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MERI Forum 2018, P4: The EU in the Middle East

Panel – 4: EU in the Middle East: Responsive State-Building to Prevent Violent Extremism

  • Ramon Blecua, European Union’s Ambassador to Iraq
  • Steven Blockmans, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels
  • Tine Gade, Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of the International Affairs
  • Kamaran Mohammed, Research Fellow, MERI
  • Morten Boas, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (Chair)

In his opening remarks, Morten Boas noted the difficulties associated with preventing radicalization and violent extremism, especially in areas where statehood and state’s control are weak or limited, and where governance is dysfunctional. According to Boas, foreign countries in general can assist Middle Eastern states to properly develop and implement their internal institutions, but they cannot substitute these states in their own state-building process. In terms of radicalization and violent extremism, the main goal is to understand why these phenomena take place. Boas underlined that it is not just a matter of religious factors or reasons, but also economic (unemployment), social (disempowerment and exclusion), and environmental ones, among others. He stressed the need for more focus on local knowledge and the identification of conflicts’ root causes, through an up-take of experiences from the field based on a bottom-up approach, rather than adopting a detached strategy based on abstract frameworks and policies developed in Brussels.

Also, he contended, there should be more balance between narrow security measures, and development-oriented ones, broadening the perspective of the intervention and making the latter the priority. He concluded by noting that the current context of socio-political fragmentation in most of MENA countries, caused by the lack of a sound agreement on the composition of the polity, is the main obstacle towards an effective prevention of violent extremism.

Ambassador Ramon Blecua acknowledged that Europe’s engagement in Iraq came from the realization that security does not start at home, but rather from outside the borders. However, EU roles and objectives have changed with time. Initially, EU’s objective included conflict resolution and crisis management, based on the realization that the world has become more dangerous, divided and less predictable. The EU has its own instruments and policies to achieve such objectives, and its strategy in Iraq has evolved from a reactive mode of confronting ISIS to a much more proactive and forward- looking mode.  Blecua referred to six categories of challenges in the region, namely: collapse of the post-colonial order; surfacing of tribal, ethnic and sectarian identities due to implosion of state institutions; Shiite awakening; Sunni frustration and anger for feeling they are at the receiving end of regional and international order; Kurdish demand for more political empowerment; and risk of wider regional confrontations (as conflicts now, such as in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, etc are interlinked).  Finally, Beluca expressed his optimism for Iraq, as he argued that the country has moved from being the source of evil in the region towards becoming a model through facing the mentioned challenges, defusing conflict and finding ways of cooperative engagement.

Steven Blockmans argued that currently, while violent extremism affects the local communities, it also sends negative shockwaves internationally, and the borders between internal and external security has been blurred. Foreign fighters, including battle-hardened Europeans are one aspect of this problem. Hence, the EU has its own objectives in countering violent extremism externally. That is while the EU as an international organization above and beyond the member states only has a supporting role. Indeed, the EU is very efficient in internal security and counter terrorism and has strong coordination mechanisms and networks, but less so externally. The four external objectives of the EU are: (i) better understanding and tackling the root causes of violent extremism; (ii) capacity building of state, sub-state and non-state actors; (iii) strengthening vulnerable communities by establishing resilience; (iv) enhancing preventive and counter violence capabilities by emboldening civil society and media.

In achieving the objectives, the EU has faced four challenges. These are, the problem of donor coordination, the issue of local ownership (the question of who is local, for instance Baghdad government or Erbil?), conflict sensitivity or insensitivity of the EU (based on internal dynamics), and the problem of EU falling out of synch with its own self-declared respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

Kamaran Palani suggested that both the Iraqi government and the KRG don’t make a clear distinction between terrorism and violent extremism. The same thing is true for countering terrorism, countering violent extremism and preventing violent extremism. Iraq is more focused on countering terrorism, and its approach is characterized by hard security/military approach, direct impact and short term gains.  Preliminary findings of study by MERI, based on a survey, interviews and literature review shows that there is a significant lack of trust in political and security institutions in Iraq.  This is demonstrated by the low turnout in the election. People feel excluded from the decision making process at both local & national levels.

Palani argues that without the community engagement, the threat of violent extremism cannot be addressed. He also highlighted:

  • The absence of a coherent strategy to combat violent extremism in both Erbil & Baghdad, and the gap between the policy world and the research-practitioner world, whereby the challenge lies in creating a language that both understand.
  • The challenge to conducting research in Iraq is that your findings will be very different when conducting research in Kurdistan, then when conducting research in Southern Iraq.
  • The need to foster understanding of the complex dynamics in the region, without oversimplifying it.
  • The difficulty of applying a human security or responsive state-building approach because of protracted conflict; as the country currently finds itself in the stabilisation phase.
  • The feeling of uncertainty that is paramount where extremists promise to provide certainty. People do not feel that the police is there to protect them. As a result, people start to take security matters into their own hands. Clearly, community policing can foster positive results, it can also become very problematic, particularly due to the division that is plaguing Iraq.
  • The importance of continuing interaction with various stakeholders involved. International organizations might be very valuable in linking those in government that are open to the human security agenda with those working in research, and with local communities.
  • The need to strengthen local governance, as well as to (re)create legitimate institutions at the state level.

Tine Gade explored the question of the role played by official Islamic institutions in preventing violent extremism in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Lebanon and what  lessons can be learnt for Iraq?” In Saudi Arabia official institutions are involved in this process in two ways: First, via rehabilitating the jailed Jihadists through using Wahabism and stressing on the need to obey the ruler. Second, through launching preventive programs for the public. Meanwhile, after the emergence of ISIS, new institutions such as the ‘Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology’ are established outside the official religious institutions.

Morocco is the third MENA country suffering from the problem of foreign fighters after Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. In Morocco as a part of anti-salafism policy, salafi jihadis were pardoned by a Royal Decree in 2015 and most of them established faith-based NGOs or Islamic schools, and became close to government. Moreover, Islamic curricula and institutions were reformed.

In Lebanon’s case, official Islamic institutions are weak and only apply domestic policy role. Radicalism in Lebanon has two main sources, salafism imported from outside and radicalism created as the result of political competition in the country. For instance, at times concessions are given to radical Salafi preachers for political reasons. It is suggested that more autonomy be granted to Dar Al-Fatwa to enhance its popular credibility.

Gade concluded that the lessons for Iraq are, (a) to grant more autonomy to the religious institutions, (b) the phenomenon of having the Islamic institutions under the indirect control of the Shiite government is not favorable, and (c) economic and political root-causes of ISIS must be addressed to have the Sunni scholars’ support against violent extremism.

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