After an unprecedented year of stress—social, economic, and political—for societies around the world coping with the coronavirus pandemic, and the visible manifestation of misinformation in America with the insurrection at Capitol Hill in January, European Eye on Radicalization held a webinar that sought to examine where radicalization trends stood at the present time and where they might go.
The two expert speakers were:
Dr. Tommaso Virgili, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and a Research Associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, working on liberal currents within Islam in response to the challenge of Islamism.
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian and founder of The Damascus History Foundation to protect the city’s archives from the war, and the author of Under the Black Flag (2015).
Dr. Virgili noted that at the outset of the pandemic in his native Italy the mantra was, “We will come out of this better people”, but we are already worse people and the pandemic isn’t over yet. The Capitol events is one example of this—never would it have been imaginable that a U.S. President would incite a coup against the U.S. government. And the polarization in the U.S. shows no sign of abating: the far-Right and white supremacist groups are growing, and in Portland and other cities the far-Left, represented by groups like ANTIFA, continue open, persistent rioting.
Data shows that dozens of countries have used the cover of the pandemic to restrict rights and curb the Rule of Law, and this has not happened only in autocratic countries. European democracies and even the oldest democracy of all, Britain, have seen challenges to alleged arbitrary use of state power during this period. These legal challenges have had various outcomes in court, but there can be no doubt, says Dr. Virgili, that personal freedoms have been restricted in the most serious way since the Second World War, and those objecting to this have found themselves dismissed as silly, if not immoral.
This denigration of open discussion has been added to by dangerous signs of the politicization of science. It was argued by respected scientists, for example, that “systemic racism” was a greater public health crisis than the pandemic and as such the Black Lives Matter protests-turned-riots over the summer of 2020 were licit. This view seeped over into state actions and the blatant inequality in enforcement of the lockdown laws only adds to the polarized situation that abets radicals on all sides. This was a needless addition to the conspiracy theorizing about the pandemic that either denied wholesale the existence of the virus or scapegoated a shadowy party, sometimes named (Jews, Bill Gates, the CIA), sometimes unnamed.
“The polarization comes with an unprecedented economic crisis and very severe restrictions of freedom—this is an explosive mixture”, concludes Dr. Virgili. “The future at this moment does not look bright unless we take a different course.”
Mr. Moubayed began by noting he was going to focus on the Middle East, where radicalization was rising, despite hopes it would decline with the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
In terms of Shi’ite radicalization, namely the groups aligned to Iran, there was something of a pause for the last six months as they waited to see who would be in the White House, says Moubayed. That period is now over. Luqman Salim was assassinated by Iran’s Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, a message to all—and especially Lebanese Shi’is—who would oppose Iran’s influence in the region. Under Hezbollah’s dominance, the Lebanese state has now changed its stance in maritime negotiations with Israel to make an agreement impossible.
On the Sunni side, there is the Muslim Brotherhood “regrouping and rebranding” after its fall in Jordan, the last area where it had some space to move, and then there are the more radical jihadist groups, whether of the Al-Qaeda type like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) or the Islamic State (ISIS), both of which are making serious gains, if on a lesser scale than the Iranians.
The perceived absence of America is emboldening both the Shi’a and Sunni radicals. On the one side, the Biden administration’s clear desire to re-enter the nuclear deal has led to Iran taking a harder line. On the other side, the American indications that its presence in the Kurdish YPG/PKK-controlled zone in Syria has limits, which should have mollified Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did the opposite: “instead of toning down … he is considering another invasion of Syria … and he has done absolutely nothing” to act against HTS.
To work towards a solution, says Moubayed, the U.S. needs to find relative moderates within the constituencies Erdogan and Iran control. Trying to work with secularists alone will not work; it never has. Such figures do not have a constituency in the region, and they do not have a chance of gaining a constituency. That said, the Muslim Brotherhood gambit—using the foil of the jihadists to present itself as the moderate option—should not be fallen for; that track has been tried and it was a disaster.
Rather than trying to appease the radical leaders like Iran and Erdogan and the Brotherhood, says Moubayed, the approach should be reversed, approaching the radicalized communities from below and seeking to make incremental inroads at the level of their intellectual leadership.
In the question-and-answer session, the chances for good news about the pandemic, Europe’s attitudes to China, the prospects for combatting Islamism in the Middle East, and more were covered.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this webinar represent the speakers alone.