In the wake of the unstoppable rise of the far right in Europe, serial attacks in Paris and Brussels, discriminatory remarks from U.S. Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump aimed at the future of Muslims in the United States, and the heinous Orlando massacre, the vicious circle of Western prejudice and discrimination toward Muslims and extremist violence perpetrated by groups affiliated with DAESH continue to escalate simultaneously. The bizarre trajectory of political competition in Europe, which has carried marginal far-right movements to the center of the political spectrum, as well as the unlikely success of a discriminatory figure such as Trump in his campaign for the U.S. presidency, has amplified the political relevance of radicalism and extremism exponentially. The systematic media campaign by mainstream media outlets that continuously highlights acts of violence committed by DAESH across the Middle East and tries to form an Islamic connection for every terrorist attack in the West strengthened the social psychology of fear of all Muslims as being potential perpetrators of terrorism, which has been used to justify discriminatory political rhetoric and security measures.
At the same time, the polarized debate regarding the underlying causes of violent extremism in the Muslim world and among Muslim communities that started among policymakers and analysts in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks still continues. Broadly speaking, two major schools of thought could be identified among the plethora of approaches formulated on the issue so far. One group of analysts indicate that the fight against the root causes of violent extremism should focus on the problems of social and economic development, as underdevelopment and lack of proper education feeds into extremism. Accordingly, the main origins of extremism in Muslim communities in the poorer communities of Western cities, or in failed states of the Middle East and North Africa, are derived from socioeconomic exclusion, poverty and lack of educational opportunities that could enable social mobility. Influenced by modernization theory, this approach somewhat naively assumes that improved social, economic and educational opportunities on their own will support democratic participation and moderation in political alignments as a useful precursor to democratization. In a nutshell, socioeconomic development and improved educational opportunities are identified as effective antidotes against radicalization and terrorist recruitment.
A second school perceives the rise of violent extremism in Muslim communities strictly as a security issue and argues that the fight against so-called Islamist terrorism should be performed with a single-minded focus on the role of state actors, spread of jihadist ideology, counterintelligence measures and coercive action. Influenced by American realism and neo-conservatism, this approach categorically rejects the development perspective. It is often stressed that most of the individuals who join DAESH ranks in the West are middle class with degrees in physical sciences, so the improvement of educational opportunities is no panacea.
Seen from a distance, the first approach advocates a more humane strategy to look at the masses that fall victim to terrorist networks and tries to prepare the groundwork to rescue them. In fact, problems of underdevelopment, lack of education and the collapse of any political authority in many Muslim states in the Middle East and Africa create of despair, poverty and chaos that become perfect breeding grounds for terrorist networks. Therefore, a comprehensive strategy to fight violent extremism should start from the basics and concentrate on improving the socioeconomic conditions of the social groups that are subject to terrorist recruitment. But we should also remember that military interventions ranging from the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to French interventions to Libya and Mali created widespread resentment among the local populations and brought back memories of colonialism.
Terrorist organizations skillfully justify their adoption of violent tactics by using the pretext of resisting Western imperialism and add Islamic symbols and motives to their narrative for the sake of a dual justification. In the meantime, the securitization discourse that widely associates Muslims with terrorism and justifies the use of heavy handed measures against wide social communities might even exacerbate the problem by speeding up the alienation of Muslim youth in Western cities. We should counter both the root causes of violent extremism and Western prejudice of Muslim communities.