Steven Metz Friday, Jan. 15, 2016
Once again the Obama administration is revising its programs to counter and defeat the self-styled Islamic State, particularly on the battlefield of ideas. With no apparent decline in supporters flocking to the movement nor any shortage of unhinged murderers inspired by it, State Department officials announced that they were creating a new “Global Engagement Center” to combat the Islamic State online. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama met with social media-savvy representatives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to convince them to join the effort.
|This photo released by a militant website shows a flag |
of the Islamic State group placed on a damaged helicopter,
Tadmur military airbase, Palmyra, Syria,
The problem is that policymakers and policy experts are not thinking big enough. Failing to place today’s transnational extremism in its broader historical context, they cannot grasp—much less address—the psychological appeal of ideological barbarity and violence. Yet doing so is the only path to an effective response. History offers clues but they must be mined. Put simply, today’s transnational extremism is the dark side of globalization; the Islamic State is simply the most barbaric component of a wider and deeper current of transnational extremism. It is not the sum total of the darkness, and defeating it, while necessary, will not resolve the problem. The ultimate task is bigger: To prevent new mutations of the Islamic State from arising once the group is eradicated, policymakers and policy experts must think deeply about the social and psychological disruptions that globalization has caused.
What allowed transnational extremism to take root was the decline of nationalism and of national identities, authorities and cultures. This left a vacuum that lacked the structures, principles and processes necessary to provide people with a sense of collective identity greater than themselves and a sense of purpose and discipline to fulfill the natural human need to feel heroic. Young people who have not yet formed their own sense of identity and purpose, particularly young men, are especially vulnerable.
This is a common pattern: Throughout history, extremist ideologies have sprouted up during the transition from one framework of identity and authority to another. In an earlier time, communism, radical forms of nationalism—like Italian fascism or German Nazism—and anarchism arose during the transition from rural cultures to modern, urban ones that left many people untethered from the traditional authority systems that ordered village life. People caught between the old world and the new emerging one were vulnerable to extremist ideologies.
Now a similar historical transition is underway as the ability of nation states to provide identity, a sense of purpose, and an ordering authority fades. Transnational extremism is growing strong because nationalism has grown weak. As before, some people caught between the old world and the new one gravitate to extremist ideologies. It is more than a coincidence that many supporters of al-Qaida and the Islamic State are second-generation immigrants lost between the culture of their parents and the European, Australian or North American cultures in which they live. They do not feel fully part of either and look to extremism to provide identity, purpose and a chance to be heroic. Similarly, the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, Somalia’s al-Shabab and other extremist movements grew out of the failure by their countries of origin to create inclusive national identities. Globalization then provided them with funds, information, strategic reach and outside support.
This is not simply academic theory. It suggests that for the United States and other nations to effectively deal with today’s transnational extremism, they must help create some less violent and nihilistic but powerful framework of identity and purpose. It is not enough to explain why people should not join extremist movements—but that is exactly what the United States does in the “battle of ideas” with the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other groups like them. A successful approach must help people transition from one world to another, and help young people grow from youth to adulthood, with a sense of identity, personal meaning and purpose, as well as the opportunity to feel heroic.
Unfortunately, governments are ill-equipped to do this alone. Systems of identity and meaning as well as cultures are organic entities that cannot simply be engineered by even the best-intentioned government officials. While programs of universal national service might be useful to provide young people with a framework of identity and discipline, it would be dangerous, even misguided, simply to try to turn back time and re-energize nationalism, despite nativist political movements in the United States and Europe that seem to be trying to do so. It is important to remember that while nationalism did, in fact, provide a sense of identity and purpose as well as an avenue to heroism, it did so at an immense cost, swallowing millions of lives in the process. There has to be a different solution.
What this solution is remains unclear. Until some new form of identity takes shape, though, extremist ideologies will harvest those lost between the old and the new. Until American policymakers and security experts master these macro-trends and historical shifts, making marginal changes and calling them a new strategy will continue to fail.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.