One of the outcomes of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 was agreement among government, business and civil-society leaders to call for coordinated, immediate but long-term actions to address violent extremism in the region. What follows are key reflections from the summit discussions on how participants proposed to address violent extremism, predominantly from a regional perspective, but applicable on a global scale.
- Take a multistakeholder approach. Governments cannot address violent extremism alone, and there are already positive examples of the private sector severing sources of financial and material support for violent extremist activities, as well as supporting community structures that provide stopgaps for the proliferation of extremist worldviews. But the most important role of the private sector is to invest in infrastructure and provide jobs. Similarly, civil society must play a critical role in changing discourse among communities where extremism germinates, engaging and educating the public, especially young people. It is also up to civil leaders to develop legitimate governance structures and institutions to oversee public-sector counterparts.
- Address root causes of extremism holistically by understanding and adapting to differing contexts. There is no single path to radicalization, which means that violent extremism in the MENA region must be approached by making a concerted effort to understand the root causes of extremism and their relative weight in terms of cultural, social, economic, psychological and political indicators on a town-to-town, region-to-region and state-to-state basis. Yet, on the other hand, while the motives for violent extremism vary among communities and their individuals, it is clear that greater emphasis should be placed on bolstering education, increasing employment opportunities, promoting positive role models through the media, and building more effective avenues for civic participation among youth.
- Re-think military concepts and strategies. Though military and intelligence services offer critical tools to contain violence in general, these tools can, ironically, be counterproductive. The core problem is that militaries and intelligence services are geared to react to insurgencies, and to do so with broad campaigns, rather than conduct deep analysis of the root causes particular to an environment and devise rigorous, nuanced campaigns that fit each particular circumstance. Without careful follow-up and thorough analysis, the strategies that militaries and intelligence services put in place often come in the form of one-size-fits-all campaigns that only perpetuate the cultural disconnects that fuel extremism. There is a strong need for a truly interdisciplinary approach and strategic follow-up, combining “soft” and “hard” measures, which in and of themselves suggest a re-thinking of modern military concepts, especially around counterterrorism or counter-insurgency strategies.
- Originate and drive solutions for addressing violent extremism from within the region. The Middle East needs more leaders from business, government and civil society to play active and discreet roles in addressing violent extremism. Actors that come from outside the Middle East and North Africa may not have the same cultural and social understanding of the region’s ancient ethnic, cultural and religious peculiarities; nor can they aspire to garner the same levels of respect that local leaders do among affected communities, which is critical to the implementation of any containment strategy. Local leaders and priorities should drive the development of strategies and solutions, so they can properly reflect the unique environments and capabilities of communities affected by violent extremism.
- Address the governance deficit. A lack of trust between government and citizens has contributed to the kind of environment in which violent extremism is more likely to take root. Similarly, the disconnect between citizens and their rulers in the Middle East, the growing mistrust in established political institutions in the region, and the lagging of a credible reform of public sectors are (although in no way unique to the MENA region) greatly inhibiting the ability of governments to counter the promise of political, social and sometimes even economic empowerment that violent extremism such as ISIS promises to these disenfranchised citizens. Public institutions must become more transparent and accountable to the people they serve in order to project strength. And the main way to transform into this type of institution is to reduce rampant, endemic corruption. MENA needs less “rulership” and more leadership, as one participant from the region so eloquently phrased the conundrum.
- Recognize the impact of technology on human socialization and empowerment. Thus far, extremist movements have been effective at using digital technology and media to recruit and gain sympathizers. To counter this success, the private sector could be a formidable force, leveraging the unique skills of digital natives, namely young people. One focus could be digital media-driven awareness campaigns illustrating where extremist groups have violated their promises to the people they claim to serve. Campaigns should be tech-savvy and carefully tailored to key audiences, while taking care to avoid pushing violent extremist groups towards the dark web.
- Invest in human capital and job creation. Education and skills development opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa are lagging behind the growth of the young population. The lack of employment opportunities in the region account for widespread poverty in many states. The lack of upward socio-economic mobility in almost all states has contributed to the sense of hopelessness that pervades the region – a recipe for extremism. MENA requires far greater investment in human capital, creating incentives for greater entrepreneurship and establishing mechanisms for seeding innovation, training and apprenticeships. This necessitates a larger role for the private sector to bolster and supplement inadequate public-sector efforts. This is one of the most direct contributions of the private sector to addressing violent extremism.
- Increase positive messages and foster alternative role models to change the extremists’ narrative. The effort to halt radicalization starts at home and important tools for these efforts are educational institutions, employers and the media, particularly social media. Governments, business and civil society must use social media more effectively to promote positive narratives that counter and undermine extremist propaganda efforts, on the one hand, and nurture a sense of possibility among the young on the other. The use of role models in the media and in civic development campaigns (including sport and popular culture), and the behaviours they inspire, should also be used to change attitudes. The private sector’s role should be mostly to provide the platforms to generate and disseminate the content that challenges extremist values and narratives, and provides alternative models for young people to aspire to.
- Foster a youth society across the region. Leaders who attended the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 called for the creation of a “common purpose” society. In particular, it is important that there be open debate among various communities that engage young people, so that there can be a better understanding of their needs, frustrations and aspirations. A vital tool for forging ties among the various cultures, religions and communities is to create opportunities for youth to interact with one another and internationally, through NGOs, sports, cultural events and the private and public sectors. As part of this effort, the private sector should focus on and coordinate its social-impact efforts along these lines, and proactively engage the region’s young people in devising solutions.
- Encourage religious leaders to pre-empt and respond to extremism. Religion is offered as the moral and legal underpinning of most extremist groups in the region, with radical figureheads preaching misleading and incorrect interpretations of religious texts to justify terror and violence. This abuse of religion in the name of violent extremism must be challenged more stridently by leading religious authorities, in MENA as well as elsewhere.
Authors: Espen Barth Eide, Managing Director and Member of the Managing Board at the World Economic Forum and Anja Kaspersen Head of Geopolitics and International Security at the World Economic Forum.