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Understanding the Drivers of Radicalization in Syria

When people feel confused about the world and the society they live in, when they feel they need a more secure environment that can help them navigate troubled social conditions, you often see an upsurge of religious fundamentalism’.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

Syria, long considered a moderate Muslim country, has become one of the world’s most radicalized conflict zones over more than three years of war. The war has attracted more than 11,000 foreign fighters, driven by hard-line religious ideology to join the ranks of the Islamic State (ISIS). As a result, Syria is now seen as a significant security risk for the region and the world at large.

The consequences for Syria’s next generation are catastrophic, says Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the University of Denver.

“So long as this conflict and mayhem continues … it will give radical Islam a step forward, an advantage. It will affect the younger generations that are being born and bred in it,” he said.

Hashemi spoke to Syria Deeply about the drivers of radicalization in Syria and the dire consequences of a deadly trend.

Syria Deeply:Syria has not traditionally been a seat of extremist Islam. What has contributed to the radicalization of the country? What’s driving it now?

Hashemi: First and foremost, it’s the conflict itself. It’s not a coincidence that we are seeing the spread of Islamic radicalism in Syria as a direct result of the barbarity of the Assad regime, and as a result of a conflict that in my view is borderline genocidal.

In the midst of the chaos, mayhem, bloodshed and crimes against humanity, you don’t produce liberal, democratic opinion. You produce the antithesis of it: an environment that reflects the social conditions of chaos and anarchy.

There is also an ideological battle taking place in the Middle East today with respect to different political currents of Islamism, and it’s not a coincidence that we are seeing the upsurge and the rise of radical Islamism of various forms, with the most radical being ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, after the crushing of the Arab Spring and the democratic openings it unleashed.

Syria is a case study of the deep and intimate relationship between the closure of political opportunities and democratization, and in the aftermath of their demise, the upsurge of the rise of radical Islamic tendencies. In the early days of the revolution, in the first six months of 2011, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra weren’t present inside Syria. The early formation of radical jihadism in Syria started to take root and gain currency as political openings and possibilities for political change started to diminish. Human-rights violations and repression feed into a narrative of radical extremism and they undermine the prospects for more democratic and more moderate expressions of political Islam.

The ideological current of a decidedly extremist interpretation that has direct roots that can be traced back to Saudi Arabia is now manifesting itself in Syria, and you can see it in the political theology of these radical Sunni groups.

We are seeing the crystallization, and the predictable, negative corrosive effects of the spread of a particular ultra-conservative and puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam that comes out of Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi creed. It is decidedly intolerant, anti-Shia in its orientation, anti-minority, anti-women, totalitarian it its conception of state-society relations, militantly hostile of other forms of Islam, and this expression of Islam has now taken root and developed a great following in the context of state breakdown, extreme violence and state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Syria Deeply: Are there ways in which it becomes more entrenched in the country, as a function of time?

Hashemi: The social conditions in Syria lend themselves to radical ideologies. First, there is the legacy of political tyranny of the House of Assad that creates a fertile ground for the spread of radicalism. Secondly, conflict, war, and state breakdown and extreme violence don’t lend themselves to liberal ideologies. People are angry, they’ve seen a lot of bloodshed, they want revenge and they are seeking answers and they feel abandoned by the international community.

This particular radical Islamist ideology has a very simplistic, black and white view of the world: If you join and sign up to our political program, if you implement the rituals and pillars of this particular interpretation of faith, it’s a recipe for resolving political conflict, solving social problems and creating a just society.. It is completely utopian and delusional.

The existing alternative ideological formations, whether they are more moderate expressions of Islam or secular, democratic expressions, don’t have successful political models in the region that one can point to. More broadly, there is an absence of support (financially, materially, politically) for alternative interpretations of Islam that are authentic, moderate, viable, and which can win political battles; demonstrate effective governance, and show people an alternative way forward.

The radical Islamic jihadist militant Sunni ideologies offer a simplistic political platform. Their worldview is black and white with little room for nuance and political or religious pluralism. This is one reason why their worldview is more attractive; it is very simple. Moreover, they have increased their popularity by virtue of their successes on the battlefield in contrast to more moderate Syrian groups who are fighting the Assad regime. These facts give the radicals an advantage, it brings them new recruits, largely because their political program seems to be winning on the ground, which is why we are seeing an upsurge of support for these forms of radical Islam.

Syria Deeply: What are the consequences for the current conflict and for Syria’s coming generations?

