There are a number of ways to explain patterns of global Islamic political radicalism, but few have looked at the interconnected geopolitical dynamics underpinning global societies in an economic and sociological context. Straight off the bat, there are a few takeaways to consider. There is considerable inequality in the Middle East, some of which is a result of the legacy of the colonial experience and the inability of independent regimes to deliver on their promises of development, democracy and open societies. Ongoing meddling by Western political, economic and military actors with short-term interests further exacerbates this dynamic. All of which leads to resentment on the part of the communities most affected, combined with disdain and disconnection on the part of elites at home, in the Middle East and across the world more generally.
The spread of Islamic political radicalism originates from three sources. One is the emergence of contemporary Wahhabism, fuelled by ideology and significant levels of funding. It influences vast swathes of the Middle East, and Muslims in the diaspora. The second strand originates from the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, with this especially affecting Egypt and neighbouring countries. The third concerns Jamaat-e-Islami groups that spread from South Asia to Southeast Asia. All three share many concerns and ambitions, but there are political and ideological differences that invariably separate them. This essay concentrates on the particular concerns emanating from Saudi Arabia and its resultant impact on the emergence of the Islamic state. What is pernicious about this particular situation is the lack of attention that it gets from Western powers who benefit from Gulf oil and various military, security and defence contracts. This lack of attention has left Saudi Arabia unencumbered in promoting a destructive perspective on Islam. Inside its own territory, elites with little interest in encouraging wider society to ask critical questions of its leaders curbs dissent towards this ideology, which imbued wholesale to the masses. Disaffected youth use the language of Wahhabism as a form of resistance to Saudi Arabia outside of the country.
There are over 25m Muslim minorities in Western Europe and approximately 5m Muslim minorities in the US. These groups have migrated in the post-war period, and settled and adapted to society, all the while making valuable contributions to nations as active citizens who engage and participate with institutions. However, in the sphere of neoliberal societies there is a large body of racialised and marginalised Muslim minority groups. They face the brunt of exclusion and enmity from members of majority society, from those just above them all the way to the top, where political elites rest the blame for all the woes of societies on these most ‘othered’ of others. Because of these processes, a few lone actors enter into theatres of war in the Middle East because of anger, revenge, status or merely the search for thrills. This has gone on since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, all the way until the current period and the emergence of the Islamic State. Where Islam does enter the picture, aspects of Wahhabism project a black-and-white worldview subsequently absorbed by young people at the margins of society. Recruiters from outside the community are not involved, a theory often propounded in the early stages of thinking through what happens with young men; rather the mechanisms emerge virtually and locally.
The reasons why we have a few thousand European born Muslim men fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State is to do with pull factors as a result of a radical ideological perspective. They then take their idea to further levels of abstraction, where many of its foreign fighters of the Islamic State consist of Saudis, Tunisians, Libyans and even Turks. The push factors are to do with failed integration policy, where the left behind in current European societies consist of many young ethnic minorities facing all the forms of exclusion that their white counterparts face, as well as racism and discrimination on the basis of colour and religion. Blaming all of these outcomes on Islam is a disingenuous view that perpetuates the status quo, legitimising the legacy of racism and Orientalism. In cases relating to Saudi Arabia or Western Europe, the issues are political, cultural and sociological, not religious. However, all this could change as Saudi Arabia is suffering because of low oil prices – and Islamic State is now trading in US dollars because their profits are being reduced, combined with losing extensive ground to western forces pinning them back on all sides.
Thus, the circle is now complete. The reason that we have Islamic State in the first place is because the west has been friendly to Middle Eastern oil while marginalising minorities at home. The west dare not betray the Arabs, who spread Wahhabism and its variants to keep their masses under control. As Wahhabism spreads across the world unchecked, this force is unleashed among more plural Muslim societies, galvanising resistance against the west (which ought to be against their own leadership, but they are immobilised due to little or no democracy in practice. In the west, there is racism and class structure). In the west, excluded and racialised young Muslim men buy into the black-white right-wrong rhetoric because their own societies have essentially rejected them, leading them to war-torn places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and now Syria. As western bombs drop on these parts of the world, and as other bombs are on their way to the Gulf Arabs, the more this whole cycle will go on. There is only so much communities can do on the ground if elites are only interested in reproducing the status quo and perpetuating the culture of violence that characterises our epoch. Critical engagement with the Gulf, while eliminating racism and structural disadvantage at home, are the only ways forward.
In terms of defeating Islamic State, the current major foe facing the Muslim world and the West, it is necessary to remove its opportunities. The Islamic State takes advantage of breaks in society stemming from social and political division combined with economic insecurities. The effects of late capitalism and the digital age have created much of this. Citizens in the West and in the Middle East experience anxiety at the national level and then internalise it at the individual level, causing dissonance and disaffection. As a result, young men facing extreme alienation and exclusion are easily seduced by seemingly totalising solutions presented in the most black-and-white of terms. By re-conceptualising how people regard their opportunity frames, where hope and opportunity replaces fear and discord, Islamic State has less to capitalise upon. This is about breaking down the anxiety. For all groups in society, but especially among the young, there is a particular heightening of fear and despair, perpetuated by the age of terror. Second, there is information overload. Highly connected digitally, ironically, there are greater fissures in societies, leading to disconnect and conflict.
The digital age has not improved the lot of humanity to the extent that it has increased people’s happiness or sense of well-being. While of course, there have been gains in terms of information sharing and knowledge dissemination that genuinely benefit groups and societies. However, what this information does is to provide knowledge quick fixes that are only temporary, thus adding further to our anxiety. It exposes the divisions within families, communities and neighbourhoods, ever fracturing our social relations. Meanwhile, the continuation of the age-old systems of capitalism leads to further isolation, disconnection and ultimately alienation, leading to social anomie and social discord. The likes of Islamic State exploit these gaps. The solutions here are about greater introspection and long-term thinking, not just among individuals and communities, but also among the elites and policymakers from our homes in our peaceful neighbourhoods in suburbia to the trials and tribulations of the Middle East.