. But who is actually saying they are? I have never read anyone say that. So your post is countering an argument to prove your view that isn’t actually being made, at least not as relates specifically to ISIS-style Islamic extremist movements of recent years.

    (2) The more nuanced socio-economic argument that IS in fact being made: (NOT poverty)

    In the current global industrial economic order, most Arab countries are not producers. They are primarily buyers of goods. This essentially means that the economic pie is small. There just aren’t enough jobs and economic status to make all of their populations happy. I’d say in Egypt, for example, the pie is currently only big enough to keep 30% to 40% of the population content.

    The people embracing ISISism from the countries that I know well – are clearly from that lower status – they are not poor, but they are certainly not elites. They are closed off from it. What I call ISISism, Scott Atran calls it radical Sunni revivalism (which I also consider something distinct from the specific geographic situatin in Syria-Iraq) is providing an alternative narrative.

    Who are the people choosing to follow that utopian, alternative narrative and pathway to purpose, meaning, status etc?

    With very few exceptions, it’s the people that can not get it through the conventional means. Can you please send me some examples of TRULY ELITE Saudis, Egyptians or Tunisians that have become members of ISIS-style rejectionist groups (and not sending weapons to help the Syrian rebels — but the blow up the system locally and tear down the status quo element)? If you can, that would support your argument.

    Many will cite Bin Laden or Zawahiri, two guys from the 1970s and 1980s, as if because they were elite they somehow negates the socio-economic backgrounds of 70,000 others I am talking about the current generation. People who joined within the last 5 years, to the ISIS-brand of Islamic extremism, under the age of 30.

    Here are several articles of note that present the socio-economic drivers in a far more sophisticated way than the non-existent “poverty” argument:

    Let’s just pick one country – Tunisia. 7,000 have joined. They appear to be basically all be from less developed regions, with massive unemployment. They are cut off from the socio-economic opportunities . The people joining aren’t poor. They have some education, but that doesn’t mean they have economic status. Having a degree means nothing if one can’t find a job.

    If you accept that the overwhelming majority of those joining from Tunisia can not gain status, purpose, meaning, whatever, by playing within the conventional rules laid out by the elites, what is the cause? Is that not a socio-economic cause?

    Your argument (and it’s not just you making it — there is an ideological reluctance by many in the US to have socio-economics be a factor in this) is like listening to someone make an super legalistic defense over whether OJ Simpson was guilty or not because they couldn’t find a smoking gun. No smoking gun, therefore, OJ couldn’t have done it some might say.

    Yet, the circumstantial evidence was so overwhelming, it is hard to see how he didn’t do it. I would say there is enough “circumstantial evidence” in the Tunisia case to make very decisive statements.

    No Jihadi is going to write out on a piece of paper, “I did this because of socio-economic reasons.”

    (3) Since When Does Going to Jail Have Nothing to Do With Socio-Economics?

    Why do people end up in jails in the first place? Do you see many Harvard graduates sitting in jails? Or French people from elite backgrounds? Or American University of Cairo or Beirut graduates? It is hard for me to see how someone could say “So and So” got radicalized because they went to jail and then argue that had nothing to do with socio-economics. Going to jail has everything to do with socio-economics Not nothing, as you suggest.

    (4) Economic Development as A Solution:

    It’s hard to engage with you on this point because you have focused narrowly on poverty, when that isn’t the issue. But a question for you:

    If Tunisia – which in 1950 was probably more developed than South Korea- – had become the industrial super-power that SK is today, do you really think there would be 7,000 people who have joined?

    Another one, you are a History PhD student, would you dispute that the roots drivers or the appeal of Communism, Anarchism, and National Socialism had nothing to do with discontent with the socio-economic status quo?

    (5) The Quest for the “Holy Grail”/Magic Bullet Explanation Will Go On Forever.

    Can you prove that the Golden State Warriors won the last game because they shot well? Or because they rebounded well? Or because they played defense well? You can’t.

    Can you prove that Monet was a good painter? Can you prove that X factor caused Hillary Clinton edged out Bernie Sanders to get the Nomination? No you can’t prove any of that in the scientific Magic Bullet way you are trying to make this case about “poverty.”

    I don’t think you can. Nor do I think any academic insisting on finding a magic bullet comprehensive answer will ever succeed, because there is no “scientific answer.”

    Scholars will still be debating it in 2050 and someone will always poke holes in someone’s theory.

    From a “How do you stop the problem” policy perspective, a more productive way is to just find the main driver or drivers and address them. The main underlying driver is socio-economic discontent with the status quo. Stopping those already in these groups is a CT issue. But the long-term counter is to dress that socio-economic discontent.

    (6) The Weakness of the “Social Science” On Size Fits All Approach:

    You asked:

    “Why would the reasons be the same for a youth in Tunisia as they are for a person in Sweden? or Belgium? or the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt?”