Hashemi: It’s going to have catastrophic effects. These are children of war who know nothing but brutal conflict for nearly four years. They have been radicalized, demoralized and abandoned by the international community. If you look at studies of religious fundamentalism, one of the common themes is the connection between radical fundamentalism and questions of personal and social security. When people feel vulnerable, economically and politically insecure, confused about the world and the society they live in, and they are seeking guidance to help navigate themselves and their families through troubled social conditions, this is when you see an upsurge of religious fundamentalism. This rigid, conformist, black-white worldview offers comfort and certainly to vulnerable populations.

People being born and raised inside Syria will view the world through a prism of chaos and conflict. More stable political and social conditions can produce alternative interpretations of Islam and political and religious allegiances can shift. But this presupposes a stable political context where there is a functioning civil society, where there is political and religious pluralism where people are exposed to different points of view. We are a long way away from this happening in Syria. As long as this conflict and mayhem continues, the entire region will be negatively affected and it will give radical Islamism a step forward, and a huge advantage over more democratic expressions of political Islam.

Syria Deeply: How is the current battleground dynamic shifting now? How are foreign fighters shaping conditions on the ground?

Hashemi: Foreign fighters significantly shift the political landscape in the direction of radical extremism. They are in many ways more extreme than the average Syrian citizen. They are aiding this radical current because they are people coming from outside of Syria, who have no sense of Syrian history or society and they have come to Syria to wage an ideological battle. These foreign fighters are coming from the most extreme elements of their own communities, particularly the North American and European recruits. Most of them are leaving very comfortable lifestyles and coming to Syria in the hope of participating in an ideological and deeply utopian and romanticized cause. These foreign recruits are often the most extreme of these radical groups – they have zero sensitivity or knowledge to Syria’s multicultural mosaic or even to the basic facts of the Syrian revolution.

When you look at studies of radicalization, many of these people have their own personal, psychological demons that often explain why they leave their homes, undergo a radical break from the way they were raised, and travel to Syria. There is a deep ideological, psychological and identity crisis that in part explains their behavior.

Syria Deeply: Much has been made of U.S. training and equipping Syrian rebels: a hope that they can shoulder the fight against ISIS. Does that seem plausible to you?

Hashemi:It was plausible in 2012. Given what’s happening right now, all the reports say that U.S. policy under the Obama administration has been a total disaster for the moderate Syrian rebels. The territory that was under their control is increasingly vanishing. The U.S. coalition strikes have sadly helped radicalize and push Syrians away from the moderates rebel formations into the hands of Jabat al Nusra/ISIS.. In truth, there never really was a serious effort to build and support a moderate Syrian army as revealed by some of President Obama’s closest advisors who have now left government. (Hilary Clinton, Leon Panetta etc.)..

Looking back, President Obama’s attempt to ignore Syria, to not get involved in supporting Syrian moderate rebels, are having very negative foreign policy consequences that are radicalizing Syria and the entire region. Syria will be the dark spot on President Obama’s record and legacy that will come back and haunt him (in the same way Rwanda and Bosnia haunted Bill Clinton).

Most serious analysts can see a clear connection between the rise of ISIS and the failure by the international community deal with the crisis in Syria at an earlier stage. Syria is the new Afghanistan today in the sense that it’s the recruiting ground for radical elements that have come from around the world. It’s a global and international crisis and recent developments clearly repudiates the claims of many foreign policy realists in Washington who had argued that Syria really didn’t matter and that this conflict could be “contained” within its borders. Those assumptions have proven to be a catastrophic for Syria, the region and the broader world.

Syria Deeply: What, if anything, can be done to encourage a moderate, pluralistic future in Syria?

Hashemi: First and foremost you need a stable, peaceful and democratic political context. To get there the political formations and forces that are committed to a democratic, inclusive and tolerant Syria need to be supported. There is a role to play in the Syrian diaspora community, among refugees, groups and among countries in the world who are committed to a democratic future for Syria.

There is a new document being circulated called the Syrian Freedom Charter that is being organized by the Local Coordination Committees, based on a comprehensive survey of Syrian public opinion in and outside of Syria. About 70,000 people have participated in this process and in this initiative which is based on the South African Freedom Charter of 1955 that laid out a blueprint of a future democratic South Africa. It’s the best idea I’ve heard in a long time and it carries great potential in terms of mobilizing public opinion, providing guidance and hope, and focusing attention on the critical question of the future of Syria.

Inevitably, there is going to be a battle for hearts and minds once this war is over. Radical formations will be at an advantage because they can claim they were battling and sacrificing on the front line, so at the outset they have considerable legitimacy in terms of shaping public opinion in Syria. But given an open and democratic political environment, I am confident that more inclusive and moderate expressions of Islam and Syrian political opinion can win a bigger following, but given the reality on the ground today we are a long way away from testing this proposition.

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