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Why Do People Become Islamic Extremists?

Contrary to what some may believe, the majority of Islamic extremists don’t come from improvised or uneducated backgrounds. Instead, they tend to be well educated Muslims from the middle class.

This is pretty much what Haroon Ullah, a senior U.S. State Department adviser and a foreign policy professor at Georgetown University, found after he lived in Pakistan.

The source of terrorism he says is found in the middle class. “These are people who are well-fed and well-read,” says Ullah in the above video.

But they share a desire for order and meaning. Places like Pakistan are submerged in chaos and corruption. In such an environment, Islamists offer clear cut solutions to every problem.

“Another is a desire for change. The corrupt order, the narrative goes, must be overthrown, and that can only act through violent action. Again, it is Islamist who step in and promise to from a new types of government,” says Ullah.

“Then throw in a strong sense of victim-hood and—‘we are not responsible for the sorry state of our country… others have brought us down’—and you have a toxic brew that many will abide.”

He says these are the same easy answers that tyrants and demagogues—from Lenin, to Mussolini, to Hitler, to Osama bin Laden—have always offered their followers.

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Osama Bin Laden. (Marion Doss/Flickr)

So what can we do about extremism?

Ullah says the first thing we need to do is “get off the false narrative that this is first and first most not a poverty or education issue.”

The second is: “Take on the narrative on the extremists groups. They promise a better way, but what in fact do they deliver? The answer is always more death, more suffering and more poverty.”

“In other words, young people need to see these extremist groups for what they are, only then will recruiting numbers begin to go down,” says Ullah.

The third is: “The media has to stop treating the extremists as freedom fighters, a narrative that is all too common in places like Pakistan.”

(Image: pixabay.com)

The answer is always more death, more suffering, and more poverty. (Image: pixabay.com)

The fourth is: “Teachers and parents cannot assume that just because they reject religious extremism that their children and students will to.”

Middle class parents and teachers have to be vigilant, and instill moderate and pluralist values into their children.

The fifth point: “Politicians have to stop blaming their country’s problems on the West and confront the need to confront the endemic corruption that destroys countries like Pakistan from the inside.”

The sixth point—which Ullah thinks is the most important—is that Islamic religious leaders have to stop looking the other way or worse by glorifying so-called martyrs. He adds that the extremists kill innocent people, most of whom are Muslims as well.

“Muslim leaders must promise these eternal damnation, not some twisted heavenly bliss,” he says.

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Insurgent’s favorite weapon: Russian Kalashnikov AK-47. (Jürg Vollmer/Flickr)

The people of Pakistan and other Muslim majority regions have real grievances, but extremism only makes things worse.

“Always and everywhere,” says Ullah. “It is not poverty and misery that creates religious extremism, but religious extremism creates poverty and misery and death.”

Ordinary Pakistanis

Below is a 27 minute documentary that focuses on the struggle of ordinary Pakistanis against terrorism. The film is a personal essay, seen through the eyes of the young filmmaker who serves as the narrator/storyteller as she tries to explain to the audience the complex nature of fighting terrorism in Pakistan, and the tremendous courage required to stand up against the enemies from within.

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