Hari Prasad is an independent researcher on Middle East/South Asian Politics and Security. He holds a MA in International Affairs from George Washington University. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Role of Authoritarianism in Fomenting Extremism in the Arab World
Date Originally Written: December 29, 2017.
Date Originally Published: March 19, 2018.
Summary: Many Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) works have focused on the role of individual and enabling factors in the rise of extremism, yet it is important to not overlook larger structural factors. In particular, authoritarianism in the Arab world has proven to help foment conditions that can help encourage the rise of extremism, or discredit counter extremism efforts.
Text: In recent years with the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State, the concept of CVE has gained traction in policy and academic circles. A lot of emphasis has been put on the individual and community level with ideas such as examining the effects of discrimination, mental illness, and extremist ideology on influencing individuals to join violent extremist organizations. However, it is also important to have an understanding of how larger structural issues, such as regime type, might allow for an environment that fosters extremism. Using examples from throughout the Arab World, this assessment paper will show how authoritarianism contributes to extremism by encouraging divisions in society, undermining religious messaging, normalizing extremist rhetoric, denying outlets for political expression, and even facilitating the rise of extremist groups.
First and foremost, many Arab regimes fail to counteract sectarianism in the region. Instead of resolving ethnic, sectarian, or other tensions, the regimes exploit them. As Syrian opposition intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh has observed, sectarianism played an important role in consolidating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s power. Encouraging divisions in society causes the various sects to suspect one another, and ‘otherise’ them. This ‘otherising’ continues sectarian tension and demonization, something that becomes operationalized to deadly effect during times of upheaval. Authoritarian regimes also try to position themselves, especially to minority groups, as the sole protectors from radical groups. This protector role provides some blackmailing towards minorities to support the regime or else, while also playing into the narratives of extremist groups that majority groups like Arabs and Sunnis are discriminated against by the regime.
Especially in combatting religious extremism, authoritarian Arab regimes can easily undermine religious messaging. Often Arab regimes attempt to hold influence or control their respective official religious establishments to monitor the content as well as prevent criticism of the regime itself. Although this has been used to also try to counteract extremist messaging, the fact that many religious establishments rarely stray from the regime narrative undermines counter-extremist messaging. As official religious establishments primarily propagate a pro-regime narrative, they will be accurately perceived as simply another mouthpiece for the authoritarian regime. Rather than serving as an important pulpit for counteracting extremist messages, the delegitimization of these religious institutions instead inadvertently encourage followers to seek out alternative narratives.
Along with this regime undermining of religious messaging, religion also is a valuable tool for regimes to turn to in times of crisis. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein enacted his ‘faith campaign’ while dealing with the harsh sanctions regime. This campaign led to the rise of new Islamic institutions and organizations, including institutions that the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, attended. In Egypt, despite overthrowing the democratically elected Islamist Mohammad Morsi, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has also turned to Islam to help prop up his rule. Regime manipulation of religion only further delegitimizes traditional religious leaders, while also normalizing religious language in denigrating their opponents. Indeed, one of Egypt’s former Muftis went as far as to engage in similar takfirist (to declare a Muslim an apostate) justifications against Sisi’s opponents that the Islamic State and other extremist groups have engaged in. Although it can be debated whether these initiatives are carried out to co-opt leaders or out of the personal faith of the leaders, these initiatives instead help normalize extremist rhetoric rather than counteracting it.
Many authoritarian regimes in the Arab World also limit political freedoms and outlets for political expression and change. Indeed, scholars like Mohammad Hafez have demonstrated the role that repression and political exclusion has played in the rise of Islamic extremist movements around the world, especially in the Arab World. Rather than serving as islands of stability, authoritarian regimes remain fragile and encourage resentment. As there are few outlets to express one’s political opinions, and many ‘opposition’ parties are co-opted by the regimes, this encourages the rise of groups that lay outside of the realm of formal politics.
Finally, authoritarian regimes can directly facilitate the rise of extremist groups. It is no secret that since the 9/11 attacks, many Westerners have preferred the ‘secular’ dictators instead of an ‘Islamist.’ These secular dictators have used the specter of Islamism to justify crackdowns and repression against all opposition. While playing into the other factors that encourage victims to seek alternative ways of confronting the state, this has also proven useful for states that lack international legitimacy. It is well-known that to support its narrative that it was simply fighting terrorists, the Assad regime released extremists and other unsavory characters from its prisons during the initial uprising in Syria. As the initial protests turned to an uprising, these former prisoners formed organizations that helped paint the groups opposing Assad as extremist. Groups like the Islamic State even temporarily received support from the Assad regime in its fight against the Free Syrian Army and other Syrian opposition groups. Of course these are temporary alliances, but it demonstrates how authoritarian regimes will tactically allow extremist groups to form for the sake of their own survival.
Without reforming or changing these authoritarian structures in the Arab World, CVE efforts will only have a limited effect. Of course, the demise of authoritarianism will not necessarily lead to an extremist free region. After all, it is the newly democratic Tunisia that has become a large contributor for fighters for the Islamic State. Nor will authoritarian reform lead to the erasure of extremist ideologies. Yet, changing these authoritarian structures will provide a political opening that will allow better combatting of extremist ideology, while also providing a less repressive life for those that live in the region. Authoritarian reform should not be mistaken as purely a humanitarian effort. It is no secret that Western support for authoritarian regimes has been a common grievance for many extremist groups in the Middle East. Mohammad Hafez in his keynote remarks to the RESOLVE Network in 2016 noted that the choice between repressive states or extremists, or rather “between barrel bombs and beheadings” is a false one, and one that the regimes themselves try to create. Extremism in the region will never be fully addressed until policymakers understand the structural factors within authoritarian regimes that drive this behavior.
 Saleh, Y. A. (2017). The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
 Shabi, R. (2014, April 10). Battling Perceptions: Minorities in the Arab World. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/04/battling-perceptions-minorities–20144965348535478.html
 Brown, N. (2017, May 11). Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/05/11/official-islam-in-arab-world-contest-for-religious-authority-pub-69929
 McCants, W. (2015, September 1). The Believer: How Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Became Leader of the Islamic State. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from http://csweb.brookings.edu/content/research/essays/2015/thebeliever.html
 Springborg, R. (2014, May 24). Sisi’s Secret Islamism. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2014-05-26/sisis-secret-islamism
 Elmasry, M. (2015, June 27). Ali Gumah: Sisi’s Most Loyal Islamic Scholar. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/ali-gumah-sisi-s-most-loyal-islamic-scholar-1205811558
 Hafez, M. M. (2005). Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. Boulder: Lynne Rienner .
 Gutman, R. (2016, December 01). Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/assad-henchman-heres-how-we-built-isis
 2016 RESOLVE Forum Flashback: Keynote Speaker Dr. Mohammed Hafez. (2017, September 15). Retrieved December 29, 2017, from http://www.resolvenet.org/news/2016-resolve-forum-flashback-keynote-speaker-dr-mohammed-hafez