Jonathan Kuttab - “Fanaticism Must Be Confronted by Greater Freedom, Pluralism and Openness”




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Nov 19, 2015
by Jonathan Kuttab
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Jonathan Kuttab - “Fanaticism Must Be Confronted by Greater Freedom, Pluralism and Openness”

Human rights lawyer in Israel and Palestine gives his opinion on how counter the appeal of ISIS Jonathan Kuttab speaks at the Salzburg Global session on Youth, Economics and Violence

Much of the world is concentrating on the military threat posed by ISIS (D’aash) which uses barbaric methods and hides behind the veil of Islam. Alliances are formed, and new technologies are employed to destroy and bomb their forces, from the air. Their frightening rapid advances are barely stopped by massive military forces being marshaled to fight them. Many in the West assume that, in the end, the military forces of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will be defeated. However, the far more difficult task is addressing the real problems that allowed ISIS to arise and expand so rapidly, and its ability to attract so many young Muslims in the Arab world and beyond to its poisonous ideology. What would entice so many young people to leave their homes and join the fighters of ISIS? 

Muslim youth face a bewildering array of challenges and problems, and have every right to be dissatisfied by their circumstances. Most live under undemocratic repressive regimes, which fail to address the real social and economic needs of its population. They have few opportunities for employment or hopes to escape their economic miseries. The early promise of the Arab Spring has descended into even greater entrenchment of the power of oppressive elites. They see corruption, as well as the obscene wealth of a few at the top of their societies, in sharp contrast to the crippling poverty they experience. Jobs are given on the basis of ethnic and tribal identity as well as loyalty rather than merit. They are ashamed at the weakness and backwardness of their societies in the face of Western power and domination. Most of all they are outraged at injustice and are often tempted to seek to scapegoat minorities. 

To such youth, the promise of a righteous and powerful Islamic Caliphate that unites all Muslims and courageously fights the West, as it sets to build a new society built on the justice of the Qur’an can be very appealing. ISIS successfully presents itself as the alternative to an evil and corrupt status quo that is supported by Western powers and local despots.

To counter this appeal, we need to present young Muslims with a new vision of a better society, not based on religious intolerance, or outmoded ideas, but on progressive, humane, tolerant, and just principles that address their needs and provides methods to deal with current realities. The values that would attract them are not slavish copying of Western styles, music, and methods, but genuine human values that are truly universal, and in reality common to all religions. 

At the Salzburg Global program on Youth, Economics, and Violence, youth from around the world met and discussed the problems of youth and methods for reaching them with a new message. Examples from the around the world were discussed: programs that worked, and many that failed as well. The consensus was that unless the legitimate concerns of youth are met, violence and conflict will certainly define their future. Yet the response cannot be to ignore the problems or simply to urge youth to reject violence and fanaticism and support the different regimes under which they live. New programs must be initiated and the creative energy of youth must be harnessed in positive ways that benefit their societies. Mechanisms must be found to empower them and enable them to participate in decision-making in their respective societies. Social media must be used to help organize communities, as well as to circumvent censorship, and to provide outlets for different, non-traditional views. Fanaticism must be confronted by greater freedom, pluralism and openness, rather than suppression, control and even tighter prohibition on the free flow of ideas. Effective avenues for change must be advocated. 

Billions are being spent on military equipment and in fighting militant Islamic movements, with an exaggerated emphasis on aerial bombardment. Yet the evidence is that such tactics are not only unsuccessful, but could well be counterproductive. The true battle, for the hearts and minds of people, especially the youth is worthy of a much more concerted effort and the harnessing of resources for change. Failing to make that effort will ensure that the enemy may be defeated, and his organization dismantled, only to return in different, and far more deadly forms under other names. The people of the world – including the Muslim youth of the Arab world – deserve far better. 

Jonathan Kuttab was a Fellow at the session Youth, Economics & Violence: Implications for Future Conflict, which was held in partnership with the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. For more information, please visit the session page: