By Nelson Graves
The Islamic State movement will probably be destroyed militarily in the next year, but the roots of the radical group will survive unless Arab regimes promote social justice and economic growth.
That was one of the key messages that Rami Khouri, an expert on the Middle East, delivered to students and faculty in News-Decoder’s pilot program during a recent online seminar.
“ISIS is a small movement of thugs and criminals,” Khouri, an author and academic who lives in Beirut, said during the hour-long webinar on September 28, referring to Islamic State by its initials.
“In the next nine months we will not have ISIS as a structure and a movement that controls territory. By next year this time ISIS probably won’t exist in that form,” said Khouri, adding: “The problem is that that’s not the real challenge.”
Tens of millions of Arabs silently support what Islamic State militants are doing in Syria and Iraq, said Khouri, who is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard.
“That’s not because ISIS is so great. It’s because the conditions of people’s lives have become so difficult that they grab, they reach out and they find ISIS as a source of help to them that can improve their lives.”
Needed: Good governance, growth, social justice
Joining Khouri on camera during the webinar were students from King’s Academy in Jordan, which has accepted a large number of refugees from war-torn Syria. The students were led by Sami Samakie, a News-Decoder student ambassador who has lived most of his life in Aleppo, Syria.
Listing reasons why many Arabs are attracted to ISIS despite its barbaric practices, Khouri said many people feel desperate, marginalized and hopeless. “ISIS gives them a sense of empowerment, of power, of purpose in life, of creating a society that they see ideally as a perfect, just Islamic society.”
Some ISIS recruits have no money to feed their children, whereas ISIS offers them $400 a month to join their force, spread between Syria and Iraq, he said.
How can ISIS’s opponents eradicate the roots of the problem, then?
“Too much emphasis is placed on things like, we need to promote moderate Islam, we need to counter the narrative of ISIS on Twitter. Those are all symptoms,” said Khouri.
The challenge, he said, is to understand the underlying social, economic, political, historical, ideological and environmental forces behind ISIS’ strength.
“The longer-term strategy is really hard, it takes a long time, but it’s doable. It’s to promote better governance, economic growth, social equity, social justice. These are things that are deeply entrenched in Arab-Islamic values and society.”
Advice to the U.S.: Practice what you preach
Likewise, the single biggest challenge for all Arab governments is to promote civic participation and accountability.
“The seeds of participation and accountability are deeply embedded in Arab culture, in Islamic culture, in Middle Eastern tribal culture,” said Khouri, who writes an internationally syndicated political column, and is a columnist and editor at large for The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
“So our challenge in the Arab world is to enhance those mechanisms of participation by ordinary citizens, which means freedom of speech, the ability to speak out openly and honestly and responsibly and accurately, as well as participation.”
But it will take time, he said, noting that in the Western world, five centuries passed between the Magna Carta and the French Revolution.
Khouri said the United States has a special role to play in the Middle East, including in Arab-Israeli relations, but it needs to “practice what it preaches.”
“The United States can’t go around zapping people and killing them with drones anywhere it wants in the world and saying, ‘Well, we have the right to do this,'” he said.
Calling last year’s agreement with Iran limiting its nuclear program “a great example of how to tackle tough issues,” Khouri said Washington should try to harness a similar international coalition to work for peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Asked by students at King’s Academy what message they could give to other young people, Khouri said: “The big message that you should deliver is that you are citizens who have rights and responsibilities, and you are eager and willing to exercise both of those things.”