NSA Chair talks barrel bombs, beheadings

Bold solutions to instill confidence in legitimate and functioning governments are needed to relieve the Arab world’s extremism, Dr. Mohammed Hafez told a conference of academics and decision makers on September 29 in Washington, D.C.

Hafez, Chair of the Naval Postgraduate School National Security Affairs Department, was the keynote speaker at the forum, titled “Violent Extremism: Setting Priorities for Research,” sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace and Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism (RESOLVE).

Naval Postgraduate School NSA Chair Dr. Mohammed Hafez.

Naval Postgraduate School NSA Chair Dr. Mohammed Hafez.

The speech addressed why radicalism continues to fester despite decades of assistance and resources. In a sort of self-feeding cycle, Arab governments find themselves resorting to oppression and coercion to maintain power and ward off terrorists, which in turn fuels the allure of extremist groups.

A view among many Arabs is that they are caught “between barrel bombs and beheadings,” not only in the case of Bashar al-Assad in Syria taking on ISIS, but  also in the larger picture in the perceived notion that despotic regimes  are needed to suppress terror groups in general.

That has long been the traditional view of Western governments in tolerating totalitarianism to suppress terrorism. For Hafez, that is a false choice. Repression is a potent recruiting fuel for terror groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram which exploit it for recruitment.”

“In reality these seemingly polar opposites depend on one another,” he said. “Both thrive when the moderate middle is marginalized and society is polarized. This is the root of inter-generational extremism in the Arab world.”

While there is no single reason for what motivates people to radicalism, the depth and persistence of it in the Arab world is unique. Hafez believes that is because governments in what is called the MENA, Middle East and North Africa, are confronting failures of legitimacy stemming from failed governance, authoritarianism and perceived military frailty. Despite considerable defense expenditures, the militaries of Arab states aren’t known for their performance and their reliance on outside help also fuels extremist anger.

However, Hafez noted in battles where Western influence is largely absent extremists groups continue to flourish. Again, he said, that stems from a crisis of governance. He pointed to World Bank statistics showing Arab nations lagging behind Latin American counterparts in measures such as accountability, effectiveness, rule of law and control of corruption.

“I argue the enduring crisis of legitimacy has provided fertile soil for jihadi groups to take root or for jihadi roots to grow and grow and grow again,” he said.

During his address, Hafez traced the history of Islamism and governance in the Middle East. While not Arab, the 1979 Iranian Revolution ushered in an era of political Islamism. However, he noted that unifying ideologies have failed to achieve sustainability. Younger Iranians are less fervent about revolution than their grandparents, for example, and even the late Egyptian President  Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vision of Pan Arabism fizzled before realization.

So, the core issue in mitigating extremism is ensuring sound and open governance, he argued.

“Our challenge is not just an empirical one, it is also one of the imagination,” Hafez said. “It’s not sufficient to dedicate our resources to more studies to figure out why people are radicalizing. We need bold and creative recommendations for going beyond false choices and failed strategies in our effort to counter the roots of extremism.”

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