Shown on a computer screen is a frame grab from a DVD prepared by Al-Sahab production showing al-Qaida's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahari delivering his address shown June 20, 2006.
"The Relationship between Culture and Security Has Changed"
Aspen Cultural Dialogue Group Inaugural Event, Keynote Address, Paris, France, 13 November 2008
November 13, 2008
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Three years ago, police raided a flat in West London and arrested one of the world's top jihadi internet operatives. Under the name Irhabi007 — terrorist 007 — he had posted videos of beheadings and other attacks on the official sites for the George Washington University and the state of Arkansas. He had given many jihadi networks around the world online lessons in hacking, propaganda, and weaponry. And Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — had recruited him to spread knowhow, footage of terrorist attacks, and inspirational messages from Osama bin Laden himself.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was that at the time of his arrest, he was a twenty-three year old IT student who had done all this alone from his bedroom.
The story of Irhabi007 crystallizes some of the issues in the evolving relationship between security and culture. It couldn't have happened ten years ago. The nature of security threats is changing, and they will carry on changing. And culture — how we live, and the ideas and values which inform how we live — are becoming a more and more important factor in that each year. Cultural diplomacy can only stay relevant if we understand the changing relationship between culture and security, and over the next ten minutes I would like to offer you three thoughts on that. Although I will concentrate on Islamic radicals, much of my argument applies equally to terrorists with any ideology.
Today, academic research has given us a better understanding of how young Muslims radicalize than ever before.
Evidence gathered from a wide dataset of individuals shows that Muslim radicalization normally happens in four stages. It is sparked when the individual reacts to stories of Muslim suffering around the world with moral outrage. That spark is then inflamed by an interpretation which explains that suffering in the context of a wider war between Islam and the West. In the third stage, this smouldering resentment is fuelled by bad personal experiences in Western countries, such as discrimination, inequality, or just an inability to get on despite good qualifications. In the fourth stage, the individual joins a terrorist network which becomes like a family closed to the outside world, which stokes the radical worldview and prepares the initiate for action and in some cases, martyrdom. With half a billion Muslim young people around the world, the potential for Islamic radicalization to become a security threat should not be underestimated.
The first thing to notice about this process is that it is profoundly cultural. It doesn't depend on economic or social grievances, as many assume — after all, many radicals come from comfortable backgrounds. Rather it depends on ideas, beliefs, and an individual's interpretation of reality. In other words, it isn't just a problem for policymakers at the Home Office, Ministère de l'Intérieur, or Department of Homeland Security. As cultural diplomats, it is our problem too.
The second thing which strikes me about this process is how much it relies on technology. Not just to spread knowhow, but also to spread news and footage of any Western action which supports the radical worldview. Al Qaeda itself has said that 50% of its war is now conducted through the media. To give you an idea of its sophistication, this year it launched videos designed for mobile phones.
The cultural shift this represents is profound. Technology can have an atomizing effect. More than previous generations, young people today choose their own influences. They can get information from hundreds of TV and radio channels, thousands of newspapers and blogs worldwide, and millions of websites. The celebrated sociologist Anthony Giddens recognised in 1984 that personal identity, values and loyalties, had become reflexive — the result of an individuals' narrative about who they were. Well, since then, the internet has enabled young people to choose an identity from a menu of not just national, but global influences. When the London internet jihadi I mentioned came to choose a pseudonym, he chose "007" — the archetypal British spy — and "Irhabi" — the Arabic for terrorist.
This cultural flexibility is important because it weakens governments' ability to project their concept of their national identity. For example, America may regard itself as standing for liberty. But it is impotent to project that to young minds who get all their information about America from jihadi websites which offer explicit footage of American military action in a context of Manichaean jihadi rhetoric. America's conception of its national identity won't reach them. And if it did, it wouldn't resonate. The culturally atomizing effects of technology make it easier for groups of friends to cocoon themselves in a self-reinforcing intellectual environment. We might even update Giddens' theory of structuration which says that individuals reinforce the norms of their society. Individuals in one society can now also reproduce the norms of another society, or even a subculture of another society, just like Irhabi007 did. The question 'whose culture' becomes a very urgent one indeed.
The third aspect of the changing relationship between culture and security is globalization. This is the result of two distinct trends. The first is technology, as I have explained. A radical Egyptian cleric can have more influence on a young Muslim lad in South London as his local imam.
But it is also the result of demographic shifts. Over the next few decades, Europe's ageing workforce will begin to be replaced by immigration. Much of it will come from the growing Muslim populations which border Europe. Europe's Muslim population will rise from about 3% today to about 5 to 8% by 2025; more if Turkey joins the EU. That will provide significant benefits to the EU, but it will also make the challenge of reducing the motivation to radicalize ever more urgent over the next decades.
But it also poses an acute challenge for cultural diplomacy. As I mentioned, we know that the fourth stage of radicalization entails a closing up to the outside world, a period of exposure only to influences — like al Qaeda's webcasts — which reinforce their radical's worldview. That compromises the ability of formal cultural exchange to break down barriers. The problem becomes, not "how do we foster dialogue," but "how do we speak to someone who does not want to listen"?
My answer is that far from becoming less relevant to the challenge of reducing the motivation to radicalize, cultural diplomacy is essential. Hard power cannot undermine the intellectual conditions in which radicalization takes root. That requires not military action, but argument. And at the moment, that argument is not global enough.
Governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have had significant successes in domestically blunting the threat from radicalization. They have done it by drawing attention to authentic Muslim, and sometimes ex-jihadi, authorities who renounce violence and the murder of innocent people. An example is instructive. Dr Sayyid Imam al-Sharif is a respected jihadist thinker, whose previous works influenced leading figures in al-Qaeda. In 2007, he published a book strongly renouncing violent jihad. In an interview with the Egyptian press, he argued that his book posed an acute problem for al Qaeda, because it had no one who is qualified from a sharia perspective to respond. The story was front-page news in many Islamic countries because they understood al Sharif's authority with jihadis. Many Muslim scholars sided with al-Sharif, and al Qaeda was stung into writing a two-hundred page response. But the news barely filtered through in the European and American media.
Western intellectuals and media — both online and traditional — must learn from this. It could cover these influential renunciations, but all too often they don't know about them. Making sure that the right message from the right authority reaches the right audience in Western countries must be an important part of the cultural solution to the security challenges which we face.
And we cannot rely on governments to lead on this, not least because they are a contaminated brand amongst Muslim radicals. This is why I say that cultural diplomacy remains essential. But the challenge of the next decades will be to stay aware of which global voices must be heard, and to understand how best to get their message to those who are likely to radicalize.
Security studies traditionally focused on issues such as the military balance of power. The story of Irhabi007 illustrates that that is no longer enough. Individuals and small groups, basing their worldview on their own cultural consumption and acting on their own conception of reality, can pose security threats. The atomizing effects of technology help to secure their assumptions. And their influences can come from anywhere in the world. These conditions call for a shift to a cultural diplomacy that is engaged, targeted, and effective at street level.
In the long term, the challenge is not to stop radicals from striking. It is to stop kids from radicalizing. That is an acute example of culture in conflict, and poses a real challenge for cultural diplomacy — for us — over the next decades.
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