Anti-radicalization expert: Why Islamic extremism is a 'bigger problem' in the EU than Pakistan

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, a 30-year-old from Pakistan, is a world expert on religious radicalization. He has set up three foundations dedicated to tackling extremism (the Pakistan Youth Alliance, Khudi Pakistan, and HIVE) and he is now working with the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World on Extremely Together — an international movement designed to tackle extremism.

In Zaidi’s country, Pakistan, between 2003 and 2016 more than 60,000 deaths have resulted from terrorist violence, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

However, speaking to Business Insider, Zaidi said that extremism “is a bigger problem in Europe than Pakistan” because of the mix of Islamists from different countries who have “different languages and social norms,” making it more difficult to “develop a program that reaches all of them.”

While there are fewer extremists in Europe than Pakistan that resort to violence, Zaidi said the ideology of European extremists is harder to tackle.

Since terrorist attacks in the EU have reached record numbers in the EU in 2015, and are showing no signs of decreasing this year, we spoke to Zaidi gain insight into how best to prevent radicalization.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Will Heilpern: You have had a great deal of experience in battling extremism in Pakistan — What is the main lesson you would give the west, where Islamic extremism is a newer and less pervasive, but nonetheless really dangerous threat?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: It might be slightly problematic, but I have realised that people have genuine grievances. I have realised that we need to have some kind of empathy, even when we are dealing with extremists, or so-called radicals.

We have polarised society too much. I think there should be a more empathetic foreign policy and security policy. When I say “empathy,” I don’t mean trying to imagine what the others are going through, but to do something about the legitimate grievances of the people: how they are disenfranchised, how they are fighting, how they are struggling.

I think it is empathy that will counter extremism. Nothing else will.

Will Heilpern: What are the most important factors that have contributed to an increase in religious radicalization and extremism in Pakistan and the rest of the world?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: In Pakistan, it’s a historical problem. Things started in Pakistan three to four decades ago in the 70s and 80s, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the US wanted and used the help of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The state narrative in Pakistan became that we had to resist any kind of foreign intervention.

When the “West versus Islam” narrative came to Pakistan, that was the biggest problem. People had soft spots for terrorists. They considered them freedom fighters, fighting against Western Imperialism.

Will Heilpern: In the western media, we are often told that those who become radicalized are disenfranchised people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who feel like society has not been good to them. Is this true in Pakistan, or does extremism permeate all parts of society?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: I wouldn’t say that it is just the lower classes that are extremists. I’ve seen people who are very rich and well educated, with very extremist narratives. They might not be violent always, but they have an extremist narrative.

I would say it’s a very mobile thing. Yes people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, people who are facing economic inequality, are more susceptible to it, but I know very well to do, well-educated software engineers who are extremists.

Will Heilpern: During the height of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, between 2007 and 2014, there were thousands of civilian deaths each year as a result of Islamic terrorism. At this time what was life like in Pakistan? Were people too afraid to go out?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: When it was really bad 2012/13/14, I wouldn’t say people were scared to go out. People were very resilient. Extremists were killing people, but still girls, boys, grandfathers, and grandmothers were standing up to extremism.

So, yes, people are afraid, but it doesn’t really impact their social and political lives. We have a very vibrant political and cultural life. People go out. Shopping malls are full. We have concerts. We have dance festivals. We have everything going on like any other country, but still terrorism is a fear that is hanging there like a sword.

Will Heilpern: Do you think that there is a genuine risk that Europe could develop as big a problem with extremism as Pakistan?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: In Europe it is a big problem, it’s a bigger problem. Why? In the EU the Muslims are from, I don’t know, 70 nationalities. In Pakistan we can mitigate the effects of Extremism. In London for example, let’s say there are Syrians and Lebanese and Pakistanis and Jordanians and Saudis. These are different kinds of people who have different languages and social norms, so it’s very difficult to develop a program that reaches to all of them. So I think it’s bigger problem in Europe than Pakistan because of the way the society organizes itself.

Will Heilpern: It seems odd to say that it is a bigger problem, given that there is considerably less terrorist violence in the EU than there is in Pakistan. Do you mean that it could become a bigger problem?
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: In the case of violent extremism, first the person would have some extremist ideas and secondly they would have to believe in violence. In the western world, many have extremist ideas, [but fewer are violent.]

I wouldn’t say that there would be more violence in the EU as compared to what is happening in Pakistan because when we talk about violence, we talk about societal structures that somehow support violence. Because of the influence of the social structures in the EU, it wont come to the same level of terrorism.

Will Heilpern: Are there problems with the way the western media treats extremism?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: The way it uses terms loosely, like “Islamists” can make things worse. There’s no established academic link between between Islamism and violence. “Islamist” is a very broad word. There are many Islamist people who believe in fundamental human rights, arts, culture, and freedom of expression.

Throwing around loose words like “Islamist” does not end up solving the problem. Why? Because it reinforces the narratives of organisations like ISIS, who say: ‘Look at the Washington Post or CNN, they are blaming terrorism on the entirety of Islamists.’ I think a more nuanced approach should be taken.

Will Heilpern: What is the correct term to capture the certain subset of islamists who are extremists?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: Wahhabi-Salafists.

Will Heilpern: Do you think that the rise right wing political parties in Europe, and the reported increase in xenophobic attitudes has contributed to the problem of extremism?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: For sure. Yes of course.

I would say, for example that the Neo Nazi movement in Germany or Sweden, and other xenophobic movements and political parties with conservative world views, end up solidifying extremist narratives.

For example, I was studying in a city called Malmo, Sweden, and I went outside to smoke. There were people outside who were from the right wing extremist movement. I recognised this from their tattoos and hair.

I was just smoking a cigarette and they stopped and said: “Look at this f*****g Islamic terrorist. Look at this medieval extremist smoking up.”

I didn’t respond but I felt really bad. I was thinking that, if I were a Wahabi, if I were a person that believed in the ideas of extremism, that would solidify things. I would think: ‘Look he is abusing me because of my skin colour and religion,’ which he was. That would solidify my conviction and belief in the extremist world view.

Will Heilpern: What do governments need to do differently to help counter Islamic terrorism?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: I’ve come to realise that in all the world governments, including the Muslim countries, the dictators, liberal democracies, communist states, and so-called communist states like China, their policy makers need to be more patient with extremism. Just because one incident has killed 5 people — yes, it’s a terrible thing — does not mean that you should make statements that reverse all the gains that we have made.

I have lost friends fighting extremism. I have lost family because of targeted assignations. So, when people make really stupid statements that somehow makes me responsible for extremism, it doesn’t help. I need international support to fight extremism. So, when somebody like Donald Trump makes a very hash statement, it doesn’t help anyone.

Will Heilpern: Do you think religious extremism can be defeated anytime in the near future?

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi: No, I think it will take a long time. I think it’s a huge struggle. I think it will take 20, 30 years at least and only if we don’t go to any more wars and if people stop using state power to dominate people’s lives. We’re in for a long long struggle.

But, I am an optimist and a prisoner of hope. I would say that things are improving. I think that the world over — from the Australian government to the Pakistani government — is talking about extremism and how to improve it.

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