(Harvard Int’l Review) Violent extremism is probably the most critical challenge that is not only menacing our region, but in fact the entire world, where threats recognize no borders. It is a grave threat that has already ravaged Iraq and Syria and cast gloom over the regions horizons. Its global reach and stated worldwide ambitions make it clear that it has major implications for the geopolitical and security environment, not only in our immediate neighborhood, but also in many other parts of the world.
Atrocities committed by violent extremists and their brutal efforts towards religious and ethnic cleansing in Syria and Iraq have shocked the world. The attack in Europe by various Al-Qaeda affiliates, the 2015 Baga massacre by Boko Haram, the terrorist attack on Tunisias national museum, the deadly suicide bombing against civilians in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, the shocking massacre of 147 college students in Kenya in recent months highlight the widening scope of the threat posed by the rise of violent extremism. This phenomenon gained global attention several decades ago after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to the creation of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, followed by the US invasion of Iraq, which produced various Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq which later grew into Daesh, often referred to as ISIS.
Serious crimes, including executions, rapes, forced conversions, torture and enslavement shamefully advertised by Daesh-Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-on social media exposes the extent of the threat they pose. Their recruitment from over 90 countries around the world, including many Western industrialized “democracies,” is an alarming indication of many social and structural malfunctions, which have hitherto been conveniently neglected. The terrorist groups Takfiri (excommunicative) approach, has allowed it to justify, and even glorify, the targeting of an ever expanding list of those they despise, subjecting them to slavery and death. Hence, their wrath has spread well beyond their original professed targets, and no longer even spares members of other Takfiri groups. Many instances of beheadings of Al-Nusrah followers by Daesh in Syria-and vice versa-illustrate this tendency. In one case in March 2014, vicious infighting among the terrorist groups in northern Syria left more than a thousand dead.
Systematic destruction and desecration of sacred mosques, holy shrines, churches, ancient graves and temples, as well as ancient archeological treasures representing the rich cultural heritage of the region, illustrate the long-term objectives of violent extremism for the region. The atrocities committed against the Yazidi people reflect their intentions and behavior towards minorities. The use of social media to glorify the horrific massacre of 1700 Iraqi air force cadets in Tikrit in June 2014 portends what may lie ahead for Iraqis, if they fail to defeat violent extremists. These acts should be regarded as nothing less than an assault on the historic social fabric of the region and its rich, diverse, and proud heritage.
Where Does the Root of Violent Extremism Lie?
Such human values as compassion, empathy, patience, tolerance and forgiveness have always been the basic message that all religious traditions, particularly Islam, have espoused and carried throughout history. Meanwhile, in the past two centuries, a small group of demagogues with dubious background began to present a distorted image of Islam, under the guise of purifying the religion. They twisted the message of Islam, and distorted the religious teachings in a way to suit their narrow political interest and agenda. They tried to extract compassion and mercy from the religion, and their followers in the process, grew intolerant of those who did not share this interpretation and dubbed them “not true believers.”
Based on this misrepresentation, they set out to totally reject all other rival religious narratives and excommunicate those they deemed different only based on what they believe, where they come from, and what population group they belong to. They claim that they have arrived at the exclusively accurate understanding of Islam and own the entire truth. This is the essence of Takfirism, and its forefathers, which in my view are at the very core of the predicament that we now face with violent extremism.
As long as this interpretation was and is limited to their community of believers, their proponents were and are entitled to their opinion. The problem emerged when those with wealth and power undertook to diffuse this mode of thinking in the larger Muslim community and around the globe and force it upon peoples and communities near and far, not for the sake of religious puritanism but for shortsighted political and strategic calculations and objectives. Individuals or groups prone to radical ideologies were seduced to embrace this interpretation. While a majority of those believing in this interpretation have always avoided the use of force to implement the precepts of their ideology, some have not, and, at times, even turned against their mentors. This is precisely when violent extremism was born and where its roots lie.
Vicious Circle of Intervention, Radicalization, and Regional Destabilization
While we need to highlight the roots of Daesh and its affiliates in the historic development of a twisted interpretation of Islam, we must also be mindful of the strong impact of the bloody recent history of Iraq on the formation and growth of current violent extremist groups. Political and military interventions in the Islamic world, especially in the 2000s, exacerbated the situation and created an enormously fertile breeding ground for extremist demagogues and helped the most radical among them to outgrow less radicals and create larger violent extremist entities.
