One (difficult) step to curbing extremism

February 3, 2015
Smoke and flames rise over a hill near the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 23, 2014. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Smoke and flames rise over a hill near the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 23, 2014. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Why did nearly half of Iraq open itself to Islamic State, a militant group seen as one of the most psychotic on record? Why have Boko Haram militants gained a solid foothold in northern Nigeria? Why aren’t the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula thinning, despite regular drone strikes in Yemen? Do these disparate countries have some trait in common?

They do: the rampant corruption of their ruling elites.

At issue is no ad hoc venality, such as exists everywhere. The populations of these nations — and of Ukraine and the half-dozen Arab countries that rose in revolt four years ago, with spiraling consequences — are subjected to a far more virulent strain of this disease than are most of their Western counterparts.

This corruption is not some silent drain on nondescript public funds. It happens directly to people, every day. If police board their bus, they have to hand over cash or be dragged off the vehicle and maybe beaten. If they take their child to the hospital to sew up a gash, they have to pay to be seen. I spoke with an Uzbek journalist who was agonizing about whether to sell his car so he could bribe his son’s way into college — though he had high scores on the entrance exam. An Afghan I know had to pay a bribe to get the death certificate for his father, who had been blown up by a remote-controlled bomb.

The bribe-takers at the bottom of these ladders send a share of the take all the way up the line. These governments can best be described not as governments at all, but as highly effective criminal organizations.

When people are shaken down like this, day after day, when they are insulted and abused in the process, when the perpetrators are members of their government — the very institution they expect to uphold laws, not break them — they get mad. And angry people, especially young men who are injured in their pride as well as their prospects, can sometimes get violent.

Extremist movements offer such men — and a growing number of women — two things. They offer an explanation. As Central Asia scholar Marlene Laruelle put it to me, “The argument the Islamists are making is that the regime is corrupt and unjust because it’s secular. Such reasoning didn’t have much resonance in the past, now it does.”

Jihadists, in other words, play on the ambiguous meaning of the word ‘corruption,’ arguing that the reason government officials are so abusive is because they have strayed from a rigorous reading of religious obligations. They say that the only way to reform public life is to stick to a stringent code of private morality — imposed, if necessary, by force.

The second thing jihadists offer the victims of severe government corruption is an outlet for their rage. They hand them a gun and a chance to regain some of their injured pride — at the cost, if need be, of their lives. For many, the frustration is so intense the bargain seems worth it.

President Barack Obama keeps stressing that without “a strategy that reduces the wellsprings of extremism, a perpetual war … will prove self-defeating.” Yet the vast bulk of U.S. effort, focus, and expenditure remains channeled toward military solutions, be they drones or airstrikes over Iraq, or efforts to train and equip the armies or fighters of so-called front-line states. The defense budget for the 2016 fiscal year just submitted to the U.S. Congress includes a $5.8 billion allocation for those activities in Iraq and Syria alone.

No such spending is earmarked for the kleptocracy unit at the U.S. Department of Justice, whose handful of prosecutors and dozen FBI investigators are taking on some of the most flagrant — and well-endowed — criminals on earth.

Nor is a mandatory class on corruption included in the syllabus for people training to enter the U.S. Foreign Service. Intelligence agencies are not systematically collecting or analyzing information on the way corrupt ruling networks function: what levers of power they capture, what revenue streams, where their vulnerabilities lie, their relationships with organized crime or apparently legitimate businesses.

Allying with such governments to fight terrorists — which the U.S. and Western partners habitually do — is only making matters worse. It only confirms jihadist propaganda that the West benefits from the corruption, that it condones and encourages it. While taking a few terrorists out of circulation, such policies are minting many new ones.

If Western officials truly mean to curb the underlying drivers of extremism, corruption is a good — and remarkably overlooked — place to start.

 

23 comments

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Going back to the time of Moses, most of the non-western world assumes that a good man has responsibility when he gets into office to take care of extended family. Western Modern World calls that corruption, (from a MBA course I took in international trade). Sldo that tends to lead to revolt by those left out (not extended family).

But the revolt has no reason to follow Jihadists unless the culture also classifies them righteous. The Muslim world has and has had since its’ founding a dysfunctional commandment to Jihad and compounded by the concept (found in most religions that have become the low in some land) of infallibility of their curgies rulings.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Two observations on this piece:

1. Your observation about the so-called “kleptocracy unit” at the U.S. DOJ rings hollow with the kind of corruption we’ve seen practiced at that organization’s highest levels. Am I saying that Holder, et al. is guilty of taking money in exchange for doing what he’s supposed to do? No. He and his ilk are a little more subtle than are the ruling classes in countries like Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. But corruption comes in many forms. So I wouldn’t be so quick to be lobbing money to our DOJ–at least not until it proves that it is willing to de-politicize itself.

