Leena Al-Olaimy’s first book, “Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalism,” provides us with a social essay on the phenomenon of radicalization and violent extremism, its causes, and the responses that the Western powers are formulating to this phenomenon.
The book does not pretend to be a professional manual or a tome to be exclusively read by “experts”. In both its structure and content, the logical development of its argumentation, the work is highly recommendable for all those interested in this field, whether professionals or those simply eager to find an unconventional analysis of geopolitics in the Middle East. Even more, it targets a range of audiences — private sector, governments, local authorities, academia and society at large — who have a stake and a role in preventing violent extremism and strengthening social cohesion.
The book is divided into three parts. The first of them is focused on providing the readers with a really interesting (and unconventional) historic and political review of Islam and Middle East. The author faces the evolution of Islam over time, and the rise of Islamism as a political use of the religion linked to the different challenges that Islam had to face, be it colonialism or the widespread government corruption and patronage after the colonial powers departed.
The second part aims at identifying the drivers of violent radicalization and terrorism among the youth, explicitly the non-ideological ones, and understanding how complex political and social environments are conducive to violent extremism, which is not exclusive to any religion, geographical area, or period of time. The examples provided by Al-Olaimy help us to understand how violent extremism has been a response that societies and their leaders to perceived grievances throughout human history. Specifically, the author examines in-depth the individual and very personal processes and drivers: why under the same political, economic, and social circumstances some individuals decide to take the violent path to achieve their goals, and others do not.
The third part of the book assesses the current narratives and programs designed to counter this phenomenon by Western governments, paying special attention to the failed approaches and the reasons for this failure, confronting them with innovative and successful projects focused on the inclusion of the targeted population, be it aimed at preventing violent extremism (people at risk of being radicalized) or countering it (de-radicalizing or disengaging those who have become involved in extremism).
On the basis of a nonconformist analysis, outside the mainstream of Western thought, Al-Olaimy brilliantly assesses recent historical facts that have led to the most serious geopolitical crises that have plagued and still plague the Middle East and other areas of the world. With an alternative space and vision, Al-Olaimy challenges the Western counterterrorism policies, shedding light upon the real political, economic, and social motivations underlying them and, above all, bravely underscoring the consequences that these policies have on the populations of the affected areas.
Al-Olaimy also fights bitterly against Manichean interpretations of the drivers that lead to violent extremism, delving into the serious consequences that the “them and us” thinking produces in societies, boosting the social polarization and undermining the always-positive “gray zones”.
The book aims at answering a pivotal question. It assess and confronts the numerous research paths on the different drivers conducive to violent extremism and terrorism, be it identity issues and the desire to belong to a community in the case of the Western youth, or fighting back against corrupt governments and the perception of historical or political grievances in the Islamic world.
Based on this premise, Al-Olaimy challenges the Western powers’ responses, arguing that the “hard” counter-terrorism policies have terrible effects in terms of social polarization, strengthening the “them and us” thinking that feeds radicalization, and wonders why all these counter-terrorism policies are not facing the real drivers to violent extremism, focusing instead on a coercive response that at best postpones the threat that this trend poses to our societies.
Through this social essay, Al-Olaimy makes a firm plea in support of the “soft approach”, which eschews the coercive counter-terrorism methods. The “soft” path treats religion as part of the solution, rather than as the cause of the problem, and looks to social, political, and economic inclusion as the sustainable way to combat extremism over the long term.
The book deserves recognition, too, for usefully identifying the key studies and research in the field of violent extremism, its causes, and drivers, so that all the author’s arguments and recommendations can be tested against the academic literature.
Finally, in possibly the most interesting part of the book, the author offers an assessment of the main prevention and rehabilitation programs in the field of violent extremism — based on social, political, and economic inclusion — that have proven their effectiveness in various parts of the world.
Special attention is paid to the Violence Prevention Network (VPN) in Germany, led by Jody Korn. As the author recalls, Korn’s organization has worked with more than 500 cases, with a recidivism rates of 30 percent, compared with 80 percent for all juvenile offenders in Germany. Another great example from Europe along the same lines is Sweden’s EXIT organization, where Robert Orëll has deliver customized interventions to young Swedes, transferring skills learned counter neo-Nazism to those involved with violent Islamist groups.
On the other side of the world, the American non-profit organization Search for Common Ground is implementing a very innovative and successful project in Palestine aimed at encouraging youth political participation. With a reality show called President, gathering 1,200 competitors and reaching 40 percent of Palestinians, contestants were required to hold election rallies, critique current ministers, and present their political platforms on real-life issues.
More inspiring examples are brought by Al-Olaimy. Christian Cito Cirhigiri, a peace journalist and activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and founder of Peacemaker 360, has undertaken the formidable challenge of working to dig his country out of civil war that has collapsed most forms of order. Then there is the youth engagement project in Kyrgyzstan, with the platform called Youth as Agents of Peace and Stability, intended to mitigate the factors that lead to radicalization, empower young people to take an active role in Kyrgyz society, and increase collaboration between young people and their elders in local decision-making.
Al-Olaimy also pays attention to the “credible voices,” such as the Iraqui Fatima Al-Bahadly, a mother who saw her son join Daesh, and in response founded the Firdaus (paradise) Foundation. She teaches the youth that God created them not to kill or die but to dedicate their lives to worship, work, and the service of society. She walked from camp to camp in Salah al-Din province, in central Iraq, speaking to over-3,500 youths in an attempt to reengage them. “I tell them jihad is not spilling blood on the streets, it is giving blood in hospitals,” she says.
Al-Olaimy concludes with a financial assessment of these peace-building initiatives, as against the costs and (in)efficiency of the “hard approach” pursued in the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT). Where vast sums of money have been available for armaments and other aspects of the “hard” counter-terrorism methods during GWOT without very much oversight, the “softer” approaches are constantly subject to skepticism and intrusive evaluation, with demands to prove their effectiveness in the short-term.
With the funds that have been invested in arms, it would be possible to finance thousands of prevention and inclusion projects, ensuring their financial and technical sustainability over the long-term — and making greater inroads against the drivers conducive to violent extremism.
The author thus proposes constructing a new model to confront violent extremism that would entail radical change in the way governments and international organizations understand the prevention of radicalization and the methods to counter it. This paradigm shift would, of course, require a shift in the allocation of funds.
In sum, Leena Al-Olaimy, a leading social innovator in the Arab world with a dazzling professional career linked to different peace-building think-tanks around the world, invites us to open our eyes, minds, and hearts to understand what is really happening with our youth and realize that preventing violent extremism is a tough battle to be waged with compassion and inclusion.