ATbar Countering extremism and radicalization: a fight for values

Countering extremism and radicalization: a fight for values

14/09/2016 | by Terzi, Giulio (Amb.)  

It is an honour to address this distinguished audience on extremism and radicalization: a subject which for a very long time should have been considered of the highest ‎importance for our public opinions, political and cultural establishments, media and communication specialists. It was instead confined, until quite recently to the realm of  counterterrorism and social science.

I. Countering extremism and radicalization in our  relations with the Muslim World

Extremism and radicalization need to be put at the center of a Political and Cultural vision, as the most critical ‎playground . Over the last four decades, three major events have reshaped scenarios and enhanced radical forces in the Muslim world. In each one of them ‎these forces have tried to subvert universal values on which the Rule of Law and the international order has been built. But West reactions did lack political will and leadership.

Good reasons were obviously there to avoid ideological disputes. East - West confrontation was the true concern during the '70's and the '80's; EU integration the mostimportant topic in the '90's; EU enlargement the priority at the turn of the century; and the post - Lehman crises still remain for many Europeans a bigger obsession than
the Islamic State.

Yet some visionaries like the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci perfectly understood the threat the Iranian Islamic Revolution posed to Western societies. A tidal wave of "political Islam" was launched for the first time in contemporary History against our societies, traditions and culture. Beginning with the Iranian Revolution, while the West and especially Europe were focused on other priorities‎ ,three historic events have shaken the Muslim world:

1) Ayatollah Khomeini return to Teheran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979;
2) Osama Bin Laden Appeal in 1998 to all muslims for the "Global Jihad against the Crusaders" and for re- founding the Caliphate;
3) the emergence, around 2006, of a generalized Sunni - Shia confrontation after the collapse of Iraqi's statehood and the execution of Saddam Hussein brought about the enourmous empowerment of the Iranian regime and its Shia proxies in Iraq,  Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and other Muslim countries‎.

Only two years ago the West and its allies were drawn into the war against an Islamic State whose birth was‎ the result of Assad's savage repression, encouraged and supported by Teheran, against an initially unarmed opposition. The Islamic State took also advantage from two other exceptionally favourable circumstances:
A) first, the global struggle between Sunni and Shia millenarism;
B) second, the positive response from many Muslim radicals to the Osama bin Laden's Legacy: by spreading  in many different forms a Jihad against the "Crusaders" and the expectation of a Caliphate swhich could stretch from Middle East to Europe.

If marks could be given to political  strategies of North Atlantic and European countries in the three different situations just mentioned - Iran 1979, Bin Laden's 1998, Iraq 2006 with its 2014 off-spring of the Islamic State -‎ the marks would be quite low as far as political vision is concerned. Better marks may get, from a strictly military
standpoint,  operations against Al-Qaeda, neutralization or containment of other terrorist organizations, and military actions against the Islamic State. Yet a disappointing note should be made on the political objectives: has there been a shared and firm political framework for the military engagement against the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq? Has there been any "vision" for Western democracies, on how to counter at a political and at a cultural level the enormous challenge that extremism and radicalization in the Muslim world, and among the Muslim communities in Europe, in America and elsewhere pose to peaceful citizens and to their democratic institutions?

II. The threat is increasingly coming from within the West 

It was said time and again that the 9/11 abomination changed the world dramatically as did the events which flowed from them. Jihadism and radicalization among Muslims has long been a real threat. Ending the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin's Wall marked the victory in a battle of values and ideas. In the long war that followed 9/11 the West ‎ not only did seem to lose the media war, but also the struggle to claim the moral high ground. In Afghanistan the military superiority was often outflanked by Taliban's propaganda. In Iraq, Iran's proxies, Shia militias, pro-Iran Governments, Sunni insurgents, all of them became engaged in attacks against‎ West's forces, in anti American demonstrations and hate propaganda.

 In more recent years, the Jihadist threat  has increasingly come from within‎ the West. Many Muslims in Europe have radicalized. Thousands of young people, often belonging to families integrated in the social fabric, or only recently converted to Islam, or even not particularly religious, have left their homes, unexpectedly, to fight against Assad and then to be sucked into the Islamic State. Others have been induced by Iranian propaganda also in Europe to join Shi'ite militias, Hzbollahs and their proxies. A minority, still in the thousands, has returned to wage Jihad in Europe. While others have radicalized after being smuggled into Europe by traffickers of migrants, or after having  converted to violent interpretations of Islam which are available options for revolutionaries of various  brands and convictions.