2. Is there any real reason to believe that any of these current terrorist groups (ISIS, Boko Harem, al Qaeda) will conduct themselves in any way other than the way they’ve seen the governments they topple work? I seriously doubt it. This is not to say that we should continue funding dictators in the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, or wherever else they pop up. Funding dictators (“he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”) is a carryover from the Cold War days when all we cared about was containing the Soviet Union. It didn’t work for us then; it won’t work for us now. But to believe that the terrorist organizations that are fighting corrupt governments are going to somehow turn around and bring “good government” to the countries or areas that they seize is naïve, at best. At worst, it’s very dangerous. Stop funding any and all corrupt governments. Stop funding and/or arming insurgents and “freedom fighters”. Stop training them (training that ultimately gets used against us).

In short, stay out of their wars and out of their politics. This is the only way we will stop being the most hated country on the planet.

Posted by Toomuchthinking | Report as abusive

I thought you were talking about us, the US. But then I noticed you said the politicians actually receive the bribes. In our system the politicians are just mid level managers and the methods are less direct, but actually larger in obtained funds from the bottom. It is also likely you personally never face local and state governments who are impeders of the people for money too, and worse even than the federal governments. A more subtle security tax done by threat of force is no better than the direct bullying by the middle eastern countries. Your assumption that corruption exists everywhere is true but the characterization of middle eastern corruption as worse is lacking in real support (check the numbers as to total illegal moneys taken (and legally stolen money as the politicians can pass laws to take from the people and do, as in bank bailouts and such). Finally, you lament that our leaders don’t address a real solution to the motivations for the rising of extremist Muslim groups. What did you expect? Did you actually think that our leaders as directed by the very wealthy were actually seeking a solution? That seems the epitome of gullibility. The war on terror is to last forever and is a key manipulation tool in the boom and bust and fear cycles that will bleed every last bit of accumulated wealth to the top 0.1 % of the worlds wealth holders. Prove me wrong. Show me what action taken by our so called leaders is consistent with solving problems. Open your eyes and look around. You have a narrow and precise knowledge which views only part of the picture and thus is lacking in understanding. Or, maybe this is just part of the spin plan.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“.. the rampant corruption of their ruling elites ..”

Funny. We have the same here – its called lobbying.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

These are ‘scholars’ ? This article reads like a 4th grade essay, a hurried one, at best. Reuters as sad as bloomberg.

Posted by ozium | Report as abusive

Corrupt shill ‘associates’ talking about corrupt shill ‘foreign’ associates.

Posted by ozium | Report as abusive

Um, sir brotherkenny4, your whole premise is based on a misreading of this article! Constituents, not politicians, were the references mentioned in the previous paragraph to what you are referring and was explained, I thought, very well. Your own sense of gullibility (how else would you know?) that our government is completely inept, is completely overrun by the wealthy, is an extreme opinion, nothing more. But anyone with any decent knowledge of American enterprise and self-worth can prove you wrong. Though they don’t always get it correct every time, many of the actions by the Dept. of State, which you seem to have little knowledge of, are just some of the many steps our great nation takes in foreign affairs “consistent with solving problems.” And, just because something is miserable now doesn’t mean it will be forever. Jeez! Open your own eyes before you claim other’s are shut.

Posted by observing_u | Report as abusive

C’mon, people. This is a piece that offers fresh insight to the problem of growing extremism. Yes, it applies to the ghettos here in the U.S. too, but here the problem is not yet so bad as to result in widespread, open civil insurrection.

The problem is serious, yes. If it wasn’t, it would have been solved long ago. But serious problems require specific, individual attention. Their resolution must be prioritized and focused. It is not one of the available choice to fight evil everywhere at once. All that does is dilute finite resources.

There will be instant gratification in such task, for we must master and redirect tendencies and expectations that lay inside each and every human being.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Yesterday my doctor wrote three prescriptions for skin cream. When I tried to purchase them, I found that the active ingredient costs many times the cost of gold.
These are generic drugs.
Methinks that there is the same thuggery in the Jihadist pharma indistry as in the most corrupt government. Can you not see through the disguise? And don’t you realize that this money circulates up through the US government?

