EDITOR'S ADVISORY: Policy brief outlines appeal of Islamic radicals

As the United States moves closer to war with Iraq, a leading scholar of the Middle East has published a compelling analysis of the conditions that have given rise to Islamic radicalism. The policy brief, "Explaining the Appeal of Islamic Radicals," identifies the social, economic, and political factors fueling Islamic radicalism, and critiques the Bush administration's policies as "throwing gasoline on the fire." The brief is online at: http://www2.ucsc.edu/cgirs/publications/gpb/GPB1.pdf.

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Author Alan Richards is a frequent consultant to the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense on Middle Eastern affairs. A professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Richards is coauthor of the book, A Political Economy of the Middle East. He can be reached at (831) 459-4662 or via e-mail sent to arr@ucsc.edu.

In the policy brief, Richards writes that a military attack on Iraq will stoke the "already intense rage against the U.S. felt by the political actors to whom the future belongs: young Muslims." Instead, he argues for short-term covert operations against al-Qaeda and long-run strategies to undermine the appeal of violent Islamist radicals. Richards identifies four roots of Islamic radicalism:

  • Destabilization. The Muslim world is in crisis as it moves from an illiterate, agrarian society into an industrialized society. Richards compares it to what unfolded in Europe, East Asia, and the United States during their own transitions, and he likens today's followers of al-Qaeda to utopian fanatics of the past, including fascists, Nazis, Leninists, and Maoists.

  • Demographics. Half of all Middle Easterners are below the age of 20, and, for the first time in history, many youth have received some education. But higher expectations are thwarted by a sluggish labor market and levels of unemployment in some countries that rival those of the United States during the worst days of the 1930s.

  • Poverty and discontent. Only sketchy data on poverty in the Middle East are available, but many Middle Easterners feel relatively poor, an impression fueled by global images on television and the Internet. "Poverty provides a fertile recruiting ground for opponents of regimes," writes Richards, noting that the profile of the rank-and-file of today's violent radical Islamic groups is a young person with some education who may have recently moved to the city.

  • Rapid urbanization and government failure. Middle Easterners have streamed into urban areas in the past 35 years, and the number of city residents is projected to rise from 135 million today to more than 350 million by 2025. But public services and infrastructure are overwhelmed. Government failure to provide basic services, including housing, sewerage, utilities, potable water, and garbage collection, strains their legitimacy. Recently arrived rural migrants to cities are prime targets of Islamic militants.

Sponsored by the UC Santa Cruz Center for Global, International & Regional Studies (CGIRS), the new Global Policy Brief web site will showcase research and opinions on international matters of widespread interest, said Ben Crow, an associate professor of sociology at UCSC and the CGIRS associate director who launched the site. "We'd like to help narrow the gap between academics, policy makers, and the public," said Crow.