Three years of public polling in Iraq by Mercy Corps has put hard figures to an often-cited theory about the spread and attraction of violent extremism. More than poverty, joblessness or any other dispute or social ill, it is the perception—or reality—of injustice that fuels support for armed opposition groups.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times/Michael Kamber

Sectarianism threatens stability and can feed on itself, but it’s incorrectly blamed as a key source of violence, according to a Mercy Corps report released last week and explored by an expert panel at a U.S. Institute of Peace on Jan. 6. The NGO’s data from face-to-face surveys shows that citizens primarily are driven to support armed opposition by feelings of exclusion from government decision-making and the poor services those authorities deliver.

“Getting governance right may be more important in countering violent extremism than generally perceived.” – Michael Young, Mercy Corps

The report, entitled “Investing in Iraq’s Peace: How Good Governance Can Diminish Support for Violent Extremism,” also outlines how civil society—a sector that didn’t exist in Iraq before 2003—is gaining the trust of Iraqis as a “growing medium for citizen action and voice.”

The report was released as Iraq wrestles with rolling back the extremist self-styled Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which controlled about a third of the country in June. Amid the fighting and displacement of 3 million people from ISIS-held areas, sectarian militias are gaining ground, taking advantage of the government’s weakness, according to Mercy Corps. Corruption remains rampant, and a fiscal crisis brought on by low oil prices threatens to further erode the government’s capabilities, the group said. The question of how to improve governance to curb support for violent extremism is critical to the future of Iraq, where the war effort has cost the U.S. more than $2 trillion, according to one study.

The most revealing aspect of the Mercy Corps research emerged from the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki in August 2014, which occurred in the middle of the study, said Michael Young, a Mercy Corps senior advisor.

“This allowed us to see how opinions changed from before the resignation to immediately after,” said Young, who presented the report at USIP. “The most interesting finding to focus on is the group of people who identified themselves as Sunni Iraqis.”

Negative Views

From 2013 to 2015, Iraqis’ overall perceptions of government, civic engagement, health care, electricity provision and corruption registered steep declines. In the surveys, Iraqis said their ability to influence government had diminished and lawmakers didn’t properly represent them. Most Iraqis felt the government discriminated against their ethnic or sectarian group.

“The vast majority of people thought things were basically getting worse in their country,” Young said. Al-Malaki, who is a Shia Muslim, had been accused by Sunni Muslim politicians of, among other offenses, freezing them out of government, failing to provide services to Sunni areas of the country and attacking and killing demonstrators.

After al-Maliki quit, expectations for government performance rose and support for armed groups plummeted, even though the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, also is a Shia. Among Sunnis, support for armed opposition groups immediately fell to 26 percent from 49 percent, and expectations jumped for how well government would deliver for them.

The results suggest that identity politics itself wasn’t the primary driver of support for armed violence, Mercy Corps said in the report.

“The government’s negligence in addressing underlying grievances and poor governance in areas where populations felt marginalized were significant factors in ISIS’s ability to gain control in parts of Iraq,” Mercy Corps reported. Even so, support for ISIS in the 2015 survey was generally very low.

Disentangling governance, sectarianism and the appeal of armed opposition groups in Iraq is no easy matter, said Sarhang Hamasaeed, a senior program officer at USIP who leads Iraq programs and moderated the Jan. 6 panel discussion. Sectarian polarization in the Middle East is complicating the conflicts that beset the region and making it harder to set up a process that would begin to address their causes.

“Iraqi leaders on all sides of the ethno-sectarian diversity of Iraq say that sectarianism is used for consolidating or gaining power,” Hamasaeed said after the event. “Many Shias believe Sunnis don’t accept their own status as minorities in the population and view complaints about governance as a challenge to Shia rule.”

Surge for Civil Society

The effect of al-Maliki’s resignation as registered in the survey provides a unique look at the impact national politics has on people’s perceptions of government, said Jacob Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and an adviser to Mercy Corps. Nothing else had changed or could account for the dramatic shift in attitudes, he said. Along with the drop in support for armed opposition came a 50 percent surge in sentiment that civil society groups can help improve government, he said.

“These results give us signposts for what might be effective in terms of governance and stability,” Young said. “Getting governance right may be more important in countering violent extremism than generally perceived.”

Research in other fragile states and conflict zones supports the Iraq findings, he said. Youth have said their backing for al-Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is linked to a sense of marginalization, not sectarianism or ideology, Young said. Fostering a vibrant civil society that can provide an opening to government and represent youths’ viewpoints is “a big part of getting governance right,” he added.

Elie Abouaoun, USIP’s director of Middle East programs, said that beyond strengthening civil society and the quality of governance, the region needs a social transformation that challenges the “praise of violence”  as an effective means for accomplishing objectives. Abouaoun, who is based in the region, said he sees violence itself as an underlying condition since factors such as poverty or injustice frequently don’t result in extremism or armed conflict.

“At the social level in the Middle East, people praise violence as a virtue, not only in politics but in their personal lives,” he said. “Some of the communities suffering from ISIS today have embraced violence at different times of their existence, whether between tribes, families or even at the personal level.”

The High Cost of Violence

Interventions aimed at reducing support for violent extremism must demonstrate the high cost of violence, he said—a strategy Shapiro called particularly effective with poorer segments of the population that are more likely to become involved with armed groups. Plans to counter violence must be based on presenting real-life examples of alternative means to address grievances, he said. The agents of this change must be local, he added.

“Without addressing this culture, gains in education or jobs or civil society will be short-lived,” he said.

USIP has supported a range of initiatives in the region to create such alternatives. Last year, the institute and local partners helped Sunni and Shia tribal leaders reduce tensions triggered by the Islamic State’s 2014 massacre of some 1,700 Iraqi Shia military cadets around the Speicher military base. The dialogue eased the return of thousands of families to the Tikrit area after ISIS was defeated there last spring. Another Iraq program brought together people who fled ISIS from Nineveh province. Their distrust was initially so intense that some refused to even sit down together. Most recently, a group of civic, religious and civil society leaders from a Kurdish-dominated area of Syria bordering Turkey was assembled in a USIP-backed effort. Representing sometimes contentious political, religious and ethnic constituencies, the group persuaded local authorities to reopen a vital commercial road closed for security reasons and to bring 100 families swept up political controversies back to their homes.

The surveys for the Mercy Corps research in Iraq were conducted in person throughout most of Iraq, excluding Nineveh and Anbar provinces after their takeover by ISIS, and involved what Shapiro called an unusually “robust” sample of 5,000 respondents annually over three years. The surveys were part of a $55 million project funded by USAID and carried out by Mercy Corps in cooperation with international and Iraqi organizations.

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