Above: Weapons, ammunition, and personal effects seized by coalition forces in Iraq as part of Operation Ultra Magnus.
Extremism in the Middle East is a complex problem generated by numerous issues. The connecting thread, however, is that of the alienated youth. Extremist groups seek to recreate society, and to individuals that feel disenfranchised, disconnected, and isolated from the status quo, this is quite the attractive offer. Indeed groups such as the Islamic State heavily recruit alienated Egyptians. Alaa Al-Aswany’s novel the Yacoubian Building illuminates the process of radicalization through the story of the promising yet tragically doomed Taha el Shazli, who fails to become a police officer and suffers social ostracization due to his working class background. El Shazli ultimately becomes so disgusted with the status quo that he joins an extremist group and dies in an assassination attempt directed at a wealthy official. This story is hardly unique to Al-Aswany’s characters, and analysts would do well to understand the stresses of the urban subaltern, or ultra-poor and alienated. Indeed, the focus should be on class and the systems that depend upon and reproduce hierarchical wealth disparities rather than society, culture, or, most critically, just the failure to assimilate.
Theories as to the motivations for joining extremist groups tend to fall into two broad groups, with those on the American political right typically ascribing the cause as cultural. Samuel Huntington, perhaps the most infamous thinker in this school of thought, claimed in the Clash of Civilizations that the Islamic “civilization” and the “West” inherently find themselves in some type of inevitable existential conflict in which competition between certain ideologies is where violence will originate rather than the traditional materialist or security rationalizations. The American left, accurately though simplistically, prefers to view the decision to join extremist groups through the lenses of racism and obstacles to social assimilation. Thus, it is the need for some type of social inclusion or acceptance that either puts or keeps young Muslims on the path toward extremism. While the progressive interpretation of this phenomenon offers much more to the conversation than the conservative’s facile explanation, progressives need to consider the characteristics of Neoliberalism and its role in alienating populations as the source of anger. At their core, groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda are opposition groups. They oppose certain foreign policies, they oppose the policies in certain Muslim countries, and they oppose the systems that pursue (according to them) distasteful agendas. While extremist ideologies are often convoluted and impossibly broad, they genuinely speak to the disaffected in the same way Marxism or Fascism once did. We should ignore the religious pretensions claimed by extremists and instead focus our gaze on the source of disenfranchisement: Neoliberalism.
Problematizing America’s Two Discourses
The issues with the Clash of Civilization thesis are myriad, but can generally be understood as a gross oversimplification of the genuine grievances many Muslims have against Western governments. Huntingtonian disciples such as former President George W. Bush claim that Muslim terrorists “hate our freedom,” while others like Florida Senator Marco Rubio purport that terrorists are people “motivated by their faith,” supposing that their ‘Muslimness’ intrinsically pits them against the “West.” This is a prevalent viewpoint among conservatives, but completely misses the point.
To begin, the Clash thesis portrays Muslims monolithically, arguing that there is only one Muslim civilization centered in the Middle East that is intrinsically incompatible with the “West.” In actuality, Muslims live all over the world, readily assimilate to their countries of residence, possess their own internal socio-political cleavages, and, unsurprisingly, demand the same freedoms that Huntington and his followers would coin as “Western.” The Arab Spring, for example, demonstrated that many Muslims in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria wanted an end to despotism and a chance at liberal constitutionalism and democratic governance. Associating culture with extremism trivializes the valid critiques of Western interference and oppression against Muslim societies by overlooking real grievances and the intricacies between peoples in favor of a lazy and easily debunked assessment. Culture and civilization are vibrant and dynamic entities that are impossibly difficult to define. To pinpoint either as the source of extremism is to validate the most archaic of orientalist beliefs. The Clash of Civilizations thesis thus offers a poor model for explaining extremism.
Conservative analyses of the reasons for Muslims joining extremist groups is not unique in its oversimplification. The progressive assessment argues that the alienation of Muslims at the hands of racist policies or the violent interference of Western countries in the Middle East alienates and pushes Muslims toward extremism. While this strikes closer to the truth, it does not go far enough, failing to question the systems and institutions that create, maintain, and incentivize what progressives readily critique. Progressivism’s main point in this regard is that extremists radicalize because they need some form of social inclusion in a society that is engineered to eliminate their agency, yet, it fails to ask the difficult question of why extremists are alienated in the first place. They do not believe they fit “mainstream” society, and thus extremist groups offer an avenue toward acceptance. In seeking acceptance, potential extremists challenge the status quo, creating a complex in which they view themselves as warriors in a battle against a “Great Satan.” The “us against the system” model demonstrated by rhetoric such as “The Great Satan” tells us that ire is directed at specific systems. American exportation of Neoliberalism is the “Great Satan” extremists wish to battle. The driver of extremism is alienation, and the reasons for alienation should be identified as products of the Neoliberal system.