Daesh is not a new phenomenon. There is consensus that violent extremists benefited from the chaos created in post-2003 Iraq. Daesh, a group that feeds on collapse and chaos, grew out of instabilities created following the invasion of Iraq and during the years of occupation. With the Syrian crisis and the support the extremists received from some wealthy individuals, quarters and states within and outside the region, they found a new breeding space, fabricated a new false cause and turned into monsters that are now even threatening their creators and benefactors. Their international appeal to disenfranchised youth, in the Arab world following the generally failed “Arab Spring” and in the West, has allowed their rank and file to grow apace.
Military interventions, coupled with attempts at ill-conceived and ill-executed social engineering of Middle Eastern societies, reflect the depth of the delusions inherent in the policies of the United States and a few other Western powers towards the region. The so-called “Greater Middle East Initiative,” which originated in the United States neoconservative circles and aimed to politically and socially engineer Middle Eastern societies and export “democracy” created the theoretical framework for military intervention. The initiative triggered regional resistance and only created greater instability. The proponents of this scheme utterly failed to recognize that democracy cannot be imposed upon a people by military means and developed under the watch of an occupying army. The damage done in the course of implementing this fantasy has been so severe that efforts in following years to mitigate the damage have only managed to achieve meager results.
These policies grew out of sheer oblivion towards the regions inner dynamics and led to feckless and clumsy attempts to stamp an alien model onto societies that are of completely different traditions, cultures and lifestyles. The consequent lingering instabilities in a number of societies in the region empowered violent extremists and created a vicious cycle in which foreign occupation and extremism reinforced each other, allowing the latter to feed off ensuing social and cultural fissures. This was not too difficult to predict. In a statement to the Security Council on 17 February 2003, I pointed out:
The extent of destabilization in the region and uncertainty in Iraq in the case of a war may go far beyond our imagination today. Given the state of the Iraqi society and the whole region, there are so many wild cards and no party could fit them beforehand into its calculations with any degree of certainty. But one outcome is almost certain: extremism stands to benefit enormously from an uncalculated adventure in Iraq.
Today, no one can deny that extremists and terrorists are much stronger and operating in more places in the Middle East than their demagogic leaders could ever imagine or wish in 2001.
What Daesh Is Not and What It Is
Daesh is not an Islamic group: its existence and objectives have nothing to do with Islam as laid out by the Holy Quran, the Prophet, and his disciples. Daesh uses Islam as a tool for recruiting and fundraising purposes. Islam is a religion of compassion and rationality: a religion of tolerance and mercy. All practicing Muslims begin their day with the verse from the Holy Quran, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful;” a verse they repeat many times in their daily prayers, to be reminded of the most important qualities of their Creator, which they must emulate in their quest for an ethical life and ultimate salvation. Daeshs brutal treatment of and criminal acts against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria run counter to the Quranic teaching of “No compulsion is there in religion” (2:256). The Holy Quran further reiterates that “whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether” (5:32). Against this backdrop, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have found the acts by Daesh and its affiliates to be anti-Islamic and morally repugnant, representing in no way Islamic thought and the practice of billions of Muslims throughout history.
Muslims and adherents of other faiths have lived in our region side by side for centuries. Religious shrines and precious antiquities across the Middle East belonging to various Islamic and non-Islamic sects and religions from the early days of Islam and even the pre-Islamic era bear testimony to the peaceful coexistence of the different peoples of faith in this region. And yet the destruction of these precious relics of the past by the extremists shows how alien they are to the mainstream Muslims of the region.
Those who violate the fundamental tenets of Islam predicated on compassion and empathy, repeatedly stated in the Quran and prophetic tradition, only distort Islam to use it towards their own perverse narrative and self-serving agenda. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to blame Islam for what these extremists have done. It is instructive to note that many of those who now blame Islam for the work of extremists are the very advocates of the invasion of Iraq under the previous US administration. In so doing, they try to absolve their own role in creating these monsters and blaming Islam for the mess that they created in our region and beyond.