III. Policies of denial

The recent wave of attacks in Europe and the increasing number of casualties are changing the overall perception of security. Migration, Muslims radicalization and terrorism are perceived by the European public opinion, as increasingly interconnected. But many EU Governments say the opposite, and make every effort in denying the extent and the nature of the threat.The. American philosopher Michael Walzer said recently "I often meet people more concerned of being considered islamofobic, than willing to condemn Islamic terrorism". By confusing in such a way the political debate, European leaders do not help their own citizens in getting together, to reinforce their common will and identity. The Italian Government’s attitude is no exception.

Professor Giuseppe Laras, a very prominent figure in the Jewish Italian Community and highly respected leader in the religious and cultural dialogue taking place in my country  wrote in Corriere della Sera after  July’s Islamic terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and France the following lines:”…. A suicidal and stubbornly ideological policy
continues to deny that Islam has anything to do [with terrorism]. They keep on saying that there are other motives, such as social unease in the suburbs, plight of migrants, failures of integration policies, and so on. The true question we have to ask ourselves, after the French events, it is not wether they will happen in Italy as well, but when, where and how these events will happen. That raises a burning issue. First and foremost the real matter is that of the generally pitiful condition of our national, [collective] consciuosness. The soccer match of Euro2016 was enough to mitigate the shock and the sorrow for our Italian [brothers and sisters] killed in Bangladesh. We must furthemore consider the catastrophic reality of a [political] establishment who has not been formed to endure hardship and
commitment, especially when strategic wisdom and educated thinking are more needed. That applies, in general, to the catholic world with intellectuals who are dull-witted and confused by a naive pacifism and do-goodism … That applies to intellectuals who have abdicated their difficult and demanding role, while they prefer radical chic environments where they promote an appeasing and pliable Third Worldism… That applies to a political class which is missing personalities of depth and substance.”

There were  limits for PM Renzi's government in dealing with extremism and radicalization: to the extent that even the mere definition of threat coming from Islamic terrorism had become a problem . That was also evident with the failure to manage illegal immigration both at national and European level. The EU Commission repeatedly complained that Rome did allow  tens of thousands of migrants  entering the country and then traveling to other  European places without any identification or vetting procedure. According to some views , that became a bigger problem when the Italian Government did appeal for solidarity , migrants redistribution across Europe and common EU migration policies.

IV. UK and France experience

UK and France experiences in this matter are looked at, in my country, as extremely significant, given a higher share of Muslim population, considerable efforts made over the past half a century to integrate these communities, the depth of their relations with Muslim countries during and after the colonial era, and the engagement that both London
and Paris have shown in fighting terrorism and radicalization. The concern of being in the “crosshair” of Islamic Jihad has rapidly spread also to Italy. The huge immigration flow which has been welcomed for noble humanitarian reasons by the Italian Government is rapidly having an impact on demography, welfare, health care,housing, labour market, public order, and national budget in a country whose GDP has been totally flat for ten years and the public debt still
increasing, above 134%.

Almost half a million illegal immigrants‎, a large share of which from Muslim countries, has entered Italy over the last three years, with increasingly higher numbers of unaccompanied children, and single young men. Altough the total numbers of foreign residents and illegal immigrants are in Italy around 10% of the total population, the share
of Muslims is growing  more rapidly than  immigrants from non Muslim countries. These trends may bring the Italian situation closer to those experienced by UK and France faster then many seem to believe and try to sell to the public opinion.

With its three million Muslims, Great Britail became the Centre for the most extreme of Jihadist exiles and extremist preachers. As Paul Moorcraft describes in his last book,the Jihadist Threat, "often the preachers and their families ‎were subsidize by the State.When some were eventually brought to trial it would cost an extra few millions.Because of human rights legislation... these preachers could rarely be reported, except after years of police,MI5 and legal
efforts.A notorious example was the former Imam of London finsbury Paek Mosque,Abu Hamza, to whom. Mohamed Emwazi,better known as the head-chopping “Jihadi John”, was connected."

