An increasing number of prominent political and religious leaders have been calling for the development of new Arab narratives to counteract the growth of violent extremism. It’s almost a new consensus, but there is little sign of any real movement.
Calling for the development of new discourses is, in effect, just talking about talking. So, concrete action – in the form of resource allocation – is essential if things are actually going to start to change. Voices that can reach a variety of key constituencies must be given the resources they need to thrive and develop.
A wide range of individuals and small institutions already active in the Middle East and the West constitute the essential building blocks of such a development. Yet in many cases they are neglected and starved of funds at best, and harassed and discouraged at worst.
The net effect is that extremists enjoy a huge advantage in strategic communications. They are drawn together by a clearly defined and precise set of narratives. Their backers are almost always focused and often supportive of each other. Even rival groups engaging in bitter mutual recriminations invariably end up reiterating their common basic assumptions, which has the effect of reinforcing each other in spite of themselves.
Opponents of violent extremism among Arabs and Muslims cannot be defined effectively in terms of what they are against. It is practically meaningless to simply be “anti-extremist”. Rather one must be for something. Of course that has to be moderation.
The problem is that “moderation” comes in many forms. It is probably pointless to seek a single, unified social and political agenda to counteract radicalisation and extremism.
Instead, surely there will have to be a wide range of different agendas and perspectives that push back effectively against the rising tide of extremism. This is a practical necessity given the lack of a dominant narrative that can bring together secularists, nationalists, modernisers, traditionalists, monarchists, social conservatives, social liberals and so forth.
Supporting a wide range of perspectives would also represent a practical manifestation of one of the core values common to any genuine form of moderation: diversity.
So, rather than streamlining the messages of counter-radicalisation, it might well be preferable to opt for breadth as well as depth.
Some projects obviously ought to be highly targeted, particularly those seeking to deradicalise, insofar as possible, those already in the clutches of an extremist mindset. But in other cases, the widespread funding and support for lots of small, independent Arab and Muslim organisations that represent a wide variety of variations on the theme of moderation and anti-extremism is urgently required.
The cost of one bombing sortie alone could underwrite several small groups. The aim should not be to find ideological proxies or dutiful clients. Rather, the approach should be to set a wide variety of ideas in motion in order to achieve two ends. First, so that extremism can be attacked on multiple fronts simultaneously. And second, because it is very hard to know in advance what type of message will resonate most effectively, and therefore will both grow organically and independently, and also thereby earn more support from funders.
One approach was demonstrated by Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University, at a recent counterterrorism conference in Saudi Arabia. He called for educational reform to combat the spread of religious extremism, but warned against “the new world colonialism that is allied with world Zionism”.
However, real educational reform surely should be open to, rather than suspicious of, the international community and global culture.
Such an approach is being attempted by a number of neglected small institutions, including Al Wasatia, a Palestinian organisation founded by the academic Mohammed Dajani.
Al Wasatia is dedicated to promoting moderate and traditional interpretations of Islam and building bridges within Palestinian society and with western educational institutions. Along with his organisation’s moderate religious agenda, Mr Dajani has pioneered Holocaust education among Palestinians on the grounds that they need to understand the mentality of their occupiers and have nothing to fear from historical truth.
The battle against extremism can’t be really joined, let alone won, until the key societies, especially the United States and its key Arab allies, begin to seriously fund, support and promote the moderates in the trenches.
Wealthy extremists have been very generous to their allies, which has been a major factor in the growth of terrorism in the Middle East. The mainstream has been a lot less forthcoming.
Countless Arab and Muslim organisations around the world are struggling to promote one aspect or another of moderate politics or religiosity, but find themselves unable to secure even the most modest funding.
Until that changes, we’re likely to hear more talk about the need for new narratives, but very little movement in that direction.