Daesh is simply a destructive cult. In general, extremist entities, no matter what they claim to believe in, may become destructive cults at some point in the course of their development; Daesh is no exception. It started as a destructive cult with an authoritarian, totalitarian, domineering, and self-appointing power structure. It resorts to coercive mind control techniques to influence its fighters to commit atrocities and recruit in various ways, including through social media. It controls the territory under its rule mostly through brutality and intimidation.
Factors Contributing to the Rise of Daesh
There has been some debate over the reasons behind the success of Daesh in seizing control over swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. This success is often attributed to a number of factors, including the weakness or collapse of central government authority, initial financial and military support from certain regional governments, which continue coming from within the region from wealthy officials and Takfiri millionaires, lax border control that allows cross border movement of recruits-deliberate or unplanned-access to huge weapons depots in Syria and Iraq, experienced and battle-hardened during their fight with the United States in Iraq for many years, and being well-supported with revenues from petroleum, oil and human smuggling.
While the above have been all important in boosting the position of Daesh, there is another important factor enabling Daesh to grab land, which also reveals the nature of this group: the major role the former members of the Iraqi Baath Party and officers of Saddam Husseins army played in command and control of Daesh and its affiliates in Iraq and Syria. The primary reason for success of Daesh in the battlefield as well as in transforming from a simple suicidal terrorist group to a terrorist-cum-insurgent model with control over land lies in its alliance with a network of loyalists to Saddam Hussein.
This alliance of convenience could enhance Daeshs terrorist techniques with classic military organization and skill. Beyond providing Daesh with military expertise, the Baathists also brought the smuggling networks developed to circumvent sanctions in the 1990s. Baathists assist Daesh in the hope of restoring, in essence, the former political system in Iraq where the Shiites, Kurds and other population groups, including even the majority of the Sunnis, were dominated and repressed by a small ruling clique. Thus, it is not surprising that what Daesh does is reminiscent of the raw cruelty of Saddams Baathist regime. However, given the power balance and the nature of Daesh, the Baathists will only be used for a specific duration, before being tossed aside as well.
The Imperative of a Comprehensive Strategy to Fight Violent Extremism
There is a broad international consensus that Daesh is a criminal entity that should be defeated and its operatives should be brought to justice. This consensus indicates that the entire international community has a common interest in defeating Daesh and similar groups, including those who fan sectarian violence. While this broad consensus is an asset, translating it into a targeted and effective set of actions has proven elusive. The international community continues to suffer from the lack of a comprehensive, consistent and coherent strategy to confront violent extremism. Such a strategy must address the problem in its entirety and have the following components:
First, it should be serious, global, rule-based, non-discriminatory, inclusive, and avoid selective applications based on defunct patterns of alliance and bilateral relations. In so doing, all actors must avoid the temptation to prioritize political considerations above this goal. It should also provide for a paradigm shift in which all actors avoid employing the fight against violent extremism as an instrument of alliance policy, and abandon selectivity and double standard in conducting this fight. Violent extremism cannot become a new label with which to attack and demonize adversaries and others. Violent extremism is also far too dangerous and far too serious to be confined to a particular state or region. A serious global campaign against Daesh and similar Takfiri extremists require an adjustment in mindsets and a paradigm shift.
Second, it should be based upon and in full compliance with the norms and principles of international law and the provisions of the UN Charter, in particular the principle of refraining from the threat or use of force against other states. We cannot uproot a menace by solidifying its foundations and widening its recruitment opportunities.
Third, it should stipulate that any war against violent extremism must be fought first and foremost on a cultural and ideological front. Thus, a winning strategy should mobilize religious and community leaders, media outlets, universities, social media and similar outlets to reject twisted, violence-oriented interpretation of religions and denounce hateful and violent philosophy, which essentially runs counter to the basic teachings of all religions. Religious leaders from around the world should be at the forefront of efforts to denounce the false precepts of violent extremism and unequivocally reject sectarianism and attacks against religious and ethnic minorities. In this context, the recent message of Ayatollah Khamenei to European and North American Youth is a serious endeavor to initiate such enlightened cultural and ideological discourse.
Fourth, it should also address the contributing factors that help create space for and sustain extremism, including dictatorship, poverty, corruption and discrimination. Economic, political, and cultural disenfranchisement of the youth in the West as well as discriminatory measures that marginalize people of foreign descent should be addressed. The continued occupation of Palestine and the plight of the Palestinian people and their tragic predicament have been another effective recruitment tool for extremist groups like Daesh, which require attention and action.