As far as France is concerned, I believe that very few accounts as the one given in 2012 by Gilles Kepel in hisbook " Quatre -vingt- treize" explain the social end cultural environment where extremism and radicalization‎ has flourished, in presence of ineffective and even complicit attitudies that have characterized the political spectrum. Kepel explaines the tools used, especially since the appearance of Tarik Ramadan on the cultural and academic stage in
France and in Europe, by a well organized political Islam in "extending the domain of Halal", in launching successful initiatives aimed at political objectives, in finding every possible Trojan horse to ‎bring political islam issues more and more into a public, most of the time acrimonious debate, such as the one on “islamophobia”. It is a wide front of influence the one described by Professor Kepel. A front where salafist's role and numbers are gaining visible ground. At the same time, compromises on values, underevaluation of the risks not only for the French national security, but also for the very existance of liberal principles and the Rule of Law were extremely clear already  when Keppel research was written,three years before the horrors of Charlie Hebdo and HyperKasher.

V. The situation in Italy - Sunni and  Shi’ite radicalization

An Italian researcher, Michele Groppi, who is studying extremism and radicalization among Muslim communities, wrote in the Jerusalem Post:”Even Italy, a country that has historically been fairly immune to the phenomenon, is now starting to realize the threat stemming from the radicalization of its Muslim community. Yet, this topic remains a taboo for most Italians. Sadly, a certain degree of indifference, ignorance, and even reluctance on the part of both the Italian public and the political elite have hindered a much needed debate on the issue.

A report that Mr. Groppi wrote as a student here, at the Inter Disciplinary Center, shows that part of the Muslim communities are undergoing a process of radicalization, unavoidably posing serious concerns for the Italian national security. Often radicalism remains at the rhetorical level, but in other instances it clashes with the democratic fabric of society, integration and coexistence. Also in Italy, for years, imams have preached anti-Western sentiment, religious intolerance and even support for violence and terrorism; a number of mosques have been engaged in recruitment and funding of Islamic terrorism; and jihadist have left Italy to go to Syria.

As in other European countries, also in Italy anti-Semitism is the most troubling indicator that radicalization is rising among Muslim communities. For example, five out of the six main Shi’ite organizations have clearly showed an anti-Semitic ideology. Luigi Ammar de Martino, one of the most influential Shi’ite leaders in Italy, has even called for active struggle against Israel. In the Sunni world, Hazma Piccardo and Adel Smith, leaders of two renowned Koranic schools in Italy, and a number of imams have all promoted hatred against Jews and Israel. Likewise, an organization connected to an Islamic center in southern Italy had its members teaching children admiration for Hitler because “if he had burned them all, the world would be a much better place.” Anti Semitism as a motivation of terrorist attacks in Italy goes back to 2003, when a Palestinian, Khatib Shafiq, blew himself up in front of the Modena synagogue in 2003. A few years later, Mohammed Jarmoune, a well-integrated young Moroccan raised in Italy, was arrested for planning attacks on a synagogue in Milan. Last year a French-Tunisian citizen involved in the Hyper Kasher massacre in Paris was arrested in Ancona.

VI. The growing threats from Iran

Another aspect in the vast environment of radicalization – dangerously overlooked by Italian political environment, media, and business - is Iran’s unabated proselytism and support to terrorist activities, at a juncture when expectations for a “reformist Rouhani Presidency” and for market opportunities are running incredibly high in Europe and especially in Italy. Iran is a country ruled by a theocracy that plays a destructive role in all major wars in the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. The regime and its proxies are responsible for killing hundreds of American and European in Lebanon, East africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran’s murderous activities have beeen known for years, but have been kept under a lid of silence and obfuscation.A great amount of critical information – kept almost entirely secret -concerning Iran and al Quaeda was found in Abbottobad when Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces; a lot of evidence was found in Iraq by units investigating terrorist attacks which had killed and maimed western soldiers.