    No, I would say they wouldn’t be. I am approaching this as a Historian/ Journalist who believes that each situation is different to varying degrees and only through local expertise can you figure out that local situation.

    I don’t disagree with you that Egypt is different than Belgium. That’s why local expertise has to go into the equation. Terrorism theory is trying to come up with a one size fits all solution and specifically downplays, almost by definition, the idea of local expertise.

    (7) The statistics on a pure quantitative basis on European ISIS recruits are extremely compelling and strongly support the argument I am making here (whereas in Arab contexts -like say Tunisia – people have to rely more on qualitative assessments because the data isn’t available to the same easily study able degree. A well known Norwegian scholar has sent me a bunch of studies and it’s a pretty rock solid case about the socio-economic origins of the people from Europe:

    To cite “one guy had a bar” means very little. It certainly doesn’t mean he has any meaningful overall socio-economic status. Did it actually make money?


  2. Hi Nathan:)
    Thanks for engaging my arguments. My response is as follows:
    You and I agree that the majority of jihadis come from the middle class. We have major disagreements about why that is. What you outline here becomes something like “those from the middle class unable to maintain that life, or who have expectations of a certain standard of living, are most likely to become jihadis”, am I right? Both of these links below illustrate my points that many things are necessary to take into account besides purely economic issues, with regard to Tunisia.

    By framing it as “socio-economic”, I worry you’re stretching that to include just about anything that happens to a person in a given class of society. Your argument strangely parallels orthodox Marxism and I’m pretty sure you’re not a Marxist. I bring that up because Marxists and their critics have been arguing for decades about how economic factors can or can’t be used to explain broader social phenomena, and the results of that debate have weakened/nuanced the claims more and more. It would be ridiculous to say that class has nothing to do with any individual’s life and the actions s(he) takes, but the question is where do all the other factors fit in? By these, I am thinking age, ideology, gender, education, family structure, and others. I worry that your argument draws on basically ALL of those and lumps them together as socio-economic, something that allows you to subsume them to class, or most specifically, joblessness. The angle I approach this from should not be lumped together with others in the USA who you claim refuse to acknowledge socioeconomic issues, saying that really misses the point of what I am saying and why. If some take the approach that this is all about Islam, ignoring socio-economic factors as you point out. I am definitely not making this about Islam- I think these questions of why some Muslims radicalize are far closer to nationalist reasons, for example, than that would allow for.

    None of that is to say that jobless frustration, isn’t a factor at all- it is to say that it doesn’t explain radicalization. Haven’t there been Muslims, and middle class ones in Tunisia for the entire 20th century? Can’t we say that about the entire Middle East in the 20th Century? Why didn’t these factors produce radicalism earlier in the 20th century, if they’re really the issue? Obviously ISIS didn’t exist, but wouldn’t these conditions, if they’re really what you claim they are, have produced these issues consistently in prior decades? They didn’t. If they have any role now, it’s because MAJOR changes took place around them, and your explanation is blind to them. So many other things had to happen first before that could even potentially be a straw that broke the camel’s back. By ignoring those other issues, and offering economic development as a solution, we miss the complexity here and offer a hackneyed solution which likely won’t even succeed on its own terms, by that I mean achieving actual economic development.

    With regard to other ideologies like Communism, Anarchism, and National Socialism and (Fascism) and your statement about them, I must disagree. I saw you made this into a whole separate post. I see again that you’re simplifying these things as purely reactionary to capitalism, and your argument basically says capitalism needs to work better for these people to make radicalization stop. It misses that these were larger projects which aspired to replace the entire world system- the entire enlightenment modernity capitalism is based on. In doing so, you miss what’s unique about these cases and these ideologies. You throw them all together despite the fact that they emerge in very different parts of the world, under different circumstances, and that they had many of their own internal ideological battles. It makes them far too one dimensional and reactionary.

    I do strongly agree with the idea that what happens in the Middle East is not unique and that we can definitely compare it to other parts of the world productively. However, the content and character of the comparison you make is one I see as flawed for the reasons listed above. Moreover, I worry that you’re presenting yourself (and therefore the capitalism you argue for) as free of ideology, while ideology is something out there for others, like communists, anarchists, jihadists, etc. I see your arguments as completely under the tree of liberal capitalism, thus your prescriptions for solutions that the system just needs to work better for them. I addressed this idea above in my section about the failures of economic development and I don’t feel you substantively engaged with it. Now, just because I don’t share this view with you doesn’t mean I am demonizing you for it- you’re more than free to argue for what you want. I just disagree with the implication that this is free of ideology. No human is ideology-free.

    I guess I’d like to know- where do you see institutions and the state in all of this? Where is ideology? Where is age? What about all the converts, especially those who were criminals before? Lumping them together with unemployed is just way too broad. Thanks again for engaging on this, cheers!


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