Neoliberalism—or, the privatization of public institutions and resources and the adoption of a more capitalist ethos— has been the dominant economic system since the fall of the Soviet Union. Even before the demise of global communism, the Neoliberal system was one half of the world’s ideological duopoly. This duopolistic paradigm is important to consider because Neoliberalism had its counterpoint in Communism. In essence, Neoliberal policies represented an agenda of oppression to the subaltern and rural poor. Neoliberalism demands a reorientation of the economy away from socialism and toward capitalism. While this transition generates a considerable amount of wealth, it does not benefit everyone, and the obliteration of safety nets and jobs in the civil service often reduce the agency, or the capacity to act as a member of the body politic, of those depending on the government for a basic quality of life. As agency is reduced, individuals become more estranged from society. This is not to say Communism or Socialism do not have their own drawbacks, but the institution of Capitalism has removed countless individuals from participation as part of a grander entity, atomizing society. Society’s atomization means that those who lose out, the poor and others from marginalized communities, often feel as though they are pitted against the winners, often those that did not suffer the consequences and in fact benefited from the commercialization of state enterprises. This new paradigm pits “out” groups against “in” groups, and here we can see the roots of alienation.
If we organize groups based off of their dominant political and economic systems or preferences, we can identify those that are Neoliberal and those that are not. Entities that have fallen into the “not” column typically take the oppositional approach. What decides the specifics of the oppositional approach, however, is the access to alternative discourses to global Capitalism. So, for example, in Colombia the opposition to Neoliberalism manifested as the Marxist group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and in the Middle East, the alternative discourse (once Pan-Arabism) is parochial Islam, in both its violent extremist and political forms.
Neoliberalism is the world’s dominant economic system, and states wishing to enter the global community need to adopt its policies and norms. Perhaps one of the more important aspects of this is the attraction of business and talent. It is no secret that in order to attract the best employees or businesses, favorable climates need to be maintained. The most skilled workers will go to the corporations that offer the best pay or most benefits. Businesses will flock to areas in which their employees will want to live and in which they can pay the least taxes. Offering an attractive destination for industry is an integral part of the Neoliberal system’s requirements of enticing business.
To satisfy this pressure, countries in the Middle East have followed a specific trend in city planning, in which formerly public spheres are recreated for consumption and extravagance, resulting in social fragmentation. The replacement of institutions such as the Bazaar, or central marketplace from which many cities developed and societies were organized, with superficial department stores or supermalls has fractured societies in the Middle East. What was an engine for legitimate political agitation and unification was replaced with the sanitized and inauthentic supermall. These are not spaces for all individuals to gather, but only those with the capacity to purchase a good or service. In this manner, it is only the wealthy that can enter these spaces and intermingle. Naturally, the wealthy are less likely to agitate for fundamental change because the status quo superordinates them. While these newly privatized spaces might serve as amusements for visiting businessmen and women or the domestic wealthy, they splinter society and desocialize individuals by replacing gathering places with ones designed solely for the self-interested act of consumption. Indeed, one only needs to look at Kuwait’s infamous transformation from a cosmopolitan port city to a fractured state of the self-interested wealthy to understand capitalism’s disunifying effects.
The growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in areas outside of Cairo in the aftermath of Egypt’s infitah, or “opening” of its economy is perhaps the most demonstrative example of this process. As Egypt redeveloped and reimagined Cairo, authentically traditional neighborhoods were renovated or destroyed and replaced with modern apartments or centers of consumption. Those living in the affected areas were forced to move out of the city into run-down public housing or equally inadequate informal housing. Coupled with infitah’s evisceration of the safety net and elimination of numerous public sector jobs, the urban poor soon found themselves without the basic means to exercise an acceptable level of agency, or the opportunities to access avenues toward upward mobility; after all, it is difficult to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” if food or housing is unaffordable. Communities became fractured and isolated, and access to resources or the means to acquire them became strictly limited. Living hours from work without public transportation means that those exiled to Cairo’s outskirts would not be able to get to work in the first place. Neoliberalism’s urge to attract business with a reimagined city and a newly capitalistic economy resulted in the subaltern’s alienation.
Herein lies the alienated demographic extremists target for recruitment. Many of the extremist organizations working in these areas provide valuable resources such as food, water, education, and transportation. While the state may have provided these in the past, Neoliberalism’s push toward privatization meant that individuals would be forced to purchase these individually, and without a robust economy, this would be difficult to do. This setting incubates the Islamist ideologies, and as those norms become more deeply routinized, individuals become more amenable to extremism. It is the rush to provide a hospitable environment to business and the subsequent exiling and alienation of the subaltern that creates the demographic extremists target for recruitment.
While the progressive interpretation of the allure of extremism is not fundamentally wrong, it is insufficient. Analysts subscribing to this school of thought need to understand that the Neoliberal system is the source of alienation many extremists exploit. Disunification, fragmentation, and de facto exile reorients groups toward an increasingly high propensity for agitation. Recognizing this, extremist groups target the aggravated masses for recruitment. Rather than resorting to conservatism’s bigoted analysis or progressivism’s inability to rigorously critique the world’s dominant economic system, explanations for extremism in the Middle East should assess the Neoliberal system as a causal factor. If we accept the accurate exegesis of Neoliberalism as amplifying class differences and recognize that much of extremist language falls under social or economic justice discourses, we can pinpoint Neoliberalism as a (if not the) chief agent in driving a great deal of Middle Eastern radicalization.
Adam Goldstein is a senior at American University on the combined Bachelors/Masters track majoring in Comparative Politics.
Image Attribution: “Ultra Magnus Clears Al-Qaida From Former Diyala Province Stronghold” by Russell Bassett, licensed under Public Domain.