Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Language and radicalism

Vox's Zach Beauchamp helpfully points to a Foreign Policy blog post by Will McCants and Chris Meserole reporting preliminary results from research they are undertaking indicating that the strongest correlate of the tendency for radicalization -- defined as the proportion of a country's Sunni Muslim population who become foreign fighters -- is whether the country speaks French. The findings are hedged with various qualifications and a debate has naturally ensued about what it means, but 3 confounding factors may be worth mentioning.

1. The Olivier Roy problem. If the underlying issue is not Islamist radicals but a general tendency to radicalization and alienation, for which Islamism provides one of several vehicles, then the interpretation should be around the broader contributors to radicalization in these countries and not specifically who travels for jihad.

2. Modes of disengagement. Foreign fighters don't pick countries randomly from a map. They go where they have links. And those links may arise through colonialism, which has big differences among the former powers in when it happened and how it ended. Turkey dumped virtually all of its former Islamic empire after World War I, or least the parts that hadn't already been peeled away from it, like Egypt. Britain implemented its "East of Suez" pullback after World War II, and was already more inclined towards lighter protectorates in the Arab countries where it was the imperial power. But France, because of geographic proximity but also its governing philosophy, war far more entangled in Arab affairs, and for much longer, than the others. That intensity, including the Algerian war and consequent large migration flows, provided the first generation pool for subsequent radicalization (whereupon point 1 comes into play). So it's not language, but history.

3. Where the action is. The notion of "foreign fighter" is essentially the inverse of "no conflict at home" -- if there was, that's where the fighter would be. The Maghreb had its big conflagration in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, but there's no active war in the Maghreb* today. The wars -- Iraq and Syria -- are in the middle east, so by construction, the mobile pool of radicalized Sunni Muslims is outward bound from the non-conflict countries to the conflict countries. Does that mean that Francophone countries are more likely to have radicalized populations? Not in the sense that they've collapsed into protracted war, like Iraq and Syria.

UPDATE: Gilles Keppel has a far more elaborate and informed response which touches on some of the same issues.

*[ 4 June 2017] Not mentioning Libya in this context was a mistake that turns out to be relevant to the overall topic. 

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