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Why Do Jihadists Exit Violent Extremism? The Field of Study Grows


The Iraq Army and a soldier in the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq fighting in the war against Daesh, or ISIS, in Iraq. As the study of violent extremism expands, a French academy has begun to study an overlooked topic: why some jihadists exit or avoid extremism. CREATIVE COMMONS

The study of violent extremism and what attracts people to become jihadists has been expanding rapidly in social sciences, but what is little known is why people avoid or leave a violent movement. It is a field that is slowly growing among academics, think tanks and United Nations officials, enabling them to form policies that can de-escalate tensions in the Arab world that also create spillover effects in the West.

The huge spectrum of understanding “exiting violence,” as theoreticians label it, ranges from examining local and individual aspects to global responses, from dealing with witnessing, say, traumatic events like a random attack in a city to what the “Middle East will look like in 20 years,” said Michel Wieviorka, president of the Paris-based Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Foundation House of Human Sciences), as a discussant at an event in New York.

The French foundation, a public-private body, leads the International Panel on Exiting Violence, which originated in 2016 to fill the exiting-violence research gap, with financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The panel consists of 200 international scholars with expertise on political violence; its goal is to produce reports and recommendations for “political and social decision-makers” on practices that encourage exiting violence — either through avoidance or mitigation — in the Middle East.

The project kicked off in January 2017 in Paris and is traveling to Tunisia, Washington, D.C., and Iraq, ending in Lebanon in June 2018. It consists of 10 working groups, covering such arenas as radicalization to the roles of strong and weak countries in producing violence in the Arab world.

As part of the panel’s tour, four working group members met in New York on Nov. 14 at the Carnegie Corporation of New York to share what they know about what breeds violence, especially among young men, and why they might forgo violence for peaceful lives. The program was titled “From Violence to Exiting Violence.”

Three academics spoke briefly: Farhad Khosrokhavar, a senior researcher on radicalization, based at the Ecole des hautes etude en sciences sociales (School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences) in Paris (where Wieviorka is also based); Mohamed Ali Adraoui, the Marie Sklodowska Curie fellow at Georgetown University and an expert on Salafism, sectarianism and violence; and Nadje Al-Ali, the chair of the Center for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, who specializes in women and violence in the Middle East-North Africa region.

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Khosrokhavar touched on the main trends regarding “changes within the patterns of radicalization” that need to be watched as they continue to unfold: the consequences of the “disappearance” of ISIS — or Daesh — as its strongholds crumble and “something different” will emerge; “political aspects,” as in the failure of Arab revolts, except for Tunisia’s; and the “palace revolution” in Saudi Arabia, in which princes and business officials in the ruling elite were purged this month.

The radicalization problem, Khosrokhavar added, is a “generational issue,” as a new type of jihadist moves to the fore — younger males, from 12 to 17 years old — reinforcing that jihadism cells are “still in an overwhelming manner, men’s issue.”

Adraoui discussed whether Salafism, a religious ideology, has nurtured an appeal to violence. He explained that Salafism underwent a revivalist ambition years ago to turn back to its roots, the first centuries of Islam and a purist Muslim tradition. Indeed, Salafism and jihadism have been connected to a strong historical reality for decades on a “macro level,” starting in the Middle East, legitimizing the use of violence by Arab nationalist movements like Palestinian activists’ quest for statehood.

But a paradigm shift occurred, Adraoui said, as the fundamentalist approach hugely affected how politics were framed in some Muslim-majority societies and non-Muslim-majority societies, like France. Yet everything at the “macro level,” he noted, is untrue at the “micro level,” as a “non-Salafism jihadism” has risen — the “automization of jihadism” — giving way to radicals turning to jihadism without having a Salafist background. The change has meant “the death of the old-school jihadism.”

Now, most new-generation fighters, some resorting to “pure political violence,” in joining jihadist movements, like ISIS, are not Salafists. “They don’t distinguish themselves by being very religious,” Adraoui said.

Another factor at work on the micro level is the “jihadization of social relations,” which means that Salafism radical framing is relevant but also a paradox, as a majority of people at the grass roots who turn to violence are using their daily social interactions through a jihadist narrative. If you have some problems, for example, with your “non-Muslim neighbors,” like Pakistan, he said, young people especially might use violent ideology in a “more radical way.”

What’s next, Adraoui asked, in dealing with this problem? It’s a political issue that requires “listening to Muslim voices,” particularly those with grievances, like those engaged in the Palestinian struggle and those responding to US foreign policy and authoritarian regimes. Challenging the jihadist connection, he concluded, requires taking a “society-oriented approach.”

The “exiting violence” panelists, from left: Mohamed Ali Adraoui, Farhad Khosrokhavar and Nadje Al-Ali, at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Nov. 14, 2017. CELESTE FORD/CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK

The gender component of violence by jihadists and other extremists was discussed by Al-Ali, who said that to understand their motives and actions, an analysis of how violence against women plays out in all layers of society must be studied.

“Gender-based violence is not a footnote, it’s not a side issue,” Al-Ali said. “If we want to understand sectarian conflict, if we want to understand ethnic conflict, we have to understand it with a gendered lens.”

Elaborating, she said, “The control of women’s bodies, their mobility, their sexuality, is a key strategy for many state and nonstate actors who try to demarcate boundaries between us versus them.” The most recent and extreme version is how ISIS has treated Yazidi women, although other instances of gender violence have been occurring in Iraq, she said.

It’s not only Islamists or Sunni and Shiite groups engaging in gender violence, she continued, but also secular political groups, such as the Syria regime in its protracted war against an army of opponents.

The second point Al-Ali stressed is the important link between the militarization of societies and the increases in gender-based violence, illustrated in many contexts across the globe historically and cross-culturally and not unique to the Middle East.

The link is that the more militarized a society, the more normalized the idea of the militarized male and the more instances of gender-based violence. “We want to stress that we need to analytically separate between this different form of gender-based violence”: in homes, in systematic forms by state and nonstate actors and in allegedly doctrinal forms, like those claimed by the Taliban and Daesh.

Al-Ali added, however, that her work and that of colleagues has been questioned. “We are currently challenged in terms of this theory, the link between militarization and gender-based violence” — citing the example of female Kurdish fighters conquering Daesh while taking part in the political liberation movement, with some theorists and others suggesting that women needed to be militarized to be equal.

She also stressed the “continuum of violence” — the strong connections between what is happening on the battlefield to what is happening on the street, in the home and in the workplace. Moreover, local, national and regional players all have influence on the prevalence of violence against women.

In exiting violence, “we need to recognize that the significance of the politics of gender” — contestations around gender norms and gender relations — “can be used as a litmus test for the kind of regime and governance we are dealing with.” So to understand different transforming regimes of, say, authoritarianism and democratization, she said, you need to look at the politics of gender.

“The strategies for exiting violence must include supporting those women and men who are working on the wider spectrum of mobilizing for gender-based equality and justice,” Al-Ali said.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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