One of the reasons why I write this blog is to explore the connections between things, and I think there’s an angle to Islamic extremism that we’re missing somehow. Listening to the debate on the radio this morning, it was all about religion and politics, and there was no mention of what must surely be a major factor – poverty.
Let me explain. This week has seen a spate of protests and acts of violence, sparked by the appearance online of a short and insulting video about Islam. The video is the work of a rather mysterious character who may well have been deliberately inciting this sort of response. Most of the protestors won’t have seen it. Those that have would know that it is, by all accounts, a rather pathetic piece of work and that it’s not worth getting wound up about it. Even if it did make you very angry, anyone with any education would know that it’s the work of an extremist individual, not the view of the American government or its people.
The problem here is that the rioters are not educated, and are unable to put the film in its correct context. They do not have all the facts, and are running on rumours and lies. Angry anti-western political factions and Islamist teachers are able to use that ignorance to their own advantage.
How do we know this? Because the violence has been worst in places like Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, or Egypt – all places with a poor underclass. Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, and didn’t see any protests at all. Where were the protestors in UAE, Qatar or Kuwait? Protests in Turkey and other developing countries were tiny. This is not the ‘Islamic world’ reacting against the West – it is the poor countries of the Islamic world.
It’s not that these protests aren’t about religion, or politics. My point is that for extremist politics and religion to thrive, you need pre-existing grievances such as unemployment or inequality to feed on. You need an audience of uneducated people who will accept your explanation of those grievances – that America is your oppressor and that the West has insulted the prophet, for example.
I live in Luton, home to the English Defence League, and the dynamic is exactly the same. There are reasons why the EDL hold their marches in Luton, Stoke on Trent or Bradford, and not in St Albans or Tunbridge Wells. Extremists have always preyed on disenfranchised young people, particularly young men. There are always exceptions of course. Genuinely radical groups or individuals can turn up in any society, but the mob mentality that we’ve seen this past week needs ignorance and disaffection.
That begs a question about our response. Do we tackle the violence, by building big walls around our embassies and sending drones after terrorist suspects in the desert? Do we address the ideology, defending our ‘values’ and standing up for free speech? Or do we go after the root causes, the things that feed the hatred? There’s a place for all three, but perhaps the most effective response is ultimately the last one. The spread of violent fundamentalism might not be stopped by military force or ideological superiority, but with schools and literacy programmes, healthcare and jobs.
I don’t want to suggest that Islamic extremism would disappear if there was no poverty, but I do think it’s a factor that’s largely missing from the debate.