The 'Glocalized' Roots of Religious Politics: Extremism from Below, Not Abroad

09/17/2011 10:35 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is perhaps most striking about events since September 11, 2001 is their affirmation of a crucial trend: What happens in far off corners of the world can have serious implications for what happens at home. When al Qaeda emerged in the 1990s it was not engaged in a global jihad in a pure sense. Rather, its main concern was Saudi Arabia and the eradication of foreign, western influences from that land. Only once its efforts failed in Saudi Arabia did the local jihad globalize, morphing into a network of interconnected individuals and groups sharing information and ideas about political objectives in the coming era. More often than not, these concerns were not about global politics, but about local politics.

Consider the Arab Spring and its origins. The usual suspects -- radical Islam, foreign intervention and anti-Americanism -- were not involved. Rather the uprisings emerged from local, domestic politics. We have been here before. The velvet collapse of the USSR in 1991 came as just as big a surprise as the Arab Spring -- and for exactly the same reasons. The two episodes seem far apart in culture, space and time; yet they spring from the same causes. First, an abused and exploited people is systematically denied the ability to compare the way they live to the lives of others. Second, these people gain access to comparative information about how others with similar histories (or fewer advantages such as natural resources) live their lives. And, third, they are outraged by the comparison.

One difference between now and 1991 is how much more "real-time" the world is. The same technology that enables comparisons (today's mobile phones are actually handheld computers) makes it impossible for governments to isolate protesters, or murder them privately. In terms of distributed communications power, the modern mobile phone is light years ahead of the Gorbachev era's camcorders and VCR players. The transmission of information is not new. What is new is the rate of that transmission and the rapidity with which it spreads across physical space. This makes the technology doubly dangerous. Comparisons are easy to make, protest can be organized and directed instantly and new research suggests that even government attempts to shut down internet or mobile phone connectivity may make matters worse. Many who actively participate in street protests might have chosen to stay at home if their access to the Internet not been severed.1

What the Arab uprisings revealed is that today's people, in the Arab world assuredly but not only there, desire less a unified ideology around a single leader or leadership that touts triumphalism over some form of evil and more a system of governance that promotes accountability, transparency and protects every individual's needs and interests. Human dignity -- Ana Rajul or "I am a man" -- was the core message, and this message seems to be emerging from individual and localized responses.

This may be bad news for everyone.

It may be bad news for "the West" because the demand for better government does not necessarily translate into a demand for liberal democracy. The resistance and the message are bottom-up, but the desired political outcome may be simply replacing bad autocrats with good ones, top-down. Because in Europe and North America this is anathema (or in more secular terms, non sequitur), diplomatic, political and economic resources that might be used to good effect to support the legitimate aspirations of the Arab peoples will instead only engender further friction and division.

It is bad news for al Qaeda since the notion of a globalized religious struggle -- if it was ever as strong as we believed it was (and some believe continue to be) -- is increasingly unlikely to serve as the ideological foundation of transformative resistance and political reform. Rather, where religious extremism exists, it is more likely to emerge as a result of state and sub-state level politics. This is where the fights were all along. Civil wars remain the most common form of large-scale violence since the end of the Cold War; resulting in far greater deaths and far wider destruction than the global jihadist movement. In Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan and Tajikistan, religious extremism emerged as a result of states and sub-units of states trying to define or circumscribe what it means to be a Christian or Muslim within those states -- trying, in other words, to clamp down on religious freedom. They did not emerge as a result of camaraderie with al Qaeda.

In sum, bottom-up resistance need not be aimed at a bottom-up solution in the form of popular sovereignty or liberal democracy, at least not in the short term. The notion that only some form of democracy can guarantee security, prosperity, and liberty is as historically and culturally myopic as it is dear to the Western heart. So a key take-away of the Arab Spring must be that far from a process by which globalized radical ideology was used to topple local governments, it was individuals and families, angry and committed to a better life as people, who used global resources to help them topple corrupt and brutal dictators. What the well-intended and self-interested West must do now is genuinely listen to what these people have to say and to help them achieve their own vision of good and stable government, whether that looks exactly like "democracy" or not. But even such a bottom-up, grass-roots vision, precisely if it is to lead to stable government and not generate further and more destructive civil conflicts, must at least secure the religious freedom of its people.

[1] Noam Cohen, "In Unsettled Times Media Can Be a Call to Action, or a Distraction," The New York Times, August 29, 2011, available online at