Trump’s myopic focus on radical ideology misses the real drivers behind why young people are joining groups like the Islamic State. What the president has called “radical Islam” was more important during the earlier days of al-Qaeda, particularly among extremist leaders who would squabble (and even fight) among themselves over the meaning of particular religious texts. This is why President George W. Bush’s administration frequently referred to the importance of the “ideological struggle” and the “war of ideas” in the early years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
But during the past decade, the focus on “radical Islam” has become largely irrelevant for most people who support groups like the Islamic State. Researchers like me who have spent time in regions talking with people concluded some time ago that, while we cannot ignore the ideology, we should not myopically focus our resources on combating “radical Islam.”
Two decades ago, I spent nine months with one of the ideological founders of the jihadist movement in Jordan, part of the same network as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq. I was an academic and wanted to understand what motivated his network of followers to violence. I learned firsthand about a radical ideology that promotes an apocalyptic war with the West and total domination. And I saw recruiters manipulate young people, promising them purpose in this life and a special place in paradise in the next.
What I heard from extremists I interviewed around the world, however, suggests that taking aim at “radical Islam” misses the mark. While the young jihadists I met spouted ideological diatribes and quoted the Koran at length, their words rang hollow — almost as if they were something the recruits thought they should say rather than something they understood and deeply believed.
Most jihadists, I found, know little to nothing about Islam. While they use religion to justify horrific acts, it is a convenient foil. About 4,600 personnel files of Islamic State fighters show that 70 percent of recruits have only a basic understanding of sharia, or Islamic law.
Islamist extremists are much more likely to have degrees in engineering, science and medicine than in disciplines related to Islam, and at least a few had to buy “Islam for Dummies” to learn about their own religion. They are in no position to determine whether violence is sanctioned by Islam, and most of the ones I interviewed were not exactly wide-eyed true believers ruthlessly guided by the will of God.
If you can’t draw a straight line from radical Islam to terrorism, what might be driving extremism in the Middle East? The answer is complicated, but since the 1970s, study after study suggests that socioeconomic factors — not religion or ideology — lay the groundwork for violence.
The vast majority of young people in places like the Middle East and North Africa face a bleak socioeconomic future. Youth unemployment in the region hovers around 30 percent, which is expected to skyrocket as economies struggle to create enough jobs to keep pace with a massive demographic youth bulge. In 2000, the World Bank estimated that the region would need to create about 100 million new jobs to keep pace, and it’s nowhere near to closing the gap.
The effect of this socioeconomic crisis is about more than just employment and livelihoods for young people; it represents a fundamental breakdown of the social contract in the region. For decades, governments in the Middle East and North Africa promised socioeconomic support — free education, subsidies and public-sector employment — in exchange for limits on political participation and civic activity.
Young people expected that they would have jobs and that governments would provide opportunities and pathways for secure livelihoods. The expectation, however, has been dashed by corruption, economic crises, skills gaps and decreased public-sector employment.
Young people struggle to find jobs, or at least jobs that match their education levels and skills, and many face delayed marriage, boredom and a sense of exclusion and injustice. They have lost confidence in government, suffer from severe frustration and disillusionment, and are paralyzed by what many call “waithood” — waiting for their futures to be decided by forces beyond their control.
The dramatic failure of the Arab Spring to fulfill hopes has only deepened feelings of disempowerment and helplessness, emasculation and a loss of self-esteem, low levels of life satisfaction and a lack of meaning and relevance. Groups like the Islamic State feed on disillusionment and prey on the sense of helplessness that is growing among young people.
Recruits to the Islamic State tend to be better educated than average, unemployed or underemployed and not particularly knowledgeable about Islam. For many, the appeal of extremist groups is not religious duty, conviction or ideology. It is the promise of empowerment, regained dignity and (ironically) hope. For example, during a focus group for a project I helped run in the Middle East last year, a teenager openly praised the Islamic State by saying, “They are the only ones fighting against corruption.”
The Trump administration will be more effective if it invests heavily in programs that address the real drivers of radicalization by empowering young people, providing socioeconomic opportunities and inspiring hope for the future.
Trump’s speech ignored this reality. In fact, U.S. officials working on countering violent extremism tell me that Trump appointees have derided socioeconomic and empowerment programs as “jobs for jihadis” and are maneuvering to cut them as they gut the budgets at State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Cutting these programs would be shortsighted and would hurt our national security.
Trump’s narrow focus on countering “radical ideology,” unfortunately, will only distract us from the real solution. His speech in Saudi Arabia could have been used to rally allies behind a much bolder and more effective strategy that addresses the actual drivers of radicalization.
Quintan Wiktorowicz was a senior director at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013. He is the author of several books on extremism.