The extremist challenge accuses the world of leaving whole cultures behind. This accusation is justified. Recognition of our guilt is the first step to meeting the extremist challenge.
Subjected to various forms of violence—invasion, sectarian conflict, dictatorship—that destroyed social and political, not to mention physical, infrastructure, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are now fertile soil for extremism because extremism offers hope when no rational solution is working. The extremists are not the problem; the problem is the hopelessness of life in a country violence has destroyed. This is why a “war against extremism” will at best only have a temporary effect. Remove every extremist by a magic wand this minute and a million more will arise the next, be they religious, sectarian, political, the soldiers of an invader, or just plain criminals…unless the need to improve conditions is addressed in a manner that the population finds acceptable.
Iraq, Syria, and Libya have now followed in the footsteps of Somalia and Afghanistan. Note the pattern. Whether by foreign military aggression, foreign military “assistance,” domestic aggression by a dictator, civil war, or the onslaught of a jihadi gang; whether a short war in recent years or a generation-long conflict, violence generated extremism, not a solution.
Everyone in today’s world has access to some weapon of war; wars in small countries can be continued endlessly, even after the original protagonists are long dead and the original issues forgotten. The trouble in Somalia began as a superpower (are you old enough to remember that word?) conflict in the 1970s. A modern, centralized client dictator replaced the traditional network of distributed power, and “things fell apart:” the traditional political system collapsed. Ditto Afghanistan. Even if you date the Iraqi collapse from only 2003,
Destroying the functionality of a society, debasing a culture, erasing effective governance are shockingly easy goals to achieve, and the array of organizations thirsting to profit from the process is endless. A war against extremism? War is precisely what extremists want! If the extremists are criminals, war is their road to profit. If the extremists are uncompromising ideologues, war is their road to victory.
If attacked, we must fight, but that fight is no solution; it is but the means of finding time to invent a solution. The measure of our sincerity in wanting a solution will be the degree to which we devise a Marshall Plan for the Mideast, with such a plan funded at a level that exceeds the expenditures of war.
Waging war is profitable. Can peacemaking be made profitable?
Extremists exploit sectarian animosities, which tend to be rooted in discriminatory distribution of resources. Can a method be devised for distributing state revenues in a way that promotes cross-sectarian cooperation?
Sunni jihadis, to cite the current most-feared class of extremist, have demonstrated the ability very rapidly to evolve strategically and tactically, innovating faster than traditional states have been able to respond. It is time the world sharpened its thinking.