Stopping the cycle of violent extremism in Syria has nothing to do with religion

Syria is suffering from the seemingly never-ending cycle of civil war and terrorism.

The country has become a recruiting hotspot for ISIS, also known as the Islamic State and Daesh, ever since Syria descended into internal conflict in 2011.

But despite ISIS’ apparent religious convictions, the spiral of violent extremism in Syria is not driven by religion, according to Syrian businessman Zaid Al Rayes.

“Extremism is a complex issue and while there are no exact or clear roots, there are two sides to the problem,” Al Rayes told Business Insider. “Educational and economic.”

“Some say that religious roots are the cause of the problem but if you look in depth into extremism, we see that people join these groups when they have lost hope, have no jobs, and no rights. I have visited Syrian refugee camps and I feel there is a great passion for them to want to work. But a lot of them do not have job opportunities and this is why I established a social entrepreneurship project as I wanted to create opportunities for Syrians.”

Al Rayes is one of the 10 people involved in “Extremely Together,” an initiative launched by the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World aimed at countering violent extremism within communities.

“At ‘Extremely Together,’ we are 10 different people from 10 different backgrounds and each of us has different experiences in witnessing extremism,” Al Rayes says.

Zaid1Extremely TogetherZaid Al Rayes works for ‘Extremely Together.’

“Extremism is not a new issue but why are we only talking about it for the last few years? I think this is because of the [9/11] attacks,” he added.

“But let’s take the example of the massacre in Rwanda and what’s happening with Boko Haram. These are not new kinds of violence, these have been happening in places where people are in extreme poverty and have no rights. We only start talking about it now because it is touching the West.”

Al Rayes initially tried to join politics as part of the Syrian opposition early in his career. However, he found that no matter what type of good work he tried to do, “there were also big forces trying to push their own agenda.”

He now runs the Al Rayes Group, an umbrella company that employs over 1,900 people across 16 companies, involved in industries like gas and trade.

Al Rayes believes that he can make a difference in Syria by offering economic and educational opportunities to people who would otherwise be driven to extremism by a sense of hopelessness.

He says: “People aren’t thinking about the economic issues because security is the first priority. At the moment people don’t know if a bomb is going to drop on their house. But the reason why I look at this from an economic point of view is because economics provide a future for people.”

Syria is suffering through one of the most devastating civil wars in recent history. Bashar al-Assad has been at war with his own people since 2011. In August 2013, Assad killed 1,400 of his own citizens after he unleashed chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus. Now, the Syrian government is bombing rebel strongholds in the city which is still home to 250,000 people.

Meanwhile, Britain, the US, Denmark, and others, are bombing Syria to try and target ISIS soldiers and assets. The bombing is also killing civilians as the coalition try to rid the region of ISIS.

Al Rayes believes it is this maelstrom of violence that has created the perfect breeding ground for terrorism, adding that Western military action to try and stop the spread of ISIS over parts of the region in fact “absolutely” exacerbates extremism.

Syria itself is too dangerous for Al Rayes to operate in, so his focus through “Extremely Together” is on helping the refugee population.

At last count, there were 65.3 million people around the world who have been displaced by conflict, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of those, 4.8 million are registered Syrian refugees abroad while 6.6 million are people that have been forced to flee their homes in Syria but still live within the country.

Jordan has one of the biggest populations of Syrian refugees and Al Rayes focuses on helping out Syrian refugees in camps spread across the United Arab Emirates. These camps “in Jordan and Lebanon are far worse than those in Europe,” he says. “We have limited resources but we give help to those much needed people.”

There is currently a humanitarian crisis in Jordan because the army shut down some of the country’s borders, making it difficult for international relief workers to help refugees. This has meant that while much-needed food and care is being blocked, with only makeshift shelters and little central organisation.

Al Rayes offers three ways to improve conditions for these Syrian refugees, in a bid to show them they have a bright future and do not need to turn to extremism.

“We do business in food supply and we try to provide job opportunities to refugees this way. We bring them to countries in the UAE, such as Dubai, Azerbaijan, and Saudi Arabia and provide work, so they are able to support their families,” says Al Rayes.

Giving one Syrian a job can end up helping an entire family, he says.

One of his most touching moments he has had since getting involved with “Extremely Together” was seeing how providing a job for a refugee called Halid, impacted the entire family tree. Al Rayes met Halid in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where he was living with 23 family members. He had lost a sister and a brother in the bombings.

After Halid was offered an assistant chef job in Dubai he was able to provide for his family and his niece ended up returning to education.

Another way Al Rayes helps Syrian refugees is by giving grants for projects that directly help them. So far, 3 have been granted in Jordan and 4 in Lebanon.

Finally, Al Rayes also helps by supporting education initiatives for Syrian refugees in Jordanian and Lebanese camps.

“When people are in extreme poverty, not allowed to work, and have no sources of funds, they turn to extremism as it provides a future,” said Al Rayes. “However, to counter this, we need to show people that they have a future and will be able to provide for themselves and a family, elsewhere.”

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