Countering intellectual extremism

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By Joel Okwemba

The very nature of soft power in the 21st Century seems to imply a disassociation with real effects of violence and critical security. However, the intricate nature of the utilisation of “soft power” to achieve the benefits of “hard power” demands a compound approach for long lasting stability in view of the changing International Order.

It is evident that what is classified as “soft power” is among the first targets for terrorist groups – for instance religious and cultural heritage sites and Educational institutions in the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan. It is also clear that the roots of Extremism in all forms begin in learning centres, whether educational, religious or informal/cultural. It is these places that become both a threat and a safe haven for the continuing policies by extremist groups and terrorists. Therefore, the role of mainstream education centres in this century is a subject that demands a keen examination.

The formal institutionalisation of ideology and skills in centres of learning can be traced to Mesopotamia in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, with the development and mastery of the early logographic system of cuneiform script by the sons born of royal birth and nobility. The idea then was to inculcate skills held dear by society, as well as channels to build character and discipline, especially amongst social elites.

Informal institutionalisation was reserved in cultural practices to retain knowledge among generations; this was a responsibility of every member of the family from maternal and paternal influences to the Ruling Class and society at large. Most of these practices exist today in each society in different forms as would be defined by the circumstances and prerequisites for survival.

There were, as is today, contrasting opinions on similar subjects, although, in a general sense, new thinking and approaches would be resisted. While some societies would resort to explore alienation of the person or group, others would settle for extermination. It is no different in the 21st Century, where discord in thought, especially against the ruling elites, is received by some countries as harshly as then, with the employment of new strategies such as court sentences, social media bullying and image tarnishing, creative deaths as well as psychological torture.

The difference today is that there is a growing community of those who find contrasts in thought as a challenge to advancing existing levels of knowledge – i.e. those who engage in dialogues and debates with those of a different ideological precinct. These differences are as a result of the lack of appreciation of similar values across cultures, leading to what has been termed as a “clash of civilisation” as in the case of intellectual extremism. As of terrorism, the constant view has been, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”; as long as this is so, there will always be discord.

Reality notes that the commercialisation of our centres of learning has undermined the education of values that unite human ideologies as archetypal of human development and instead championed unhealthy inter-human competition, creating generations that find more comfort in their own well-being rather than collective well-being of societies. It should be noted also that the very funding that finds its way to reputable learning centres also finds its way into the pockets of extremist groups and terrorist organisations (EGTOs), creating a structural conflict that only benefits a select few. The situation has now become complex and intricate requiring an innovative inclusive model to regain the essence of education beyond commercial interests. This responsibility ought to be shouldered by well-meaning collectives and governments. 

Soft power, in light of these intricacies, should advance the approaches to merge with the strategies of hard power. This would include measures at the levels of state and non-state actors. I advance some precise measures.

Educational model for Universalist values

Since December 10, 1948 when the Universal Declaration for Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, education has been a right for all (Article 26) – in theory at least.

The architecture of education is, however, wanting in the decisive eradication of ignorance. That the most educated person in the world would have gathered the most important lessons in life away from institutions of learning, and that the least educated person is considered as not having had a formal education, is in itself a fascinating misdoing of the current systems of learning. That leaders of EGTOs are amongst the best educated in societies and those who are under their influence undoubtedly have received formal education and are geniuses in their own right proves the very betrayal of the educational institutions meant to produce men and women of character, valuable to the collective progress as a human society.

It being that learning institutions induct their students on contemporary appreciation of universal values and skills, it is worth noting also that this is true only for basic information without much follow-ups and developments. For a utopia of universalism of values, all children should have information about multiple religions as much as they have on that which their parents subscribe to on their behalf. This would necessitate an inquiry into the foundations on at least the religions most professed across the world, being Christianity and Islam, which also harbour the philosophies of the extremist groups and are an excuse for some of the terrorist groups’ unfortunate events. A broader appreciation will expand the understanding across cultures and families, and reduce the misconceptions on religions that lead to extremism.

Early civilisation was shared across nations. The first university in the world, according to the Guinness World Book of Records, is the University of Al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco, founded in 859 by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri. The institution would become home to both Islamic and Christian scholars such as Mohammad al-Idrisi (known for Tabula Rogeriana – The Book of Roger) and Pope Sylvester II (The First French Pope, known for the introduction of the decimal numerical system in Europe using Arabic numerals). Scholars from Africa married their thoughts with those from Europe and Asia in the investigation of various disciplines to produce knowledge that would be acceptable across the universe while delivering on the promise of collective human progress.

Such efforts in modern times, can be successful through the consolidation of resources by non-State actors with the support of government, to create a truly global educational model that is not just multi-cultural in composition but also one that explores multi-cultural ideals and values, to produce individuals that are well compatible with the ideal virtues of humanity. The model should consider the centres of extremists and target groups lured into terrorist organisations. This model could be taught and implemented through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) structures across the member states, as to reach all levels of education, especially elementary and primary levels.

