I do not envy President Obama’s role, given the legacy he was left with—a legacy of just how disastrous short-term and arrogant thinking can be, from the west invading Iraq. I was very against the Iraq war and, sadly, my preconceptions then, outside this place, can be testified to now. The ongoing role of America and the middle east’s lack of trust in that country will be a challenge that we must all meet. I also pay tribute to the work of John Kerry in beginning to forge some kind of relationship there, which is extremely difficult.
Some of the most sophisticated understanding of extremism that I have come across was at the UAE Hedayah centre, which is dedicated to examining extremism and its causes. Hedayah has deconstructed several political common misconceptions: first, that extremism is simply born of poverty—it is not; it is about much more than only poverty. To equate ending extremism with simply ending poverty is misleading and dangerous.
After all, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian academic who inspired the takfiri thinking of al-Qaeda, was far from poor. I recommend anyone interested in the region and the birth of extremism to read him. His life and writings, from an early autobiography, “A Child from the Village”, to his later, explosive and famous book, “Milestones”, show that he felt isolated. A telling passage describes, in third person, his response to an event engraved on his adult consciousness. As a young boy, he spent just a day in a less progressive school than his usual one. He wrote, referring to himself:
“Our child’s soul was filled with repugnance at everything that surrounded him. He felt bitter, abject loneliness.”
Qutb’s response? To become, at age six, in his own words, a “Missionary” in what he calls his progressive school’s “struggle” against the less sophisticated school. That isolated and bitter, rather pampered and spoilt, primary school pupil later went as a student to America, where he felt even more isolated and bitter, and returned with a new struggle—as an Islamic extremist missionary. He attempted to execute Egypt’s president, whom he saw as a traitor to Islam, was imprisoned and executed by Nasser in 1966 and has become a celebrated martyr of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sayyid Qutb has been credited as the creator of takfiri Islam, which provides the convenient clause that if someone—even a fellow Muslim—does not think in the same way, they are no Muslim and can be killed. The story of that privileged man illustrates well the simple point made by the UAE Hedayah anti-extremism unit that it is not all about poverty. Those who join extremist groups seek something that is not so different from that sought by any human being: identity, community and purpose. The mission, therefore, is how to provide something more attractive than Daesh that meets the needs of disaffected—often young—people. A way out of poverty is doubtless part of that, but we are completely wrong if we think that is the simple answer.