The appeal of the Islamic State to Arab and Muslim youth is hard to understand. Many assume religion or social media is the main draw for the increasing numbers who are uprooting their lives to join the militants in Iraq and Syria. But this is not the full story.
Five distinct trends—not including theology or technology—explain the fatal attraction to the Islamic State. And understanding these trends is vital for winning the war against extremist ideologies.
First, Arab education systems have failed. Instead of vital analytical skills or civic values, schools emphasized rote learning and the uncritical acceptance of authority.
History curricula and religious education fostered an us-versus-them mentality along ethnic, ideological, and sectarian lines, making youth vulnerable to external influence. This helped transform the cultural landscape of Arab countries, facilitating the spread of militant ideologies and the early indoctrination of younger populations.
Second, a lack of economic opportunities and weakened welfare systems forced citizens to turn to others. As Arab states liberalized economically, they undermined existing welfare systems and removed guarantees of public employment without providing alternatives.
Arab governments did not promote investments in productive sectors and their economies did not generate the number or quality of jobs that were needed. In fact, the highest levels of unemployment today are found among those with higher-education degrees.
Consequently, informal economies grew exponentially. For example, 33 percent of economic activity in Morocco and 40 percent of GDP in Egypt are informal, leaving many without access to any form of social security.
This is catastrophic for a region where one in five people are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Twenty-nine percent of Arab youth are currently unemployed, many with high levels of education. Recent estimates indicate that 105 million jobs are needed by 2020 to absorb new entrants into the labor market.
This grim reality forced Arab citizens to turn to other entities—often Islamist—for survival and a larger sense of being. Governments even encouraged ultraconservative groups to step up and provide social assistance, because they were perceived as nonpolitical and therefore unthreatening to their own rule. And now, some of these groups are actively recruiting Arab youth on behalf of the Islamic State.
Third, bad governance has created an entrenched feeling of injustice. The systematic maltreatment of Arab citizens at the hands of their governments fueled this process. For decades, Arab governments treated their citizens as threats to national security, subjecting them to significant levels of brutality.
According to a recent poll, around 55 percent of Arab citizens do not trust national governments or political elite. More than 91 percent view administrative and financial corruption as widespread and only 21 percent feel that the law treats citizens equally.
Fourth, the response to the Arab Awakening has made matters worse. The brutal clampdown on the uprisings, sometimes with an ideological or sectarian tinge, only exacerbated societal discord even further. It fueled social polarization and sectarian tensions.
State-led violence against civilians has included the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons in Syria, and arbitrary deaths, disappearances and prejudiced judicial proceedings against opposition parties in various Arab countries. These actions are opening rifts in Arab societies and further disenfranchising youth who feel empowered by the uprisings and are searching for a greater sense of purpose and identity.
Many Arab governments have long used sectarianism as a tool to consolidate political power by repeatedly marginalizing ethnic or religious groups from political processes. Now both Saudi Arabia and Iran are using sectarian fear mongering in their regional political rivalry.
This is readily apparent in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran’s increasing military involvement in Arab countries is billed as the latest manifestation of a 1,400-year-old conflict between the Sunnis and Shias. For millions of Sunnis across the region, the message translates as, “the Shias have come to get you.”
For disaffected Sunni youth, a turn to militant groups with spectacular power in the field is a stand for one’s community. And the Islamic State is aptly manipulating sectarian sentiments and exploiting the increasing sense of victimization of Sunni youth.
Finally, there is no trust in the West. The Islamic State is propagating narratives of the perceived double standards of the international community and Western powers. The continued occupation of Palestinian land and the seeming impunity of Israel despite repeated aggressions against Arabs is a festering wound for many—77 percent of Arabs feel this is an Arab cause, not just a Palestinian one.
While the West and its militaries intervened in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, they failed to support the civil uprising in Syria, state building in Libya and democracy in Egypt. This is seen as further proof of the West’s insincerity. This leaves the Islamic Caliphate, with its proven strength in the field, looking like a viable alternative to achieve Arab and Muslim rights.
In the end, limiting the appeal of the Islamic State and similar groups, and ultimately dismantling their dangerous ideologies, will require long-term action to reverse these trends. It will take much more than the important denouncement by Muslim scholars and religious leaders, or the military operation currently underway. Arab governments have a critical role to play in this process.
Winning the war against this fatal attraction to the Islamic State lies in different battlefields—it depends on transforming how the youth make sense of the world and providing real alternatives for change and advancement.
Maha Yahya is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center.