Five reasons why the West is losing the fight against radical Islam

By Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde 

Why is the strategy against Jihadist terrorism failing? A review of the major mistakes being made.

Neither does the West speak with one voice nor is radical Islam a monolithic movement. Consequently, there cannot be only one single interpretation of the interaction between the two players. Still, it is possible to identify errors –some made out of vested interest and others as the result of simple ignorance– which would tend to predict that without a radical change in the strategy against what is commonly presented as a threat to world security, failure is just around the corner.

Confused handling of the different concepts

Without having any copyright on the idea, no-one has been as influential in turning Islam into the new enemy to beat as Samuel P. Huntington. In 1993, with his concept of the “clash of civilizations”, he managed to achieve a global impact with arguments that sought not only to explain the post-cold war world but also to become the new strategic guide for an America that had the historic opportunity of taking the lead on this planet all alone. Islam – as the substitute for communism – then took up the place of the “others”, the “enemy”, stubbornly imposing its ideas on a global level by any means possible.

This idea –at a time of strategic disorientation after the end of the bipolar confrontation, and when the seams of the status quo imposed by London and Paris first, and then Washington, started to give way, openly demonstrating its unsustainability when faced with a number of Arab-Muslim societies who were eager to rid themselves of corrupt and inefficient local governments backed by the West –was welcomed by both Western governments and NATO, as well as other players.

Instead of analysing the structural causes that would explain the discontent of citizens in these countries, there was a headlong rush to highlight even further the supposed intrinsic evil of Islam. The choice was made to mix concepts still used inappropriately today. Thus, a climate of opinion has gradually formed which rarely distinguishes between religious beliefs (Islam), a specific political option (radical Islam), or an expression of extreme violence (Jihadist terrorism). It is true that by lumping together everything associated with Islam and magnifying the importance of the new enemy, the support of many Western allies, fearful of losing their privileges, was won, but in return this has increased even further the anti-West feeling of many citizens in these countries, who feel they are identified as enemies because of their beliefs or political leanings, and this has further hampered the fight against the real threat (Jihadist terrorism), by strengthening it and losing the allies who are as necessary as are all Islamists who reject violence.

Inconsistency between values, principles and interests

Although Western discourse appears to be committed to the defence of values ​​and principles of supposed universal validity, everyday reality shows clearly that it is the bare-faced defence of interests which is the basis of the West’s relations with the countries of Islamic identity. These are mainly geo-economic interests derived from the significant energy dependence on hydrocarbons which many of these powers hold so close to their heart. Security of energy supply, ultimately leads to believing too often that there are shortcuts that can ensure these so vital supplies in exchange for looking the other way when our interlocutors violate the rights of their own people or disobey international law.

If it were necessary to exemplify this general pattern of behaviour, there is no case as obvious as the Saudi regime. There is nothing in its internal management that is in accord with the very principles of the rule of law, while in the field of foreign policy there is ample evidence of its involvement in funding Jihadist terrorism. Yet both Washington (main supplier of weapons and number one support for its safety) and the other Western capitals prefer to maintain the fiction that the House of Saud is a “moderate Arab regime.” Until we understand that the defence of values ​​and principles is precisely the best way to defend our interests, we shall continue to bolster up unacceptable rulers and, incidentally, fuel anti-Western sentiment among populations who want to rid themselves of their own rulers, who themselves bear out that one of their main sources of support to remain in power is a West that always prefers “the Devil you know”, fearing that any alternative would seek to upset a status quo that it has found so favourable for decades (Egypt is as an example).

The persistence of a vision clinging to the past

Burdened by a view of superiority which mixes know-all neo-colonialists and paternalists, we see huge Western resistance to accepting the need for a paradigm shift in relations with Arab and Muslim countries: a paradigm which first led to the artificial division of territories to shape nation-states that did not correspond to the wishes of their local populations, but rather to European powers interested in once again applying the eternal principle of “divide and conquer”. Local leaders who were willing to accept their subordinate role in the game were then backed (in exchange for enjoying the riches amassed behind their own citizens’ backs with no external obstacles), with no concern whatsoever for their level of democratic commitment or national development. In short: a certain status quo which preserved Western privileges in collusion with increasingly authoritarian and failed local governors, all without any regard for the expectations and demands of a population that for more than three decades has been increasing at rates far above that of their national economies.

Thus can be explained this ambiguity (if not thinly disguised rejection) towards the so-called “Arab Spring” on the part of the West – bound by a model that could have been useful at one time but that is now ethically and politically untenable today. The demonstrations that caused the fall of four Arab dictators (although, except in Tunisia, they have not actually succeeded in changing the system), and have spurred large groups in many other states, reflect structural flaws that challenge both local governments and the model of relations with the West. This breeding ground where social, political and economic deficiencies converge affect large segments of the population through the persistence of double standards at international level when assessing the performance of different countries (with Israel as a reference) and this has been well exploited by radical Islam (to prove this, suffice it to mention the election results of Hamas, Ennahda, the Muslim Brothers and Justice and Development, among many others). This rare resurgence of political Islam is causing panic in the West, at the prospect in the short-term of coming up against new partners who are not willing to accept the subordinate role that Western powers have reserved until now for the rulers of the Arab-Muslim world.

If we are not willing to accept the challenge of free expression for Arab citizens, apart from this being inconsistent with our own democratic principles, we shall be adopting a suicidal attitude that will only bring higher levels of instability.

Exaggerated assessment of the threat

The regular and alarmist statements by our leaders might lead us to think that we are at “war” against radical Islam (often confusing this with Jihadist terrorism) and that this is the most important threat on the global security agenda. However, detailed analyses of the problem continue to show that, from a Western perspective, this movement is not in a position to bring about the collapse of any functioning state, nor cause mass killings (compared to many other threats).

This is, of course, a very real threat, but neither al Qaeda nor Daesh, nor any other Jihadist group today has the ability to subvert the international order or even maintain their outrageous caliphates over time. With regard to the number of deaths it causes, the cumulative figures from 2000 show that no more than 5% of all the attacks in the world have been aimed at Westerners. We should therefore properly weigh up the seriousness of the problem to avoid being swayed by an alarmism which really seems interested in feeding the widespread fear on our streets as the preferred mechanism for progressively restricting the framework of our rights and freedoms which define us as open societies (with the false promise of greater security).

Errors of response

None of this means that the problem of Jihadism is not serious. What is important to understand, to sum up the experience accumulated in this field, is that as long as our response continues to be short-term and almost exclusively focused on the role of military forces (yesterday in Afghanistan and Iraq and today in Syria and Iraq again, without forgetting Mali, Somalia and Nigeria) there will be no way to resolve it. Obviously if the extent of threat represented by Daesh is actually reached, it will be necessary to appeal to military means. But if this does not go hand in hand, to a greater extent, with social, political and economic strategies that address the structural causes which fuel radicalisation and Jihadism, the most that can be achieved will be simply to buy some time until the danger erupts once again, from elements which have become reinforced and less willing to negotiate.

It is up to us to raise our level of ambition from mere management of the problem to actually resolving it, in the knowledge, also, that nothing guarantees the success of this effort.


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