Ending terror needs a shift in political thinking

It took a long time to get to this dangerous point, and it will take a while to get beyond it.

    A visitor writes a message in chalk at a memorial at Place de la Bourse in Brussels  [Getty]
    A visitor writes a message in chalk at a memorial at Place de la Bourse in Brussels [Getty]

    Another terrible terror attack has happened; it follows Istanbul and less reported events in Baghdad, Libya and elsewhere. Their frequency and regularity tell us this that is a global phenomenon, and people are scared, frustrated and fed up, as witnessed by the Facebook posts of "je suis sick of this s**t". Many are naturally asking what needs to be done.

    Everyone wants quick answers or a silver bullet, but the tough news is that these may simply not exist. Security measures will continue, and they can and have done much to prevent other acts of terror. However, as we all know, if they succeed hundreds of times but fail only once, the terrorists win.

    Why was Brussels attacked?

    There are leaders in Europe, the United States and elsewhere who believe the answer is to double down on security, and on whole target populations.

    But tougher security measures risk alienating many more than they  deter, including many who are innocent today, but who will not be once they are made victims of blind prejudice. This can only lead to further violence and a destructive battle of testosterone.

    No swift answers

    It took a long time to reach this dangerous point, and it will take a while to get beyond it. This is because extremism, along with many other political ailments, involves commitments to mental states, ideologies that are not easily shifted.

    READ MORE: ISIL and the misuse of the imagination

    The reality, which many simply don't want to hear, is that there are no swift answers and this is a long-term battle, and we might as well get used to the idea. The more important question lies in which direction we now go.

    The rub that people don't want to consider is that violent extremists think that they are acting towards a perceived good.


    The beginnings of an answer lie in what UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday: "The tragedy in Brussels ... reminds us that ... we have no time to lose ... We need to extinguish the fire of war in Syria ... to fight terrorism, the best formula is to find a solution for political transition in Syria."

    A political transition - a more stable Syria - is a necessary framework but it is only a beginning. Even then, new ways of operating politically will also be needed.

    The rub that people don't want to consider is that violent extremists think that they are acting towards a perceived good. This may sound like a harsh statement given the violence but, believe it or not, like many other extreme idealists, they believe that the breakdown of order is necessary to build up another - in their mind, more positive - dream. It is for this reason that they commit these acts.

    Through the prism and logic of their ideology, they are achieving something virtuous. The same can be said of the pursuit of any ideology, even if, in most cases, this does not lead to dramatic and random acts of violence.

    Powerful and basic motivations

    Whatever political framework is set up in a future Syria, indeed anywhere, we will have to take this hard fact into consideration: Humans are driven by powerful and basic motivations, material and emotional. If their society does not provide them with natural and constructive paths to meeting those needs, they will pursue them in other ways, sometimes nefarious, destructive or irrational.

    Syrian children play outside a tent at the Greek-Macedonian border station of Idomeni, Greece [Al Jazeera]

    If a manipulator convinces people to follow his or her Pied-Piper path to achieve those needs, they will follow him or her to the ends of the earth, and the end of history.

    You can take this basic law of life to the bank. This is the elephant in the room, and the source of many of our troubles from the rise of Donald Trump to the troubles with ISIL (also known as ISIS).

    A future Syria will have to be built to meet not only people's rights, but also their basic needs. This is a shift in political thinking, but a required one. A sense of legitimacy, autonomy, belonging, and intimacy are among these crucial human needs. We thrive and calm down if they are met: All hell is to pay if they are not, or if they are thwarted.

    Above all, however, we need to pay attention to our powerful need for meaning and purpose in life. Extremists do a good job of convincing many, and especially the impressionable young seeking excitement and belonging, that they can have that need met through deeply ideological and idealistic groups.

    READ MORE: The future of Europe after the Brussels attacks

    Once committed, it is very difficult to escape from the inner logic of this system.

    A new Syria, or, for that matter, new banlieues in France and Belgium, will need to address these basic needs of young men, create new useful and interesting paths for them, otherwise they will join whatever gang, group or activity that does.

    If young Muslim French men and women, or non-Muslim for that matter, believe that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group offers an exciting and meaningful project, shocking as it is, they will join it.

    What are the answers? A new Syria will have to treat its citizens with respect, not just through rights, but through the daily and organic workings of government and of society, by avoiding daily oppression, abuse and corruption, not just righting them once they occur. Only by so doing will the world avoid massive pools of new recruits for ISIL.

    Disenfranchised youth

    Disenfranchised youth in France and Belgium and elsewhere will need to be involved in projects that are meaningful and exciting to them, and yet constructive. As an example, why not a global peace corps where these very youth work to combat extremism at the community level in other societies?

    Disenfranchised youth in France and Belgium and elsewhere will need to be involved in projects that are meaningful and exciting to them, and yet constructive.


    In international relations, I often meet well-educated, often elite, young people seeking employment but unable to find an entry point. The system is not set up to work with the incredible amount of talent out there, and instead cycles vested interests round and round.

    There are armies of them, and we need find a way to pay them. What about involving the disenfranchised in such efforts? There is much meaning and excitement in working internationally, and I suspect the disenfranchised from France will better understand the disenfranchised in Syria than anyone else.

    This is all a long-term project, a realignment of our priorities away from an excessive materialism and its attendant greed, back on to our basic human needs, away from ideological fixations, whether religious, national or intellectual, to the basic functional politics that are at the same time, critically, not boring.

    There is much work ahead to right our societies, to rebuild Syria. It is a long-term process, but we might as well bite the bullet and get at it, at the basic human level where we are all, including the terrorists, driven. We need to work at the bedrock level of motivations and the pathways for their fulfilment, not just at the froth of media-driven politics.

    There isn't really much choice because the other avenues available are partial or will not work. We can also take comfort that, like the fable of the tortoise and the hare, in the long run it is the tortoise that wins.

    John Bell is director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as a political adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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