On Feb. 18, President Obama plays host to a global summit on ways to counter violent extremism. The White House meeting will look beyond the latest jihadist threat, Islamic State (IS), or security efforts to strike such terrorist groups. Rather Mr. Obama says “ground zero” in this struggle is the long-term effort to win the hearts and minds of young Muslims in search of a purpose.
Groups like IS can easily find recruits in countries with high levels of disaffected Muslim youth exposed to interpretations of Islam as intolerant and violent. IS offers the vision of a close community with shared values that many young Muslims feel they lack. The White House summit is focused on creating an alternative to that vision.
“Ultimately, this fight is not going to be decided on the battlefield,” says Secretary of State John Kerry. “The outcome is going to be determined in classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship, community centers, urban street corners, in the perceptions and the thoughts of individuals, and the ways in which those perceptions are created.”
Saudi Arabia, home to a conservative version of Islam and to the religion’s most sacred sites, has been scrambling since 9/11 to prevent its young people from joining radical groups such as Al Qaeda. Despite many reforms in the kingdom under King Abdullah, who died last month, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Saudis have joined the ranks of IS fighters in Syria and Iraq. Alarmed at IS’s swift advance, the government is building a high-tech barrier along the border with Iraq. And a royal decree bars Saudis from joining IS.
Yet the kingdom knows its best response lies in reform of its education system. Nearly two-thirds of its 29 million people are under age 30, many provided with only low-level skills and dealing with a youth unemployment rate close to 30 percent. A survey last year by the Boston Consulting Group found young Saudis with inadequate education and career opportunities. Nearly two-thirds of students receive degrees that are not useful. And, the survey found, “many young Saudis are frustrated with the absence of social outlets.”
A new monarch, King Salman, has moved swiftly to make changes in government. Perhaps his most important is a new minister of education, Azzam al-Dakhil, who holds advanced degrees from Britain and the US. He has been a leader in nurturing young talent and creating a “knowledge” economy. If he can rid the schools of extremist teachings and offer hope for young people to find meaningful work in the private sector, then Saudi Arabia might set an example of reversing the notion of Muslim countries as a source for violent jihadists.
Only an estimated 5 percent of Saudis sympathize with the goals of IS. But that is enough to keep a flow of fighters to the group. Drying up the flow requires that Arab leaders and others provide a stronger – and nonviolent – purpose to young Muslims.