Zarif Essay on Extremism and Terror

January 4, 2017

In December 2016, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif published a lengthy article titled “How to Handle the Enabling Conditions for Extremism and Terror” in the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs. The following are excerpts.

Global, Internal and Regional Enabling Conditions

The situation we find ourselves in, as ugly as it is, is too serious for a game of blaming each other. The fact is that while we can recognize there is a lot of blame to go around, we need to break the habit of always throwing the ball into another side’s court. If we’re willing to engage in honest soul-searching, it will start with raising simple but serious questions, such as: what is it that creates an extremist out of a youngster born and raised in France, or for that matter, in other European or North American societies? Even as much as a similar youngster born and raised in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere in our region? We all must start by looking at extremism as a common predicament and a common problem, not one confined to a certain region, race, religion, or sect.

Lack of Hope

Looking at some of the enabling conditions, hope, or actually the lack of hope – is central to the equation. And this is precisely where the hard facts puncture the monolithic presumptions relegating the problem at hand to a region and society, developed or developing, Western or Eastern, Muslim or otherwise. It is now a widely established fact—and not merely theoretical speculation or even academic analysis—that a common thread that binds all those engaged in extremist violence is that they feel, and regard themselves, as marginalized in their respective societies—even globally. They believe that they have no hope for a better future, they see no actual and feasible possibility for productive self-fulfillment in an enabling and humanely conducive social environment - whether in Western societies which are becoming more and more introverted and xenophobic, or in the region in the grip of underdevelopment and without meaningful possibilities for representative government. The wave of nationalistic sentiments expressed at the ballot box in recent years, from Europe and crossing the Atlantic, might, unfortunately, only be more fodder for the hopelessness described. …

Marginalization, Disenfranchisement, Disrespect

While in Western countries, the ballot box generally functions well, the problem lies in another dangerously exacerbating trend: when significant parts of the institutionally-marginalized population find themselves at the losing end of the economic bargain, and worse still, see their beliefs, their values, and their sanctities targeted on a regular basis, we shouldn’t be too surprised that some of them, no matter how tiny a minority, will turn to something other than peaceful protest. …

Intervention and Hegemonic Tendencies

Another issue to examine is the endemic and age-old problem of foreign invasion and occupation, and what it has brought in its wake. The almost seventy-year state of occupation in Palestine is the most pressing. This has been further compounded by the systematic political and military interventions by the United States to preserve, perpetuate, and create its desired regional configuration and architecture and a “new world order”. When President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the emergence of a “new world order” in his address to the UN General Assembly, it was premised on the illusion that the United States had won the Cold War, whereas in fact the Soviet Union collapsed largely due to its own internal rot. In a nonzero-sum world, the West hadn’t won the Cold War; the Soviets had simply lost it.

Failure of the State

The most significant internal component of the complex mosaic before us is the failure of the state system to respond to the fundamental demand of a populace for dignity. The fact remains that some of the worst suicide bombers have come from the most affluent societies in West Asia, and some from quite well-to-do families. …

Diversion Tactics

The frustration of the youth that is being masterfully manipulated by extremist demagogues and their financiers to vent – albeit temporarily – through senseless and barbaric violence against innocents, is ultimately directed against the very foundations of the states in the region. Therefore, it is dangerously misleading to try to defuse this existential internal threat through diverting the anger towards fabricated external enemies. As alluded to earlier, some governments in the region have instigated, armed and financed extremist groups, such as Daesh and Al-Nusrah, utilizing them in proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. …

Ideology of Exclusion

Beyond the failed, unresponsive and unaccountable state apparatus, and the attempt to divert its focus, there exists also a pseudoideological component based on division, hatred, and denunciation and rejection of “the other”. This ideology has nothing to do with the genuine, original message of Islam – as reflected in the Book and in the Prophet’s tradition. But regrettably within the Muslim community there exists an ideology based on the notion of “Takfir”, or rejection contrary to the very fundamental Qur’anic teaching. Takfiri groups including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Daesh, Al-Nusrah and a host of other smaller new variants, have been fully and lavishly financed by easily traceable petrodollars. This has been undertaken and pursued through a worldwide network of mosques and religious schools, both in Muslim societies as well as elsewhere. Such massive propagation of hatred has been sold globally, and particularly to the U.S. and its allies, for nearly four decades as a “moderate” Islam to confront a “radical” Iran. As such, it has not only been tolerated by the United States and its western allies, but even promoted and protected.

But the Takfiri perversion of Islam metastasized in West Asia and beyond as a result of the deepening popular resentment emanating from the protracted U.S. adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with wide-spread frustration with the domestic social, economic and political deadlock. …

Cognitive Adjustment

Notwithstanding the difficulties involved in each crisis, there are always possibilities for exploring and eventually arriving at an outcome that is acceptable to all concerned. Or, more bluntly, there is always a way of “getting to yes”: but to do so, the definition of the problem needs to be re-examined. Once a problem is defined in a non-zero-sum way, the most important step has been taken toward resolving it. The challenge is first and foremost cognitive in nature and essence. Once actors are prepared to set aside their predispositions and think differently, policies and actions will follow.

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