Middle Eastern Terrorism and Authoritarianism in an Age of Western Populism

Commentary | March 30, 2017

EastWest Institute (EWI) Director of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program, Kawa Hassan, delivers his remarks at the 2017 Global Peace Convention in Manila, the Philippines.

Hassan was part of the panel for “Dialogue & Trust: Real Lessons in Countering Violent Extremism” on March 1. EWI partnered with the Global Peace Foundation to organize the four-day convention, bringing together leading global experts and practitioners to share best practices and develop multi-sector partnerships for sustainable peace and development and the achievement of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Organizers said the event drew 3,500 participants representing over 100 organizations from 42 countries.

Below is Kawa's remarks, beginning around the 6:00 mark.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Colleagues good morning, 

Thank you so much for the kind invitation to speak at the Global Peace Convention 2017. It is an honor to speak again at an event organized by Global Peace Foundation and its partners. I had the honor to speak at the last conference in Belfast in September. 

The questions we are asked to address at this session are immensely crucial and relevant. Yet I think they are more or less the same questions we discussed in Belfast. This doesn’t mean they are not important; on the contrary, they deal with one of the core issues of our time, which is at the same time at the heart of what my organization EastWest Institute is addressing, namely how to counter violent extremism and make our world a safer place. But in order for these questions to be dynamic and responsive in the face of rapid political changes in the West and the Middle East, I would like to connect countering violent extremism to two transformative phenomena that would impact peace building in the coming years, namely authoritarianism in the Middle East and populism in the West.    

How much a difference six months can make! Last time we met in Belfast. Back then Brexit was a fact but the U.S. (and with it the world) was engulfed in an existential election campaign that had the potential to change world politics with wide ranging implications for the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups. 

The election of Donald Trump and possible victories of populist and far-right parties in upcoming elections in France and the Netherlands may reshape the fight against violent Islamic groups such as ISIS. This will definitely impact the work of peace building organizations. While ISIS and other radical Islamist groups who are committing horrible crimes against Muslims and non-Muslims should be defeated, the key questions are: what is the best approach, and who are the best strategic and sustainable allies in this tectonic battle? 

Geopolitical shifts and populist surges in the West alongside fatigue with complex conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and beyond strongly suggest that a hard-core security approach and alliance with authoritarian regimes in Middle East perhaps will be the most dominant strategy in the coming years. This would result in the rehabilitation and resilience of repressive regimes such as Syria’s Assad and authoritarian and corrupt leaders in Iraq and other countries in the region. This strategy might yield military successes in the short term but in the long run will only strengthen apocalyptic groups like ISIS. To make matters worse, it will give autocrats a new lease on life. This means the Middle East could be condemned for the foreseeable future to a vicious cycle of violence committed by autocrats and apocalyptic ideologues. The civilian population and peaceful activists who want a dignified and democratic rule will be caught in between and will continue to remain the real victims as is the case at the moment. Going back to the topic of our session, namely root causes of violent extremism, what is the link between Jihadi Salafi terrorism and authoritarianism?          

In my view, one of the structural reasons for the rise of groups like ISIS is the systemic use of violence by the so called “secular” and religious regimes alike to quell dissent. The history of post-colonial states in Iraq, Syria, Libya and most other countries in the Middle East is a history of horrible human rights violations against civilian people, peaceful protests, and armed groups including public executions- even stoning and beheadings- and use of chemical and biological weapons. 

The barbarism of the henchmen of Abubakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, does not originate from a vacuum. They build on, are the logical conclusions of, and even refine the unimaginable brutality of the human rights violations of Saddam Hussein, Hafez & Bashar Al Assad, Gaddafi and other dictators. ISIS is an authoritarian byproduct, a consequence and not a cause of the current catastrophe in the Middle East. The overall extremely violent political culture and prisons were and are top universities for the graduation of the leaders as well as rank and file fighters of ISIS and other extremist groups. The only difference between ISIS and dictators is that ISIS meticulously documents and broadcasts its barbarism with a showcase of pride.

The most recent report of Amnesty International on Syria entitled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria” is a gruesome reminder of the terrible human rights violations committed by the regime and a warning of what may yet still happen. These regimes create the right environment for the birth of barbaric leaders like Abu Bakr Albaghdadi rather than Nelson Mandela. 
Political violence and human rights violations are related to economic corruption. By corruption I don’t mean petty corruption of low-mid level bureaucracy but rather systemic corruption at the highest echelons of power. Despite their many historic, political, economic and social differences Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria and some other countries, they share one common curse and that is the ubiquitous, exorbitant and unprecedented corruption of ruling elites that creates failed states and provides the perfect habitat for the emergence and advancement of violent extremism. Perhaps one of the books that pays sufficient attention to this global problem is the one aptly entitled “The Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” by Sarah Chayes. To quote Ms. Chayes, “Since the late 1990s, corruption has reached such an extent that some governments resemble glorified criminal gangs, bent solely on their own enrichment. These kleptocrats drive indignant populations to extremes―ranging from revolution to militant puritanical religion.” 

The political order that emerged in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein dismally failed to produce an inclusive political pact in which all groups and citizens see the state as ‘their Iraq’. When Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014, Iraq's national budget was over 141 billion USD. Ruling elites from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish backgrounds have used these billions to enrich themselves and their cronies, strengthening party militias instead of building inclusive national institutions including professional armies.

The outrageous carelessness and scandalous double-standards of the international community towards the Syrian conflict has led to Syrian heartbreak, the worst refugee crisis since World War II and a protracted state of violence with no end in sight. Al-Assad's chemical weapons were destroyed by the UN, but his barrel bombs were left untouched only to wreak death and destruction in Syrian cities. Thus, it is no surprise that ISIS and other radical groups are mushrooming in such a conducive and ideal habitat. The Trump administration’s ban on Syrians and nationals from seven Muslim majority nations is the latest example of the rehabilitation of the Assad regime. U.S. immigration authorities barred entry to a 21-year-old Syrian cinematographer, even though he had a valid visa, who worked on a harrowing film about his nation's civil war, "The White Helmets”. This 40-minute documentary gives a window into the lives of the group's volunteers as they scramble to pull people from the rubble of buildings flattened in bombing raids. According to the founder of white helmets Khaled Saleh, the group saved 82,000 lives, including children and babies. I urge everyone to watch this documentary (which won an Academy Award in this year's ceremony). 

President Trump’s travel ban will only strengthen Assad, al Qaeda and ISIS. We live in an extremely dark time. Middle Eastern despotism, violent Jihadi Salafism and Western populism strengthen each other with disastrous consequences for the world. One way to counter this terrible trend is to link the struggle for dignity and democracy against Middle Eastern authoritarianism and terrorism to the new struggle against populism in the West. We need, though, to distinguish between the majority of voters who vote for populist and far right parties and those who are xenophobic. People are genuinely, rightly and truly terrified by the threat of terrorist attacks by ISIS in the West. It is this social base and fear that needs to be addressed in order to make the world a safer place and help peaceful protesters against autocrats in their long march for a dignified and democratic existence in Middle East. In these dark times this is a tall order. But we don’t have an alternative. More than ever we should commit to energized activism, new and transformative ideas, and above all hope. To quote Raymon Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

Thank you very much for your attention.