Tehran is known – as recently reiterated by the yearly report on global terrorism published by the US Department of State - as the main state sponsor of terrorism across the globe, as well as being one of the originators of modern extremist Islam. And despite the nuclear agreement with the international community, Iran continues its provocative gestures toward the Western world, for instance by test-firing its ballistic missiles. Iran's promotion of its brand of Islam across the Middle East has been obvious for decades. But such activities in Europe have largely managed to fly under the radar. Iran’s Balkan - centered efforts have come under scrutiny in recent years, leading to the arrest last July of an Iranian cleric in Kosovo on charges of financing terrorism and money laundering. Pristina authorities claimed that Hasan Azari Bejandi was responsible for five Shi'ite organizations linked to Tehran. He is the most high-profile Iranian cleric charged there, potentially cutting off an important avenue of influence for Tehran in Europe, where charities tied to Iran also operate in Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. These charities launched their activities in Kosovo soon after the 1999 war bringing with them a conservative brand of Shi'ite Islam. They spread anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda in the effort to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution to muslim communities in Europe.

The horrors perpetrated by ISIS, captured on camera and propagated through social media, are distracting the West from the threats posed by the Iran and its proxies. A telling example of these threats were the appeals launched by the Iranian regime's network of groups in UK that British Shi'ites join the jihad against Sunni Islamist forces in Iraq.

The Ahlul Bayt Islamic Mission [AIM], one of the most prominent Shi'ite organizations in Britain, published on its website an "Urgent Call," the following piece: "We must be ready to sacrifice, leave everything behind us and run for the defense of truth and its supporters, representatives, and relics. The Jihad ul Asghar (minor jihad) must also be accompanied by Jihad ul Akbar (bigger jihad) so that we prepare ourselves spiritually and deserve the honor of defending Islam. Every man must be ready to join the armed forces and every woman must urge the male members of her family to go seek this noble cause and do anything she can to serve this cause … May Allah enable us to put our words into actions and to defend Islam and its principles till our last breathe and drop of blood!" It appears that some British Shi'ites have been willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for Iranian-backed groups against ISIS and other Sunni Islamist groups.

Ahlul Bayt Islamic Mission (AIM) is a privately-funded group based in London and is the UK branch of the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly, an Iranian Shi'ite clerical organization with global outreach. The Ahlul Bayt World Assembly is managed by Muhammad Hassan Akhtari, a leading Iranian cleric and one of the founders of the Hezbollah. According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Ahlul Bayt's "activities are directed by the office of the Supreme Leader Khamenei". Speakers at events organized by AIM regularly include officials tied to the Iranian regime, such us Mohammad Ali Shomali, a prominent Shi'ite cleric who runs the Department of Religions at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Iran. Senior AIM officials, meanwhile, include Samir Al-Haidari, who also works for the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. Al-Haidari, in an interview with an Iranian regime website, voiced support for Khomeini's fatwa ordering the murder of the author Salman Rushdie, stating that Khomeini "courageously and bravely defended Islam." Besides fighting a fierce struggle with Saudi Arabia to have the upper hand in the whole region , politically and militarly, the Iranian regime is even more encouraged - after the JCPOA – in its ambitions to become the leading guide for all Muslims of the world, and is fuelling many fires between Sunnis and Shi’ite factions. Iran’s influence among European muslims has been growing for years, and even more so now. Teheran’ money supports: Islamic centers of Shi’ite denomination; some of the largest mosques in the Western world, as those in Copenaghen and Helsinki; wealthy Foundations as the Alhul Bayt Foundation; it promotes also in Europe anti semitic events such as the Al Quds Days in London and Berlin. As far as Italy is concerned the Iranian regime can rely upon an organization –Assadakah - very active in promoting Teheran positions and interests in the Syrian war, in Lebanon, Yemen, close to Hezbollah whose officials have been invited to its events and publications. Assadakah director is Raimondo Schiavone, active for years in pro Iranian and hatred propaganda, anti West, anti Usa, anti Israel disinformation. Furthermore, Teheran’s views are promoted in Italy through a network of radios, publications, social media and web sites. Radio IRIB and Radio Islam are just two examples.

VII. Counter Extremism Project: US and European Surveys

The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) is a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies. Led by a renowned group of former world leaders and diplomats it combats extremism by pressuring financial and material support networks; countering the narrative of extremists and their online recruitment; and advocating for smart laws, policies, and regulations. CEP authored an impressive research on American and European perceptions of international security in the immediate aftermath of the atrocius killings od James Foley and Steven Sotloff‎. CEP's Surveys compare the situation of June, 2014, just before those atrocities, with the response given in September 2014, right after the Islamic States put on Internet the horrifying pictures of its latest crimes.

