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mardi 1 avril 2014

Thoughts about ideology and economy

Veteran jouralist Masood Farivar has an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times, reflecting on foreign fighters in  Syria. Farivar explains that the motives of foreign fights kept them apart from the Afghans fighting agains the Soviets.
Their foreign tongues, their strange garb and mien and, above all, their reasons for fighting kept them apart. Their novice’s clumsiness drew giggles; their religious dogmatism baffled us. And their suicidal embrace of martyrdom caused revulsion.
He then examines the motivations some fighters have, but while acknowledging they may be complex, he does not find them to pose a threat to the US. 

This is interesting to hear. There's been a lot of talk about the threat posed by returning fighters, while has struck me as overblown. Or, that it's the wrong way to look at the issue.

Farivar dismisses the idea of typing foreign fighters, yet it does have some utility.
In an attempt to understand the foreign fighters, some Western experts have crafted caricatures — the revenge-seeker, the status-seeker, the identity-seeker and so on — but the legion of fighters with varied and often overlapping motives defy easy stereotypes.
Certainly, real people will not fit nicely into one of these profiles, but understanding the issue through this lens offers some insight. In Anthropology, it is important to differentiate between individual change, often linked to the life cycle,  and larger, cultural change. So, we can observe that the phenomenon of men (and women) going abroad to fight for a cause is nothing new. A good example is the Spanish Civil War, which attracted soldiers worldwide. A similar comparison can also be made with the wave of leftist guerrilla violence throughout Europe in the 1970s and 80s (Baader-Meinhof, Brigate Rosse, Action Directe). Jihadist groups can be viewed as the current manifestation, not necessarily a unique or different threat.

My argument is that the problem is not young people in search of meaning, but conditions that allow the general population  to sympathize with them. Thus focusing on returning fighters, or even on the threat of lone wolves, is not a particularly useful endeavor. Instead, if states are genuinely interested in cutting down on violence, their best course of action is to right the wrongs that most concern their populations.

Looking at the above examples, one may notice that both coincide with periods of economic turmoil (the Great Depression, Oil Crisis/stagflation). I don't wish to reduce a complex situation to a numbers game, but as Bill Clinton famously said "It's the economy, stupid." Thus, when people suffer economically and concerned about inequality, this kind of movement seems more attractive. 

And here's why Farivar's article is relevant to this blog's theme. Many commentators have speculated on the mayhem that returning fighters could cause in the Maghreb countries. In Tunisia especially, where the population is less used to this kind of violence, tensions run high. But I maintain that the most serious problems in Tunisia are not religious or political, but economic. Similar arguments could be made relative to the inequalities in Morocco. I'm not sure if the same can be said for Algeria, and would welcome feedback.

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