In Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt, grassroots activism is helping to tackle radicalization at its most toxic.
Following last Friday's attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande has declared war on ISIS and launched airstrikes in Syria. Barack Obama has declared the attacks an assault "on all of humanity and the universal values that we share," while David Cameron is now proposing to join France in bombing Raqqa. This approach is a bit like storming into a drunken brawl with fists swinging and expecting the situation to magically defuse itself.
Fighting extremism and building democracy in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries may seem like an unrealistic goal. But if smoking a jihadi with a drone missile isn't the solution, what is? The answer may lie in grassroots activism, much of it spearheaded by young women from the region.
"Standing up to extremism in the Syrian sense is by doing all you can to obtain your freedom," says Muzna Al-Naib, 29, an activist and filmmaker from Damascus who moved to the UK to study last year. "The Syrian people are not extremists; we are on a quest to achieve a free and democratic Syria, where we have the agency to build our own country. Extremism exists in Syria because the world is ignoring the crisis."
Since moving here, Al-Naib has become an unofficial spokesperson for her home country, working with pressure group Syria Solidarity UK and making regular public appearances to talk about the realities of the situation at home. "When people talk about Syria these days, they talk about the symptoms, rather than the disease. The rise of ISIS, increased refugee numbers—these are the symptoms. The disease is the dictatorship [of President Bashar al-Assad]," she says.
The impact of conflict-driven foreign intervention is two-fold. In European countries, it leads to the marginalization of religious and ethnic groups in society, disrupting social cohesion and making people more vulnerable to radicalization. In countries like Syria, the bomb-now-ask-questions-later approach exacerbates the problems that come with lack of governance and infrastructure: the absence of opportunities, security, perhaps even hope. As a result, a small number of Syrians are turning to Islamic extremism, just as a minority of Western citizens are.
Peter Frankopan, a historian at the University of Oxford who specializes in relations between Christianity and Islam, argues that foreign intervention has been a complete failure throughout the Middle East. "The current attempt to get rid of ISIS comes with no consideration about what life in Syria and Iraq might be like afterwards. There's no thought whatsoever about what society should look like, or about how you actually get there," he explains. "When policy and military action is pursued out of anger, it's hard to see how that can help solve problems. In fact, it probably makes them worse, because it doesn't attack the root causes."
Like many other young Arabs, Al-Naib sees education and empowerment as paramount for combatting extremism and radicalization, as well as helping to develop countries like her own beyond the daily turmoil that citizens face. It was this belief that led her to specialize her postgrad studies on media and development in Syria, and become involved in a variety of work to build up social infrastructure there.
Alongside supporting medical NGOs, charities focused on food security, and volunteer rescue workers such as the White Helmets, Al-Naib has worked to develop citizen journalism and social media campaigns in Syria—areas that she believes can have a significant impact for her people. "In the 40 years of dictatorship before 2011, the public sphere wasn't functioning in Syria. The regime had done everything it could to stop people from exchanging ideas and having a healthy dialogue," she explains. "The media was the main tool of transmitting an image to the world, and it was used as a way for Syrians to talk to each other. Since the revolution, social media has, in a way, substituted for that by creating a virtual public sphere."
These tools have allowed normal Syrians to get their message out and offer insight into life in the country. This has become increasingly important as fewer and fewer foreign journalists are travelling to Syria due to security concerns. Training, protecting, and supporting citizen journalists and social media activists has become one of the few ways that the Syrian diaspora can ensure the international press is still covering their country's struggles, such as the work of Rami Abdul Rahman through his website Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Community and solutions-oriented work like this are taking place in other countries too. An organization called Young Arab Voices (YAV), jointly launched by the British Council and the Anna Lindh Foundation, is working to empower citizens across the Arab region through the medium of debate—another project that emphasizes the exchange of ideas and information, as well as rigorous thought and fresh perspectives.
Samar Samir Mezghanni, 27, is a Tunisian writer with two entries in the Guinness World Records—one as youngest writer in the world in 2000, and another as most prolific writer in the world in 2002. To date, she has published over 100 short stories and 14 children's books. In 2011, Mezghanni worked with YAV to establish Tunisia's very first debate programmes, which have remained the largest in the Arab region ever since.
"We wanted to channel and direct freedom of expression in a way that is formalized in a logical, tolerant and peaceful debate—where you can accept the difference of opinions, because if you are debating, you are confronted with different views than your own," she explains. "We wanted to build the capacity of young people to allow them to express ideas in a safe environment and with critical thinking as an alternative to being radicalized, dogmatized, or expressing themselves in a violent way."
As well as offering a platform for freedom of expression, Tunisia's debate programme has been an important tool in the fight against extremism. "There have been some attempts, mostly governmental, to fight radicalization by violence, by arresting people, by banning activities, and by censorship. These have been inefficient and counter-productive," Mezghanni says. "It doesn't give people who might be attracted to extremism an alternative platform. It gives them an excuse or a narrative to build their arguments. They use the fact that they are facing violence, oppression and censorship as a justification for violent actions. Debate has proven to be a very effective way of empowering citizens and preventing radicalization."
Frankopan believes that more emphasis on these kinds of civil society structures is the key to meaningful social and political progress in countries like Syria and Tunisia. In turn, strengthened communities mean that extremists are unlikely to hold much sway over citizens. "The point of a debate club is not that one side wins. Rather, it's that you're able to understand what the other person is saying," he says. "The way that human beings tend to relate to each other is when there are open discussions, where people of very different views are prepared to express and discuss them. The key part of the dialogue is that much underrated virtue of listening."
Saja Elgredly, 26, works and volunteers in the field of social development in Egypt, tackling some of the country's most widespread social problems through grassroots action. Her diverse projects have included educating disadvantaged children, spreading cultural awareness and educating women about their rights in Islam. Her most recent role was as project manager of Volunteers Can, an organization responsible for training 1,000 volunteers and 200 NGOs in ten governorates across the country. She believes that on-the-ground work within communities is a vital tool for social progress.
"Extremism exists in Egypt and I've worked on this quite a bit. The first problem is lack of proper understanding of the religion. We have taught many people to read for themselves which helps to address this," she explains. "The second problem is mixing religion with culture. For example, the honor crime has been linked with Islam for a long time here, but if you look back at it, it's a cultural thing which has nothing to do with Islam. I believe these are the two basic problems that lead people to extremism."
Elgredly's work emphasizes empowerment and education in the same way as citizen journalism and debate clubs, and she believes that offering people the tools to change their own lives for the better is an incredibly effective way of pursuing social goals—much more so than international projects with limited funding and narrow aims. "People's grassroots efforts are effective because they're trying to solve their own problems. They wake up to the same problems every day, so they won't stop until it's done. It's not just a to-do list or a target number," she says. "This is why empowering people within their communities is so meaningful. Domestic and grassroots work is essential, and it's very effective. A combination of good governance and community work is needed though, especially in developing countries like my own."
As governments scramble to cobble together a coherent foreign policy in the Middle East, not to mention a solid plan to combat extremism at home and abroad, they continue to dismiss and undermine the efforts of local communities to achieve real social and democratic progress. Radicalization can be prevented—or at least minimized—and countries developed through empowering people and offering positive alternatives. It's a battle that can be won a person at a time.