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.