Battle for hearts and minds

The militarisation of issues considered in nature as soft power, such as public opinion, are responsible for the rise of the EGTOs in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Admittedly, Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan conceived al-Qaeda in 1988 coupled with a strategic error by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funding of mujahedeen fighters through Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence Agency to counter the Marxist threat (Operation Cyclone), a factor that strengthened the resolve to advance the jihadist course beyond Afghanistan.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and her allies created a breeding ground for the activities of al-Qaeda, which led to the growth of other groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) later metamorphosed into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) following the Syrian Civil War in 2011, then the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.

With the initial target of establishing a democratic country – a process that would have been led by soft power strategies, the technical misdirection by the US armed forces seemed to have undermined the unity of the peoples under the Saddam Hussein regime. The quest for power, autonomy and independence by various religious and ethnic factions created an environment where Islamic extremism/fundamentalism flourished, leading to instability in Iraq and Syria as they sought to form a caliphate. 

What makes it more complex is Islamic antagonism to the very idea, by those who seek to expel the protagonists of the Caliphate. The power-play could also be the very division of the Islamic-political world/civilisation seen as a threat to international order – if not western civilization. If so, then history ought to remind us two wrongs do not make a right, and the continuation of war by the various factions would only be biting on granite.

Modern military strategies should, beyond conquest, learn the art of winning hearts and minds. An example of a backlash is the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While success has been evident with the re-taking of the port in Kismayu – among other key strategic locations previously under the Al-Shabaab – withdrawal of the Mission is proving to be a hard nut to crack. The presence of the military has been over-extended and fatigue from Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) as well as donor fatigue are now the main hindrances to the stabilisation of Somalia. The spill-over effects have been felt in Kenya where civilians have been killed in several attacks since the invasion. Al-Shabaab has also found new recruiting grounds in Kenya targeting the youth in informal settlements through various networks, including religious learning centres.

A soft-power approach that could be useful for the military strategists would be to enhance civil-military relations and appreciating the understanding that policy precedes force. While policies could be driven by ultimate selfish goals of an intervening state, the recommendation would be for the peace-keeping forces of regional security complexes and the United Nations operations to integrate peace-keeping and peace-building activities for maximum benefits.

Incorporation recognises that insecurity ends when development begins and vice versa. In areas where terrorist groups have been weakened and order restored, there should follow immediate construction of educational centres, recreational facilities, medical facilities, and leveraging on private sector investments that can ease military budgets, normalise activities and engage the youth, who, when left with no options, opt to join or defect to terrorist organizations, thereby creating unending conflict cycles. Eventually, it is the people that give the land its moral, economic and political value. For example, while AMISOM may have stabilised Somalia, it has not empowered the country. It may have stopped the war, but did not actually bring peace.

Smart power as a compromise   

The 21st Century brings advantages such as Artificial Intelligence with the ability, if ethically used, to contribute not only to the scientific and economic human progress but also stability of our societies in the context of eradication of EGTOs. The cyber space has been a recruitment ground, an indoctrination centre creating greater efficiency and increasing the productivity of their activities. While it remains un-legislated and unregularised in most jurisprudences, it becomes a safe haven for the EGTOs in the meantime.

As a short-term measure, well-meaning collectives and governments could invest more in cyber-technology and cyber-intelligence to curtail growing threats. New partnerships and forms of collaborations must be formed to counter these efforts between State and non-State Actors, such as independent data centres as well as with research and knowledge facilities.

As a medium-term measure, governments must be in positions to drive the online narrative and conversation, in appreciating newfound values that advance the collective human progress and agenda. Engaging the drivers of these media – the young people – becomes a paramount strategy as they are the shapers and influencers in the digital world, where government is merely a spectator. Investments and resources must be as generous as those that go towards wars, since the brain is the next battlefield as the neuro-ethicist John Giordano notes.

As long-term measure, the following statistics as noted in the Global Technology Report 2015, should guide the leaders of governments and well-meaning collectives in bridging the digital intelligence gap globally: 50% of the world’s population do not have mobile phones; 450 million people live out of reach of a mobile signal; 90 percent of the population in low-income countries and over 60 percent globally are not online yet; most mobile phones are of an older generation; four billion people lack internet access (more than half of the world’s population); and 1.3 Billion people still lack access to electricity (17 percent of the world’s population).

The challenges are as daunting as the opportunities are compelling. This is a clarion call to create a shared sense of destiny across civilisations and nations – to reach out to the ones who are yet to be reached out to as a preventive strategy, and educate them before they are indoctrinated and brainwashed into values that threaten the very existence of collective humanity. Cognizant of the political far-right movements in Europe and Western countries, the structures to be adopted for this actualisation must be holistic, flexible and adaptive, to continuously integrate diverse interests and opinions for long-term stability of the human collective, and eradicate EGTOs.  (

— Writer is MD, Centre for International and Security Affairs

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