Why Some Countries are Immune to Islamic Radicalization
Do these countries hold the key to peace, moderation, and secularism in Islam?
The Muslim world is rife with radical and violent manifestations of Islam. Many Muslim countries are facing violent insurgencies from extremists, as these groups continue to strengthen, expand, and proliferate. A number of Muslim populations and governments around the world espouse intrusive and intolerant forms of political Islam that limit freedoms, to varying degrees. Yet, there are a few places – India, the U.S., and Tunisia in particular – where Islam is largely moderate, tolerant, and peaceful. The political contexts in these three countries are diverse, as are the reasons for religious moderation. Nonetheless, some common themes can be identified and important lessons drawn.
First there is India, whose Muslims are largely moderate and quick to condemn violence. This contrasts sharply with neighboring Pakistan, where religious and sectarian conflict is rife and conservatism is on the rise. There are a number of factors that explain why India’s Muslims are so moderate. Muslims in India have long closely integrated with Hindus, with whom they share many cultural practices. The Indian government monitors madrassas for the propagation of extremist views. India, a robust secular democracy since its independence, has strong democratic and secular values and a strong national identity. Its legislature is elected through a proportional representation system, giving Muslims equitable representation in parliament. “Targeted government welfare schemes to assist ‘backward’ Muslim groups may help too,” according to The Economist (The Economist, 2014). The country’s Muslims are a relatively small minority and widely dispersed. Therefore, the domestic political or separatist ambitions that typically accompany more radical forms of Islam are absent in India, as such goals are unrealistic. Also, low income and literacy rates could help insulate its Muslims from extremist propaganda.
America’s Muslims, also very moderate, differ from Muslims in Europe, who have not been as successfully integrated into Western society. The reasons for the moderate state of Islam in the U.S. are numerous. Only about one percent of the population is Muslim. Muslims come from dozens of different countries, and no single ethnicity dominates. This makes them more tolerant and forces them to assimilate. In contrast, Muslims in their respective European countries come mostly from one or two places. U.S. Muslims are fairly wealthy and educated, while those in Europe are largely low-class laborers. Around 15% of U.S. Muslims married out of faith. Also, the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted a change in Muslims’ attitudes. According to The Economist,
“If the September 11th attacks permanently altered America’s view of Islam, they also changed Islam in America. Peter Skerry of Boston College says that a few decades ago it was common for religious leaders to agonize over whether it was possible to be a good Muslim and live in America. That argument disappeared almost overnight, as did the question of whether it was appropriate for American Muslims to vote.” (The Economist, 2014)
The third country known for its moderate and peaceful Muslims is Tunisia. Being a Muslim majority country in an Islam-dominated region, Tunisia is a much different case than the U.S. and India, both of which have diffuse Muslim minorities. This distinction, however, makes it all the more impressive that its Muslims have relatively escaped the grip of radicalism. The reasons are many. Tunisia is a small homogenous country, freeing it from the regional and sectarian conflicts affecting other Muslim countries. Extremists exploit these tensions and thrive in the state of war that often results. Tunisia is wealthier than most Muslim countries outside of the Gulf. As a result, its government has more resources to combat extremism. It has more to spend on its citizens’ welfare, so there are fewer grievances which radicals can exploit. When welfare is lacking, people often turn to faith-based organizations or extremists for aid, thereby enhancing the appeal of such groups and their beliefs. Amid deep poverty, people often join extremists simply as a source of income. Tunisia is also not dependent on oil revenue like many of its neighbors. Oil-dependent countries tend to have corrupt, oppressive governments which fuel citizens’ grievances and empower radicals. The state of these countries’ economies and governments fluctuates with oil prices, making them vulnerable to price declines. Such countries also tend not to diversify their economies. Tunisia, on the other hand, is heavily integrated economically with Europe. As a result, its citizens are extensively exposed to European culture and goods, which increases the allure of Western culture and reduces that of religious radicalism.
Another reason for relatively moderate Islam in Tunisia is the efforts of its former autocratic leaders to secularize society. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, was highly influenced by Western culture and the ideals of the French Enlightenment. He set out to secularize and modernize Tunisia by exercising strict control over religion and education and brutally repressing dissent. The state had a near monopoly over these institutions, deciding who could preach and teach and what could be said. Bourguiba manipulated religion in order fulfill his secular and developed vision of Tunisia. His successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali largely carried on this tradition. In other Muslim countries, however, the state does not always exercise such control over these institutions. Consequently, religious and political figures are better able to propagate more radical interpretations of Islam. Muslim leaders, even secular dictators, often enhance the role of Islam in education in order to bolster their Islamic credentials. On the contrary, Tunisia’s regime both reduced its role and manipulated it.
The extent of Tunisian secularism has been elucidated in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Ennahda, an Islamist party, won a plurality of seats in Tunisia’s 2011 parliamentary elections. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Islamist parties, Ennahda demonstrated a strong commitment to secular, tolerant, and inclusive governance, and peacefully ceded power in 2014. Ennahda was greatly influenced by events in Algeria. After the Islamic Salvation Front dominated Algeria’s elections in 1990 and 1991, the regime canceled the elections and cracked down on Islamists. A civil war ensued between the regime and the party's armed wing. This experience taught Ennahda that it must govern carefully and inclusively in order to survive. Such lessons were reinforced in 2013 when the Egyptian army overthrew the radical and authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood, which failed to learn from Algeria’s experience.
Ultimately, it is not guaranteed that Muslims in any of the three nations won’t become increasingly radical over time. In India, poverty, a large youth population, and a potential rightward drift in Hindu nationalism could provoke and empower radicals. In America, newer Muslim immigrants are increasingly impoverished and hence more susceptible to extremism. Further conflict with terrorists and Islamophobic policies could increase discrimination against Muslims to the same effect. Tunisia is the most fragile of all. Persistently slow economic growth and high unemployment could feed radicalism. Although Tunisia has fewer incidents of terrorism than its neighbors, such tragedies do occur, making the economic situation even worse. Tunisia shares a border with chaotic Libya, which is in a state of civil war and in which extremism thrives. Jihadists trained in Libya have launched deadly attacks on tourists in Tunisia. This has devastated its tourist industry – a major part of the Tunisian economy – which has further fueled economic stagnation. Despite relevant moderation in Tunisia, more of its citizens have gone to wage jihad in Syria than from any other country. Tunisia’s newfound liberties that make it easier for extremists to disseminate propaganda may be partly to blame. Despite these problems, these three countries are rare examples of relative religious moderation in a largely conservative and increasingly radicalized Muslim world, and much can be learned from their experiences.