Kerry seeks to disconnect religion from terrorism

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( – Reiterating his argument that a lack of jobs, more than religious ideology, lies behind the “scourge” of terrorism, Secretary of State John Kerry in a commencement speech Friday pointed to the fact that those who ignited the so-called “Arab spring” five years ago were not motivated by religion.

In Tunisia and Egypt, those credited with launching the revolutions were driven not by religion but by frustration about state corruption and a lack of opportunities, hesaid at Northeastern University in Boston.

He was referring to the Tunisian fruit vendor whose Dec. 2010 self-immolation triggered a revolt that ended a dictator’s 23-year rule, and to the mostly young Egyptians whose mass demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square led to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation after 29 years at the helm.

“There was no religion at all in what he did,” Kerry said of Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi. “There was no religion in Tahrir Square in terms of what motivated it.”

While Kerry is arguably correct about Islam not being a major factor in the popular uprisings against autocrats that were optimistically dubbed the Arab spring, it is unclear how that strengthens – or is even relevant to – the broader point he was making, that young people’s lack of access to opportunities and jobs is driving terror recruitment.

When looking at links between the Arab spring and terrorism, experts tend to agree that Islamist terror spread not because of the economic or political factors that drove the protestors clamoring for democratization, but because their protests led to the removal of rulers whose repressive security structures had kept extremism in check, such as Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The chaos and breakdown of state control that ensued provided opportunities and space that has been exploited by terrorists, as in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Little evidence has come to light that the young Egyptians calling for Mubarak’s departure or Tunisians who protested against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali themselves turned to radical Islamist ideology or terror.

Yet Kerry raised the topic of the absence of religion as a driving force in the Arab spring in the context of the broader challenge posed by the “scourge of violent extremism.” A theme he frequently reprises is that the root causes of terrorism include a lack of jobs and opportunities, not Islamist ideology.

“We’re not going to be successful [in combating terror] in the long run if the world continues to turn away from other kinds of problems and allows the production of terrorists at such an alarming rate,” he said in the address.

“And that is why it is critical that we expand our commitment to taking on violent extremism at the roots. We know that there are millions of young people across the globe with no jobs, no opportunity, but they have smartphones in their hands,” Kerry continued.

“They can see what the rest of the world has. And in the seeing of that, they also see and know what they don’t have.”

Then he cited the Arab spring examples and the absence of religion as a driving force, before concluding that portion of the speech by stressing the importance of improving governance and the education of young people that “keeps them from being radicalized.”

It was the second time in less than a fortnight that Kerry invoked the Arab spring in the context of the supposed root causes of terrorism.

In an April 26 speech at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, he did so in the middle of a portion in which he sought to distance Islam from terrorism, listing radicalization factors ranging from repression and a lack of rights to the appeal of “regular meals [and] companionship.”

In that speech, Kerry made the ostensible link even clearer.

“People are far more likely to become radicalized when they have directly experienced corruption or violence at the hands of the state,” he said. “Witness that fruit vendor in Tunisia who was slapped around trying to sell his goods and slapped by a police officer and in protest went and burned himself in front of the police station, and that is what ignited the Arab spring – not religion.

“Denial of fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, deprives people of voice and dignity, and it tends to force legitimate religious and political activities underground, and it fills many with an anger that makes them far more susceptible to terrorist recruiters,” Kerry added.

— Written by Patrick Goodenough