I am underlining the conclusions of that important work because it shows how much Western Governments and media have minimized the growing threat from Islamic radical forces. As of June 2014, according to the CEP's Report, economic security and security issues were the most important issues for Americans and Europeans.However the proportion mentioning domestic security issues or foreign policy issues had dramatically grown immediately after June. Only in two months, until Sptember 2014, economic priorities decreased by 6%,domestic security like extremism and terrorism more than doubled,to 9%, ma and those when o mentioned foreign policy went from 1% to 6%.

The question "how likely is it in your opinion that Islamist extremism will present a serious threat to our national security over the next ten years",did get the following answers: * in UK those who said “very likely” went up from 42% in June to 51% in September. In Spain from 22% to 28%. In France from 42% to 43%, already a signal of alarm preceding the 2015 wave of terror began with Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Kasher, and continued until Nice and the Rouen. In Germany those who answered “very likely” grew from 27% to 34%, in the Netherlands from 23% to 32%, in Sweden from 18% to 26%‎; * from June to September 2015 Islamic extremist movements became for 56% of those interviewed the “greatest threat to the National security of the Country”: a 15% increase in only three months; *‎ fighting Islamist extremism was seen, over the same period, as a growing priority in UK, Spain,Germany, Nethrlands, Sweden. Training and funding terrorist in foreign countries, cultivation of homegrown terrorists threats by the radicalization of Muslims and promoting intolerance towards other religions were seen as the highest risks to national security. For the UK, the infiltration of the school system by extremists Islamic teaching was also considered a serious risk. In conclusion, CEP's Report did clearly anticipate since September 2014 that‎ Islamic extremism was seen as the greatest threat to national security in the U.S. and in Europe. That perception doubled in the U.S. from 13% to 26%.

VIII. A fight for values

A "fight for values" our countries is facing should be fully understood by Governments and citizens , because the Islamic fundamentalist are trying to impose upon us a war of religion. A war that our societies abhor and refuse. In order to win , an extraordinary push for democracy and the implementation of the Rule of Law must take place . Liberal democracies seem to have lost their appeal, because they no longer inspire, as it happened at the turn of last century, admiration or emulation.‎ Americans and Europeans appear to be less confident in their national project; they do not seem to trust their institutions, or to have faith in their common destiny. David Brooks has recently written in the New York Times about “a crisis of national purpose… that is about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Anger and pessimism are more fundamental that anything that can be explained by GDP statistics”.

In confronting a war waged against liberal democracies by a radical Islam, our nations must coalesce again. They have to be determined in expressing their national identity. They must assert their fundamental values, implement all State laws equally, with undeterred firmness when it is needed. During the '90s, at the end of the Cold War, democracy flourished as never before. Over the last fifteen years however, seismic upheavals in the muslim world and in the European landscape, did erode that pattern. Democracy broke down in 27 countries. Some of them were States, like Russia, with important international responsibilities, being Permanent members of the Security Council. But also others took a turn for the worse. Freedom House has documented worldvide contractions of political liberties, collapse of the Rule of Law under the weight of corruption, setbacks in authoritarian states practising censorship, arbitrary arrests, unacceptable restrictions to NGO's. Since 2012 more than 90 laws have been adopted to restrict freedom of association and assembly.

The Rule of Law must be sought, reaffirmed, and implemented as the most vital asset for the international community. Democracies are less violent toward their own citizens, more protective of human rights, dont go to war with one another, are open to market economies, they respect more then other political systems social and economic rights of their citizens, they are more likely then others to generate science and innovation, sustainable development, prosperity, higher life expectancy, lower levels of infant and maternal mortality.Fighting for our values in the war against extremism and radicalization needs that we become confident of a national project, and that our Istitutions become trustworthy. We cannot reduce this vast challenge to a materialistic cause.Are muslim terrorist motivated mainly by lack of economic opportunities? Are families failing and marriages decreasing just because of joblessness? We seem constantly surprised by crises which are determined by cultural ‎threats to our identity much more than by materialistic considerations.

In order to counter extremism and radicalization, to win the fight against Islamic fundame‎ntalism, to gain the hearts and minds of Muslims we must restore all citizens confidence in liberal democracy. Relativism of values and indifference may be fashionable in easier times. It is surely self defeating when under attack. It is high time to re - engage on the basis of what Freedom and Democracy mean for us and our children.