A Response to President Obama on Countering Violent Extremism

By: Brian Grim


President Obama offered an antidote to violent extremism last week. He acknowledged that a military component is needed to end the savage cruelties of ISIS and their ilk. Indeed, we remain at war. But Obama’s antidote, offered at the closing a of US-led summit on countering violent extremism, is especially relevant in religiously freer societies. In short, the President’s antidote is to marshal all that is good and true to discredit extremist ideologies and address the social, economic and political grievances that terrorists deviously exploit. And what we do at home is critical because thousands of ISIS volunteers grew up in Western societies, including some from the United States.

In what follows, I argue that the problem of some in society becoming radicalized should be tackled by building relationships with those at risk, including through business and diverse faith communities. This approach capitalizes on one of religious freedom’s greatest assets—setting people of faith free to do radically good things. (The following was originally published by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.)

As Europeans join and return from fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, people from across the world, including world leaders, agree that something must be done urgently.

The January 2015 attacks in Paris, carried out by those with a reported link to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), made this abundantly clear. Beyond policing European streets and coordinating an international response to ISIS, what more should be done?

The answer involves understanding two things: the socio-economic context of ISIS's horrific advance, and the diverse social and personal paths to radicalization.

According to a Pew Research survey in 2013, in the years running up to the ISIS advance the Iraqi public's chief concern was unemployment. Less than half of those surveyed in Iraq considered conflict between religious groups to be a very large problem, but by contrast, three-quarters of those surveyed considered unemployment to be a "very large problem" for the country. Indeed, the lack of jobs arguably softened the ground for ISIS' sudden advance.

Although research indicates that a poor economy does not cause violent extremism, it contributes to the conditions that terrorists can exploit. Indeed, terrorists know how to use poverty and wealth for their benefit. They recruit suicide bombers from the ranks of the poor and they look to the wealthy for cash because, as observed in the Yale Review of International Studies, the rich "would rather donate their money than their sons to the cause."

More than that, radical extremists think strategically about business and the economy. The January attacks in Paris targeted two local businesses connected with much bigger industries: Hyper Cacher (the multi-billion dollar Kosher food industry) and Charlie Hebdo (the multi-trillion dollar media industry).

On a larger scale, the 9/11 al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre in New York—soaring symbols of development and progress—was not a random choice. In 2004, Osama bin Laden said in a taped speech, "We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars [spent by the United States], including the loss of a huge number of jobs."

Some studies suggest that radical extremism can play a role during times of global economic downturn, but whether or not this is the case, the foreign policy focus of many of the world's leading economies has without a doubt been on war and peace rather than business.

So, if violent extremists attack businesses and take advantage of a bad economy to sow seeds of religious discord and violence, could better business be part of the response to radical extremism? Yes, but this requires an understanding that the radicalization process is not only social but also deeply personal.

The "pathway by which one person is radicalised can have a completely different effect on someone else," observes Raffaello Pantucci of London's RUSI think tank. A similar conclusion was reached by the Paris-based Centre of Prevention of Sectarian Derivatives linked to Islam (CPDSI), which finds that contemporary extremist discourse appeals to those from any background, not just those who are considered socially "at risk."

The whole world would like to see an improvement in the lives and future of those living on the edge or fringes of society, where they feel powerless and isolated—the very conditions that can make them most susceptible to proposals to find power through violence.

Reflecting the views of many, Pope Francis said that "it is urgent that governments throughout the world commit themselves to developing an international framework capable of promoting a market of high impact investments, and thus to combating an economy which excludes and discards." Similarly, British Prime Minister David Cameron argues, "Social investment can be a great force for social change on the planet. It can help us to build bigger and stronger societies. That power is in our hands. And together we will use it to build a better future for ourselves, for our children and for generations to come."

These are grand statements by world leaders. But how does the rubber meet the road when it comes to countering radicalization?

The instrumental link between social impact investing and countering radicalization is person-to-person contact. Social investing that has impact requires personal and business relationships characterized by love and respect, not hate and intolerance. Accordingly, the need is for business people in partnership with faith volunteers to build personal relationships with those at risk of radicalization. The involvement of interfaith teams (including humanists) is a critical component because countering religious hate can most effectively be done with "love of neighbor" as exemplified in the Good Samaritan (a foreigner with a foreign faith, by the way).

Here, neighborly love is not an emotion but a practical commitment to help mentor those in need with individualized resources that help them provide for their own needs as well as those of their families and extended families. My Religious Freedom & Business Foundation is currently working with a team from faiths as diverse as Mormons and Muslims, Catholics and humanists, Anglicans and agnostics, to develop a toolkit for volunteers to use in a personalized way with the at-risk people they mentor. The toolkit will have resources that can be customized as needed to address six themes of a balanced life: education, health, employment, productivity and stewardship, household finances, and spiritual strength. 

The mentors will also be tasked with helping to identify sustainable investments that help promote integration and economic development in communities where people at risk of radicalization live. The projects should adhere to several important criteria: (1) a high probability of a successful business venture; (2) applicability of the business model to other situations; (3) representation of different faith traditions; and (4) promoting productive collaboration between religious minorities and other segments of society.

When love of neighbor is accompanied by empowering social investment, integration and interfaith appreciation result. In the end, all this is good for business because, as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby appositely notes, good business is about good relationships. This applies to neighborhoods in cities and communities throughout Europe, as well as suffering populations in northern Iraq.

Brian J. Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and a leading expert on the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography.

This piece was originally authored for religionandgeopolitics.org. It was later republished on February 23, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/7/a-response-to-president-obama-on-countering-violent-extremism