Islamic Radicals and Welfare Vacuums: A dangerous marriage

In the first presidential debate, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump remarked that "ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum." The term "vacuum" was most likely a slur on the current administration's foreign policy; however, if we understand it as a reference to the lack of governance in areas of the Middle East then the statement is not entirely untrue. In fact, ISIS and Al Qaeda's efforts to present themselves as quasi-governments capable of social welfare provision draws our attention to a phenomenon that probably deserves more attention than it receives: the use of social welfare provision by radical Islamist groups as a means of consolidating political control.

Radical Groups and Social Services: The Logic

UCSD professor Eli Berman explains the logic behind radical Islamist groups’ provision of social services. He argues that these groups are able to discriminate provision in favor of those who act in line with the groups’ specific political program. The group is then able to weed out those who do not conform and control defections in environments where social welfare provision is desperately inadequate. By controlling access to social welfare, groups are able to consolidate political power by providing social services in exchange for loyalty.

Taking Gaza's Hamas as an example, the logic behind this is relatively clear. The Islamic group expanded its social service network throughout the 1990s to fill the vacuum left by the inefficiencies and probable corruption of secular political rival, Fatah. Today, Hamas’ "big network of charity" comprises hundreds of medical centers, food banks and schools where, importantly, Palestinians can find "not only a good dentist, but a good Muslim." Following Berman's logic, we would expect to see an increase in behaviors that align with Hamas' vision of a state governed by sharia law. Tellingly, and in accordance with the group's post-victory declaration of the “end of secularism and heresy in the Gaza Strip,” Gaza witnessed a marked increase in outward signs of piety, like frequent prayer and stringent dress codes. This supports Berman’s argument that the population will adopt the behaviors of the group providing services.



Social Service Vacuums: The Problem

To refocus on the present, little doubt remains that certain regions of the Middle East are in desperate need of adequate social services. This raises the question: are radical groups stepping in to fill this vacuum?

The answer is an unfortunate but unequivocal yes. The Islamic State has attempted to ingratiate itself with civilians by claiming that its legal system, equipped with police, courts, and prisons, is more legitimate and effective than any available alternatives. This is a compelling tactic in a region plagued by long-term corruption and a decisive lack of public safety provision. Furthermore, achieving a monopoly of the judicial system could fast track the alignment of behaviors with the Islamic State's political vision. A vision which, worryingly, revolves around ostentatious brutality, the extermination of rivals and the imposition of strict sharia law.

Rival aspirant to caliphate glory, Al Qaeda, is making the same pragmatic play. The group ensures low rents for displaced families, and organizes “family fun days” complete with tug-of-war games and raffles. By controlling the judicial system, and access to marriage certificates and property deeds, Al Qaeda is able to impose its ideology on basic aspects of civilian life. The group's Yemen franchise is placing a similar focus on basic governance. As the country collapsed into civil war last year, Al Qaeda took control of the port of al-Mukhalla. It levied taxes on oil imports at the port and stole $100 million from the central bank. These funds were used to abolish taxes for local residents, pave local roads and stock hospitals. In an article published by The Economist, Oxford University professor Elisabeth Kendall argues that Al Qaeda wanted to show that they could rule better than anyone else. Arguably, they are succeeding.

Alternative Provision of Social Welfare: The Solution

Regional and external players that wish to stop the transformation of governance vacuums into radical strongholds should look to alternative, non-governmental mechanisms of social welfare provision. By supplying a pluralistic, ideologically moderate alternative, governments can encourage defections from radical group provision. This should reduce radicals’ ability to consolidate power by discriminating against behavior that doesn't align with their specific political vision.

Indeed, we don't have to look hard to find some alternatives that already exist and could do with some support from the international community. The Beirut trash crisis of 2015 prompted a group of the city’s community members to form a protest movement and devise a solution. The central government failed to deal with the overwhelming amount of trash following the closure of the main trash disposal center in Beirut. The emergency plan put forward by the movement involved localizing trash disposal and providing funding for municipalities to dispose of the trash. The movement lacked the resources and authority to push the plan through, but this provides an example of the kind of local, small-scale responses that might undermine radical group provision.



Another promising approach is that of social entrepreneurship. The international community could support innovative new organizations like Synergos, a nonprofit that promotes grassroots collaboration in order to solve regional problems. In Egypt, the organization sponsors an online educational resource designed to complement the Egyptian public school curriculum. Programs like this could be used to undermine radical groups’ abilities to control access to education, thereby eroding their capabilities to discriminate provision of such a valued social service. 

Importantly, these approaches are small-scale efforts. Community groups and entrepreneurs will not be able to provide full, extensive social welfare coverage. However, even small-scale provision could undermine radical groups’ abilities to exploit desperation. Hamas dominated Gaza’s social service vacuum to consolidate power. ISIS and Al Qaeda are pursuing similar tactics in regions of total government paralysis. This paralysis makes it unlikely that a renovation of government provision will be anything other than a distant goal. In the meantime, these small-scale approaches may be our best chance of ensuring that this phenomenon does not repeat itself.