Posted by Newsman46 | Report as abusive

I think the writer is on the mark. There is a big difference between price gouging or taxation and the violation of public officials or service workers in the performance of their duty. Police officers, emergency workers, public officials, etc are all granted by their position a “public trust”. Violating this trust causes society to loose faith in the law and its the rule of Law that makes for a society that does not condone “extremism”. When the trust is entirely broken then extremism becomes a rational means of fighting the corruption. Taxation and the high price of health care are problems, but they pale in comparison to a system where paying a police officer to do his job or ignore his job is considered a normal part of daily life. How fast would we have a person in handcuffs if the ambulance driver refused to drive you injured child to the hospital until you payed a “fee”, or if the police could easily be paid “look the other way”, or if good paying jobs were only ever filled by a relative of some public official? We in the US take pride in ferreting out this kind of corruption, exposing it, and demanding change. Yes, I think the writer has very much hit the nail on the head. The only part I would add is that Freedom of the press is likely the integral catalyst that sets us apart from most of these countries and why corruption is largely tolerated there and not here.

Posted by averageamerican | Report as abusive

So Reuters, you think the Ezidys little girls were shaking down these oppressed jihadists? What a shame!!!

Posted by zbegnew | Report as abusive

I think a similar dynamic is at work in the black neighborhoods of the USA. Kleptocrats like Sharpton, Jackson, and even Winfrey now it seems, fan the anger in the youth and profit from it in power and money. We’ve seen the results in Ferguson and NYC. Race baiting is now an industry. There is a striking resemblance in the tactics of bot hate Islamists and the Black Victimization Coalition trying to lynch police and fanning the flames of street violence in the USA.

Posted by Danilushka | Report as abusive

I think a similar dynamic is at work in the black neighborhoods of the USA. Kleptocrats like Sharpton, Jackson, and even Winfrey now it seems, fan the anger in the youth and profit from it in power and money. We’ve seen the results in Ferguson and NYC. Race baiting is now an industry. There is a striking resemblance in the tactics of bot hate Islamists and the Black Victimization Coalition trying to lynch police and fanning the flames of street violence in the USA.

Posted by Danilushka | Report as abusive

I earlier intended to say: “There will be NO instant gratification in such task, for we must master and redirect tendencies and expectations that lay inside each and every human being.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@SamuelReich,

You said: “…most of the non-western world assumes that a good man has responsibility when he gets into office to take care of extended family.” You did NOT observe that in the western world those who achieve office are expected to use their power and influence for the benefit of an “extended family” of their meritocratic society, NOT personal family and entourage.

I fear that the western world in such regard is increasingly sliding backward toward the darkness instead of advancing towards enlightenment. And I hasten to state that it would be a mistake to include Putin within any “western world” as might best be defined as a “civilized society”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Assad ,Hussein and Qaddafi had a real good idea what kind of population they were dealing with so they were forced to become regimes. Now the regimes are not out there so all the lunatics walk freely plus invited some of their buddies to the party.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Very good article but what exactly is the difficult step you must take to eliminate the corruption. Are there even any examples of corrupt countries that managed to change their ways?

Posted by WT5 | Report as abusive

Interesting line of thought, Sarah. Worthy of serious thought & investigation by relevant think-tanks, in my eyes. My personal thanks to you.

Posted by _Eric | Report as abusive

Where are people there’s corruption. The devil is in the detail, however.
A democratic society must constantly fight corruption in order to survive as democratic society, and it has the tool to do that (never perfect of course); it is called the rule of law. On the contrary, totalitarian/authoritarian regime can not survive *without* corruption, because the very top of it epitomizes the highest level of corruption by definition. Thus, a *level* of corruption is directly tied to a degree of social and political maturity of a society. ©

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

“Why did nearly half of Iraq open itself to Islamic State..” Hardly anyone “opened themselves” to Desh, they just didn’t have the means (arms, security) to fight them. Go live there for a while and you’d see that.

Posted by puchurro | Report as abusive

“Do these disparate countries have some trait in common?”

Yes. Islam. Which will always tend toward extremism over time. The only normal muslims you meet are people who left the muslim world. It’s a crazy bloody patriarchal religion. The defectors will always argue otherwise, on these pages and elswewhere. But there is a reason they defected and had to get away.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Bush thought we had to kill off the secular dictators in the middle east. Very bad idea. We should have left them in place. Hussein had 99 problems but hosting ISIS or ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ was not one. Those things were afraid to even exist back then. Hussein would have gassed them. Which is exactly what most redneck americans want to do now anyway. 2 trillion taxpayer dollars and 4,000 U.S. service lives later.

Should have left this hornet’s nest alone. Told you so. In 2003, we warned you.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Samuel Reich explains: “Going back to the time of Moses…”

And what year would that be? You do not know the year, because it’s fiction. Moses was not a historical character, silly. He was a mythological figure. There was no “Time of Moses” in real life…. unless you think there was a time when a sheep herder’s stick really did turn into snakes, and bushes talked like people.

The start of any good debate is separating history from tall tale.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive