Decades of Saudi global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism is perceived to have created breeding grounds for radicalism in Muslim communities even if it was largely not directly responsible for the rise of jihadism.
The same is true for civilisationalism of which jihadism is just one expression as are intolerant, supremacist expressions of Evangelism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Civilisationalism, wittingly or unwittingly, plays with the fire of processes of radicalization that may or may not lead to political violence, a fixture of human history.
Given that societies’ moral and ethical backbone invariably is rooted in values promoted by religion, religion often provides a convenient civilizationalist framework for the justification of violence. Religion, however, is seldom, if ever, the driver.
Recent attacks on mosques in New Zealand, churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, synagogues in the United States and numerous other incidents across the globe demonstrate that civilizationalist ideologies that promote supremacy and exclusivism and dehumanize the other resonate with the most vulnerable groups in society.
Perpetrators of violence, irrespective of social background or economic class, tend to be people who are on the lookout. More often than not they are susceptible to charismatic figures, struggle to deal with personal problems or seek to fill a void in their lives.
They can be loners or products of a group that increasingly isolates them from society and/or convinces them of an imaginary threat posed by one segment of society.
What acts of political violence, recent and long ago, demonstrate is that the fire civilisationalists play with more often than not erupts at home rather than on the other side of the globe.
The fire fuels the politics of fear on which civilisationalists thrive, distorts inter-communal relations, hijacks public debate, and disrupts the development of inclusive policies that would significantly reduce the risk of violence.
A recent study of Saudi foreign fighters, the second largest contingent to join the Islamic State in Syria, showed that civilisationalism was their main driver. Products of an education system that long promoted a Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative brand of Islam that was exclusivist and supremacist, particularly towards Shiites, many of them were driven by sectarian concerns.
Those concerns stemmed from the decision of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a member of a sect deemed heretical by ultra-conservatives to project his brutal suppression of anti-government protests as a struggle against Sunni militants and the support he enjoyed from predominantly Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia.
Anthropologist Scott Atran and journalist Jason Burke note that the phenomenon of foreign fighters joining struggles far from home does not contradict the fact that most recent and less recent acts of political violence were carried out either by homegrown loners or militants.
Some were instigated by recruiters who were nonetheless dependent on locals susceptible to their civilizationalist ideology.
Civilisationalism’s witting or unwitting appeal to vulnerable individuals is mirrored in the perpetrators of non-political incidents such as mass shootings who often are troubled males groping with personal problems and/or demons.
The fact that civilizational and political violence draws from the same pool that produces troubled mass shooters calls into question efforts to prevent incidents that almost exclusively focus either on civilizationalist notions that marginalize groups through stereotyping and other techniques, or criminalization and security measures.
What the communality of the pool highlights is that violence, political or not, is as much a security and law enforcement issue as it is one of public health and social service. It calls for mechanisms that provide early warnings, stop individuals from going off the deep end, and offer them the assistance they need to deal with their personal problems, grievances and voids.
Two separate incidents in October 2014 prove the point.
On first glance, Jaylen Fryberg, a popular freshman, who opened fire on classmates during lunch at a high school near Seattle, appeared to be a happy student. He was a well-liked athlete who shortly before he went on his shooting spree had been named his school’s freshman homecoming prince.
Mr. Fryberg, who shot himself during the incident, no longer is able to explain what prompted him to shoot fellow students and put an end to his own life. But the subsequent police investigation suggested that he was angry at being rebuffed by a girl that chose his cousin rather than him.
By contrast, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a 32-year old convert to Islam, who killed a guard at Ottawa’s National Monument and then stormed the Canadian parliament, had all the trappings of a troubled down-and-out individual.
Canadian media reported that Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau had a history of mental illness and a criminal record that included drug possession, theft, and issuing threats. He was addicted to crack cocaine and spent the last weeks of his life in a homeless shelter.
The Globe and Mail quoted a friend of his, Dave Bathurst, as being told by Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau that the devil was after him. “I think he must have been mentally ill,” Mr. Bathurst said.
The cases of Messrs. Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau raise the question of what the difference is between a school shooting and a politically motivated terrorist attack in terms of how societies can pre-empt violence.
The cases suggest that community engagement as well as social psychological and psychiatric services may be as important as security and law enforcement. Both Mr. Fryberg and Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau had issued cries for help in their own ways.
Writing on Twitter, Mr. Fryberg warned the woman who had rejected him that “your gonna piss me off… And then some (expletive) gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it.” Several days later, he tweeted “It breaks me… It actually does… I know it seems like I’m sweating it off… But I’m not… And I never will be able to.”
Mr. Bathurst, like Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, a convert to Islam, was perhaps the one person Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau appeared to confide in. He described how he felt being persecuted by the devil.
Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s sense of alienation was deepened when the mosque that he and Mr. Bathurst attended asked him to no longer come to prayer because of his erratic behaviour.
Messrs. Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau’s communalities point, on the one hand, to a need for policies and tools that allow society to step in before individuals like them resort to violence.
On the other hand, they highlight the threat posed by civilizationalist ideology, irrespective of its religious, national or civilizational packaging.
Both cases, together with the attacks in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the United States suggest that the rise of civilisationalists, be it to the highest office in the land or as increasingly acceptable social and political groups, raise the spectre of a world in which violence becomes the new normal.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies