INTRODUCTION: TURKISH SCHOOL NEW EXPORT PRODUCT AND PANACEA AGAINST EXTREMISM?
One of the problems creating a turbulent situation in the Middle East in particular and the world in general is Islamic Extremism. Extremism that is nurtured in the school system breeds terrorism. The Voice of America reported on the Turkish Imam-Hatip (IHL) school system, already in existence in the secular country since 1923. It now consists of some 450 schools with approximately 120,000 students. The curriculum consists of 20 hours per week religious classes and the remainder is spent on science, math, physics, social studies etc. A large percentage of students continue their studies at a (theological) university to become Imam. During their studies at the Imam-Hatip schools they are not only trained in Islam, but they will also read other religions like Christianity and Buddhism.
Advocates of the IHL system believe that it prepares the future pool of Imam's in a way that avoids extremist tendencies. With Turkey officially going to play a large role in the educational re-construction of the Afghan school system this could be an important positive factor. Pakistan and even Russia have presented themselves as interested 'importers-to-be' of this new Turkish export product, Voice of America continues.
Great news so far. However, notwithstanding the fact that we at LMG Emerge are against extremism in almost any form, the partial analysis of Voice of America seems to forget a few factors that are of essence when analyzing Islamic Extremism.
1) SECULAR TURKEY
Since its foundation by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Turkey has been an independent secular state, created by and chosen for its own people. Ataturk 'freed' Turkey of occupation from Western invaders. And that is not exactly a situation similar to what is currently being felt by Afghan, Pakistani and Russian parents that are supposed to send their children to this type of religious institution. Their countries are either officially or unofficially still occupied or controlled by forces related to an alleged enemy.
Ataturk's Turkey is an independent, secular state
Definitely a different situation than the one in country's
that want to use the IHL school system as panacea against Islamic Extremism
2) EXTREMISTS DO OFTEN USE RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY, BUT RELIGION IS NO EXTREMISM: RELIGION IS JUST PART OF THE STORY
Religion is not the whole story. Not in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan and not in the Russian Caucasian provinces. Extremism is mainly based on frustration. Frustrations about the standard of living and the ability to control ones own life and build ones own state. See also point 1 above. When living in poor circumstances in an area that is - be it directly or indirectly controlled by parties with different cultural backgrounds and even more different wealth positions - a powder keg is created that can easily explode. Religion is then often used as binding device, with poverty and poor prospects being the real story. That this is true could be easily seen when comparing the level of Islamic extremism in various countries with large Islamic majority or minority with indicators like gross domestic product per capita, unemployment and income distribution figures. Adding additional factors to this multivariate analysis that incorporate the political element (Is the country independent? Ruled by its own rulers? Democratic? Secular? Occupied or with large Western presence?) would then complete the story and reduce the impact of schools like Imam-Hatip as panacea for extremism in problem-torn countries.
It is too simple to equate religion with extremism and terrorism. And that applies to all religions.
3) ISLAMIC EXTREMISM AND THE WRONG TYPE OF WESTERN INFLUENCE
Islamic extremism is often far more directly related to a wrong type of Western interference in Middle Eastern states. Extraction of too large a share of oil and gas wealth, in combination with support for puppet regimes and/or one-sided defense of Israel in all cases has done more harm than good. The tragic demise of the Shah in Iran in the 1970s was just one example. Too often Western observers seem to forget that extremism didn't present itself out of the blue. To quite some extent we created it. Quran preaches a self-confident stand on self-preservation and sovereign rights are a direct consequence of it. At a different level: the remarkable performance of Shariah-based investment vehicles and financial institutions is indicative of the fact that we are not dealing with some obscure philosophy here. On the contrary.
Cartoon images like this one make some people smile, but make others angry. As long as we don't understand that this anger will quadratically translate into extremism in deprived poor groups that feel that they are living in occupied countries, we won't solve anything.
IT IS POLITICAL CHESS, YOU STUPID
It is not the philosophy but the way the political chess game is being treated. As is so often the case. There are more parallels between Vietnam in the 60s and 70s and current Islamic extremism than we often tend to believe. Biggest difference is that back then the Vietnam conflict was mainly a regional/local conflict with Ho Chi Minh's Vietcong being strong enough to fight what looked like a real battle between armies at their own home turf (quite similar to what the Taliban are doing today). But during the 1970s international extremists (be they Islamic or of other background) have learned far more about terrorism. Just like they learned in earlier decades about guerrilla warfare.
It is tragic, but even when we go back in time further in our own Western history, we see dozens of situations in which groups that we would now label 'freedom fighters' were the terrorists of those days.
As long as we do not want to see this, 'solutions' like this Turkish 'export product' will only 'cure those that weren't ill to start with'. Translated into less poetic language for the Middle East: as long as we continue to focus mainly on isolation of our biggest political enemies in the oriental chess battle, we cannot win. The main thing to achieve is to get Iran at the table and build wealth in a region that was and is by far the world's largest powder keg.
Although we are by no means pure optimists, LMG Emerge believes that the new political balance in the world - with Emerging Nations like China, Russia, Brazil and India now providing the West with a countervailing power - can help in reaching that goal. Global wealth can benefit enormously from a renewed dialogue with Iran. Far more than the already substantial benefit from direct trade with the Islamic Republic.
As long as the West is not thinking of dialogue with Iran as an image like this, but then with Obama or EU leaders sitting in the middle we won't get any closer to solving extremist problems and rob the world of an opportunity for increased economic growth in the Middle East as well. Instead: one search command using Google learns us that Iran+Dialogue = silly cartoons about us the good guys versus them the bad guys in Western media. Renewed isolating sanctions against Iran will spur extremism, not so much because Iran will initiate this. No, simply because that is what it does to people seeing those cartoons and the McDonald's one above in combination with those sanctions taking into account the state of mind they are in in the first place.