A response to Stephen Shwartz’s critical review of the KCSS report on Kosovars’ fighting in Syria and Iraq

The US Embassy only provided funding for the research for this report and in no way commissioned it or influenced the analysis, making Mr. Shwartz’s claim about reflecting administration...

A response to Stephen Shwart’z critical review of the KCSS report on Kosovars’ fighting in Syria and Iraq has been sent to “The Weekly Standard” where Mr. Shwartz has originally published his critical review. The response has been sent on 30 April 2015, and “The Weekly Standard” did not publish the response, nor did it give any justification for it. The author of the report has attempted to contact them through email again on 7 May 2015, but to no avail. The author of the report has called “The Weekly Standard” offices in Washington D.C. twice on 13 May 2013, but there was no response. We are compelled, therefore, to publish Shpend Kursani’s response to Stephen Shwartz on our own website, and you can find the full text below.

Shpend Kursani, author

Shpend Kursani, author

On 20 April 2015, Stephen Shwartz, the founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, published a critical review of the “Report Inquiring Into the Causes and Consequences of Kosovo Citizens’ Involvement as Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq” authored by myself and published by the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies (KCSS). A critical review of this extensive report was much needed. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Shwartz’s review failed to sincerely address the potential gaps in the study, and was instead marred by a number of argumentative flaws, in many cases failing to provide supportive evidence for many of its claims.

Last year, Sean Hannity of Fox News hosted Cornel West, an American public intellectual, to talk about the Israeli-Gaza conflict. After major disagreements with Cornel West, as one can imagine, Sean Hannity closed the show by telling West, “I don’t know why I like you, but I do. I like you, I can’t help it”. It is this exact scenario that I was reminded of when carefully reading Mr. Shwartz’s review, which followed the logic of: “I don’t know why I disagree, but I do. I disagree, I can’t help it”.

When looking at the number of foreign fighters who have joined various rebel groups in Syria from each country, many reports, produced mainly by the western hemisphere based institutes, use the number of foreign fighters on per capita basis to rank countries in order to provide a more accurate picture of the extent to which each of the countries are affected by the phenomenon. In addition to ranking countries based on such logic in its report, the KCSS made a further step by ranking countries based on the number of foreign fighters on a per capita basis in proportion to their respective Muslim populations. Mr. Shwartz rightly cites some of the report’s arguments behind the logic of such a ranking; however, in his critical review, Mr. Shwartz claims this to be contradictory, providing not a single argument for it, merely saying “no surprise there”. One should be surprised however, as to why Mr. Shwartz does not provide a single argument to support his claim when saying this is contradictory.

It seems that the main aim of Mr. Shwartz’s remark is to attempt and demonstrate that the report is allegedly apologetic to religious radicalism and extremism. In order to do so, for instance, Mr. Shwartz cites the report as follows “violent extremist ideas in Kosovo are embraced by only a small group of people when compared to the overall population size”, and to support his attempted argument he leaves the other half of the sentence out, which in the report follows as “… yet, given their ideological tenets, these groups still pose a threat to state institutions and citizens”. Another remark that Mr. Shwartz makes is that the “document uses DeLong-Bas more extensively to ameliorate the brutal image of Wahhabism”. Here, Mr. Shwartz, makes an ad-hominem argumentative flaw because he does not deal with DeLong-Bas’ findings, but labels her as “a notorious American academic apologist for Wahhabism”. Also, if one reads the report carefully, DeLong Bas was the only academic cited among numerous other sources which have negative stances on Wahhab and Wahhabism. The report has used only DeLong-Bas as a Wahhab’s biographer from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. even though there are many more western academics that have written extensively about the myths surrounding Wahhab as an individual, and not Wahhabism as a movement – there are significant differences between the two. Using only one source that does not have negative views on Wahhab, among numerous sources in the report that have negative stances on Wahhab and Wahhabism, presents a great harm to a scientific approach indeed. I should perhaps have used other western “DeLong-Bas-es” to balance the positive and negative sources on Wahhab. So, Mr. Shwartz’s views on Wahhab – that is the negative ones – were overrepresented in the report when compared to a single positive view which Mr. Shwartz lobbies with to support his claims about the report. Why did Mr. Shwartz not entertain with his own views on Wahhab – that is the negative ones – much more represented in the report, remains unknown.

Mr. Shwartz labels as contradictory the fact that the report deals with the interaction between the import of extremist ideas into Kosovo (external influences) on the one hand, and the sociological explanations (internal conditions) on the other, to explain why and how someone embraces extremist ideas. However, and once again, Mr. Shwartz does not provide a single argument to support such a claim, as to why this would be contradictory. Does Mr. Shwartz believe that the mere presence of an idea is enough to explain the embrace of that particular idea? It remains unknown. Indeed, it was expected that a report that has not adopted an essentialist reading of the phenomena, would destabilize certain established essentialist predicates. Furthermore, the critical review states, in a scheming fashion, that the report makes a “handy excuse for Muslim extremism” because it factors in the “internal conditions at societal, family and individual levels” to explain the Kosovars’ embrace of imported extremist ideas in Kosovo. How Mr. Shwartz arrives at such a conclusion is quite astonishing.

