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March 1, 2015

Responding To: Week 6: Violent Extremism

Group Storming: The Eco-chamber of Jihadism and Poor Governance

O. Felix Obi

The Islamic State and other brutal extremist groups continue to murder and terrorize, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Militants do not, as they claim, terrorize in defense of Islam. Their violence has been branded an unqualified defamation of a respectable religion and many forget how many of their victims are Muslims. But rhetoric is an insufficient remedy. Addressing social and economic inequalities will be necessary. So will challenging doctrines cited as religious rationale by violent extremists.

The Economist magazine identifies two such doctrines. The first is jihad which extremists interpret as mandating offensive holy war. They parse the hadith to paint Islam as a religion of the sword. The second is takfir, or declaring dissenting Muslims as apostates deserving of death. An increasingly vocal non-violent counter-interpretation circulates. But many of these are by scholars and clerics who often lack support among conservatives necessary for credibility and legitimacy. Deeper questions of doctrine are perhaps best addressed by religious scholars in places like Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

But economic development professionals can disaggregate out the impact of social and economic inequality, and illiberal regimes, on the appeal of militant Islam. Especially as militancy is often justification for poor governance and human rights violations by illiberal regimes in MENA.

To be clear, jihadism and poor governance are distinct phenomena, but in the echo-chamber of MENA societies, they reinforce each other.

Illiberal regimes' false choice between limited civil liberty and social/economic stability, as measured by GDP, is a farce that only reinforces perceived injustice and political repression. The Arab Spring is a cautionary tale on the limited utility of GDP in illiberal and unequal societies.  According to research by Deutsche Bank AG, in the period preceding the Arab Spring—between 2000 and 2010—the real GDP growth rate of affected countries was an impressive 4.2%. But regional unemployment rate was around 10%, and worse, youth unemployment was closer to 30%. 

Attempts at addressing radicalization have often been too biased on building the capacity of the security sector, at the expense of economic and social reforms. An effective approach will adopt Deutsche Bank's emphasis on reducing inequality and market inefficiency. Including improving the region's labor-market efficiency, currently ranked last in the world. Another constraint is mismatched and insufficient labor skills, and a large public sector that undermines economic dynamism. According to the World Bank’s 2013 Doing Business report, investors in the region also complain of insufficient protection of property rights. Adopting these reforms should reduce inequality and barriers to social and economic mobility. Gainful employment transforms citizens into stakeholders less susceptible to radicalization.

O. Felix Obi is an Alumni Board Member at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. His professional background is in economic and international trade development in Africa, especially innovation and entrepreneurship.

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