Across Arab world, jihadist rhetoric not far from mainstream
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This week, during my visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a text message from the police lit up my mobile phone — and that of millions of others in the area — warning to look out for Ahmed Rahami, wanted in connection with the terrorist bombings that had just struck New York and New Jersey. A few hours later, with Rahami in custody, the familiar, predictable story emerged: A young, impressionable soul, following a sojourn of radicalization in the East, brought suffering and fear to innocents — and a bad end for himself.


Discussions of the pathology of terrorism have evolved in the 15 years between the Sept. 11 tragedy and Rahami's own brush with infamy. First, we learned about the role of regime repression and deflection of blame onto a distant "enemy," and the wages of Western support for so-called "despots." Then we moved on to deeper, underpinning sociological factors: How the vulnerability of the disenfranchised meets the allure of extremists' petro-largesse, the outcome reliably tragic. Now, with so much of the region in flames, we focus on how civil war and chaos in war-torn Arab and Muslim lands provide a galvanizing cause, a breeding ground and a training ground for terror.

But these factors are all bound together by something simple yet seldom mentioned: language. The leaders of all extremist groups are destroyers of people and nations, but also builders of a narrative — a seductive tale of darkness and light; an easy, lethal way out of turmoil. And in the Arab world, in which most of the fighting forces of al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the like still originate, the language of hatred and maximalism pervades the political discussion far beyond "extremist" circles: It's part and parcel of mainstream public life.

For example, after I left New York and went home to Morocco, I encountered this perilous discourse — not in a mosque, not in a basement, but in a general election campaign, with ballots slated for Oct. 7. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, we have had an inclusive constitution in Morocco that transferred control of most ministries to an elected head of government. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won the general elections that year, and they have been spiking the national discussion with chauvinist, bellicose tropes ever since.

Now in the face of tough political opposition and widespread criticism of the party's governing record, PJD chief Abdullah Benkirane, Morocco's prime minister, is calling for "martyrdom" and the "end of days" — war to the death in Arab-Islamic parlance — should his party lose. Doubling down, he recently nominated, to lead a key electoral district, a Salafi cleric who advocates marriage for 9-year-old girls and makes vile statements about Jews. (They're "a dangerous viper that has its tail in Palestine and its head extending to many parts of the world with lethal, venomous bites," for example.) The nominee was slated to join a lineup of like-minded members of Parliament, but to the country's good fortune, the governor of his province found legal grounds to reject his candidacy.

PJD rhetoric finds echoes in the Islamist parliamentarians of neighboring, democratic Tunisia — though that aspect of Islamist Ennahda Party activism receives scant attention in the West. For that matter, incitement against political rivals goes beyond Islamists: In Egypt, some of the most popular TV channels have been known to cheer the excesses of government crackdowns. Yet they break with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to demonize Israelis and Jews, rebuking his calls for a regional peace settlement.

It pains me to say it, but in this foul climate, the rhetoric of jihadist groups lies only a few steps beyond mainstream discourse.

As Arabs and Muslims who inhabit these countries, we have ourselves to blame and bear the brunt of responsibility to foster civil dialogue and peace among neighbors. But there is a supporting role for the U.S. to play: While Washington pursues a highly militarized foreign policy — debating deployments and withdrawals, weapons programs and missile defenses — it has largely abnegated its role as a soft-power player in the region.

Americans are not engaging Arab public discussions, nor deploying their expertise in civil society building, education reform or economic development to any considerable degree. Even on those rare occasions when the American administration condemns an Arab political trend, it focuses almost exclusively on government abuses. My fellow nationals would be pleasantly surprised to hear a State Department spokesman condemn, for example, incendiary statements by the PJD — even though that party is hardly an underdog in Moroccan politics today.

The U.S. is being called upon by its Arab allies to intervene militarily, while its security sector works on overdrive to protect the homeland. In this context, requests that it engage in new, additional ways may seem excessive. But the vitriol so common in Arab public discussions is a major driver of the violence that now surrounds us — such that smart efforts to address it may ultimately save resources and lives.

Charai, a publisher and media executive, is a board director of the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.