Fifth, it should contain measures to counter Islamophobia, which conflates violent extremists and true Muslims, thus playing right into the hands of Daesh and similar Takfiri groups and directly lending credence to the extremists messaging. While we should rightly condemn racism and anti-Semitism, and we indeed do, we should at the same time condemn and criminalize Islamophobia and blatant disregard for the values, beliefs and sanctities of Muslims. Islamophobia must be recognized as a form of extremism that, one way or another, incites and leads to violence. Thus, in the interest of consistency, all forms of violent extremism should be condemned and rejected.
Sixth, it should engage all regional states and international actors to deny extremists access to funds, recruits and other resources that they use to spread terror across the region and beyond. That should include resolute measures with a view to putting an end to moral, material, logistical and financial support for extremists coming from private or public entities or individuals within or beyond the region. Denying extremists free movement, including through enforcing effective and coordinated border control, will be critical to the success of this campaign; as will be the disruption of financial and logistical support networks and the sharing of critical relevant information and intelligence. It should encourage the international community, including the West-if they are really interested in ending extremism and defeating Daesh-to make external military and political support to all actors in the region conditional on their genuinely fighting Daesh and other violent and extremist groups and currents.
Seventh, it should provide for extending support to those countries that are directly engaged in fighting violent extremists. They should be assisted in their efforts towards strengthening their national unity and territorial integrity. This approach requires discouraging centrifugal forces and non-interference with the ethnic and sectarian mosaic of nations. Any approach that undermines these authorities while differentiating between segments of population in terms of protection will be a recipe for defeat.
Eighth, it should provide for a renewed focus on the imperative to fight Daesh and its affiliates and prevent nations, particularly in the Middle East, from undermining the unified front against extremism in all its forms. Military campaign against Yemen is a case in point, in that it has emboldened and provided space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We need to unite against Daesh instead of bombing one anothers cities and airports. An understanding between countries and factions opposed to Daesh and its affiliates would provide a more conducive environment for a more effective fight against extremism. Trying to undermine those who have proven their resolve and dedication to fight Daesh while embracing those who have been tepid in this regards, would undercut the efforts towards containing, let alone uprooting extremism.
Iranians of all ages and affiliation, particularly the youth, have been consistent in rejecting and fighting violent extremism from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to AQAP, Daesh and others similar forces in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Iran takes pride in being instrumental in preventing extremists from consolidating their rule in Afghanistan in the late 1990s by providing support to the forces resisting the Taliban. Iran has shown unqualified determination to help the Iraqi government and coordinate with it to assist all those threatened by Daesh. When, during the first blitz by this group in June and July 2014, all others were taken aback and stunned or were hallucinating about possible tactical gains, we rose to the challenge and helped save Baghdad, Erbil, and Amerli from Daesh, with our advisers and military supplies being there before any other help arrived on the scene. Provision of advice and training proved instrumental in the recent months in dislodging Daesh from some of their strongholds in western Iraq.
We also rose to the challenge on the cultural and ideological front. When some were pushing for destructive war and social engineering in our region in 2001, Iran proposed, “A Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilizations,” adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2001. More recently, and long before the battlefield successes of the extremists alerted the whole world to this new scourge, President Rouhani introduced a comprehensive agenda for “A World against Violent Extremism,” that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2013. This agenda provides a path to combat violent extremism and, if thoroughly pursued and implemented, would help empower peoples around the world to effectively address this serious challenge that we all face.
On the basis of the experience that Iran has so far gained and the success it has achieved in its efforts towards containing and defeating the scourge of violent extremism, we are prepared to contribute to all genuine and comprehensive efforts at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. Cooperation at all these levels is imperative for defeating Daesh, al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and their affiliates, because they represent a global threat that jeopardizes not only local communities but also those located far from the centers of these crises. We hope that regional and global stakeholders will sooner rather than later recognize this imperative and engage in this collective endeavor.
Mohammad Javad Zarif. Minister of Foreign Affaris of the Islamic Republic of Iran [Special thanks to the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Rome for advising us and sharing this paper].