Mr. Shwartz tears his claims into pieces about the report’s alleged stance of “excusing” extremism through his dealings with the report’s recommendations on how to fight extremism. How can one be apologetic to extremism on the one hand, and recommend the fight against extremism on the other hand? Additionally, the critical review did not fail to amaze me when it criticizes the report’s recommendation that the state authorities and other societal structures need to take an inclusive, which Mr. Shwartz labels as “soft”, approach to fighting the phenomenon. Mr. Shwartz criticizes the report in an outrageous manner because it did not recommend that the United States utilize the same resources it utilized when it helped Kosovo’s liberation from Serbia in 1999. Meaning he suggests that bombs (now drones), tanks, snipers, foot soldiers, and alike should have been recommended as a solution to extremist ideas in Kosovo. I would have to assume that Mr. Shwartz may be one of the few people, if not the only one, left in this world to believe that the 2003-2013 hardcore intervention in Iraq was a success, and that ISIS just came out of some strategic thinking among the Sunni Muslims living peacefully in the Levant. He also misses the Kosovo context completely, and the report’s findings in this regard, which should be a surprise.

Furthermore, the critical review questions the “reintegration and rehabilitation” approach that the report recommends, by rhetorically asking, “But if a Muslim has gone to Syria to fight for ISIS, how would a prison term increase that person’s level of fanaticism?” Mr. Shwartz fails to think, and let alone use examples of the differences between the level of fanaticism of the Guantanamo prisoners before and after their imprisonment, or even the fact that ISIS was born in the “infamous” Camp Bucca detention center. Or that the killing of Osama bin Laden did not solve the extremist problem: if one thinks of the level of extremism deriving from the radicalized Sunni Muslims in the Middle East – what we had until 2011 before bin Laden was killed – and what we have today (the ruthless ISIS that would make Osama bin Laden nowadays look like a tamed extremist). Of course, the report does not claim that every single imprisonment produces a counterproductive consequence, but it strongly refuses to take a black-and-white approach to the phenomenon. Mr. Shwartz fails to understand the report’s spirit of producing clear recommendations that would engage the Islamic community, both the liberals and the non-violent conservatives, in fighting extremism, and not bomb them indiscriminately – which again, in the Kosovo context, would be an insane approach in itself.

The critical review makes a factual mistake when it says that “This strategy has failed everywhere it has been applied, from Saudi Arabia to Britain. Rehabilitation’ of terrorists does not work. Consequential action to defeat and isolate them does work”. For instance, a 2010 report produced by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution claims the absolute opposite of what Mr. Shwartz says about the failure of the rehabilitation program in the case of Saudi Arabia. The report states that Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program and method has been “remarkably successful” having a rate of recidivism of only 10-20 percent amongst rehabilitated terrorists. Also The Washington Post reported in 2014 that only 12 percent of Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitated terrorists have returned to terror.  Mr. Shwartz also fails to read the sources of the report when it talks about the successful example of the Danish rehabilitation project.

Mr. Shwartz does not fail to expose his anti-Obama administration stance throughout his critical review, and ends it with a despicable remark by saying that “Those responsible for this report, including the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo, have done a great disservice to the people of Kosovo, who are allies of America, by its release…” and continues by saying that “it will be no surprise if it is ignored or repudiated by the great majority of Kosovo Albanians who oppose ISIS.” Not surprisingly, the report has traumatized only a few people in Kosovo dealing with the issue (a few of those viewing things in black-and-white fashion), because of its new findings. It is still early to tell, but as this piece is being written, overall the report has been considered one of the most important reports published in Kosovo, and important not only for Kosovo, but for the region of the Balkans as well. The US Embassy only provided funding for the research for this report and in no way commissioned it or influenced the analysis, making Mr. Shwartz’s claim about reflecting administration policy inaccurate. Having been very close to the Islamic community (liberals and conservatives) mainly because of the purposes of the report, I can only say that the fact that the US Embassy has financed the research, it has already calmed the few anti-American voices within the conservative ranks of the Islamic community.

Those that produced the report believe that should the US Embassy and the Government of Kosovo follow the recommendations of this report and its overall spirit, it will represent the next major assistance of the United States Government for the people of Kosovo after its assistance with military intervention in 1999. The report did indeed receive harsh criticisms with, as one can imagine, all sorts of conspiracies behind it and it was completely dismissed by those supporting violent extremism and ISIS itself.  On the other side of the spectrum, we have received interesting critical feedback, with much deeper insights, from people interested to work on the issue in its whole complexity, rather than dismissing the enterprise, rhetorically.

Shpend Kursani, pursued his masters degree at the University of Cambridge (2010-2011) where he earned his M.Phil. degree in International Relations with distinctions on his thesis topic “Using Soft Power: The EU’s Ability to Influence the Domestic and Foreign Policies of the States of the Western Balkans”. He is an External Senior Researcher at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies - KCSS. He is Founder and Member of the Steering Committee at the Balkan Think Tense - BTT. He is also an adjunct lecturer in the field of International Relations at the University College Universum. Shpend has previously (2011-2013) been a Senior Researcher at the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development - KIPRED, where he published a number of policy analysis that in general cover the functioning and political development of Kosovo and Kosovo's relations with Serbia and other international actors.

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