Deconstructing the Jihadist Mentality

Deconstructing the Jihadist Mentality

THE ARAB SPRING IN THE MIDDLE East may not have a direct impact on you, me or the global Muslim community. But in time, the implications of the changes taking place in the region will have some profound, indirect effects on Muslims throughout the world.

While these revolutions have not been directly associated with religion, they have been an expression of anger about domestic matters. The popular demands in various countries have been fundamentally political and not religious, such as more representative government, less corruption, more openness, and essentially, a more transparent society. The concerns are relevant to the region and the countries concerned. However, for these very reasons, the Arab Spring is likely to have a strong, indirect influence over time, and have the potential to affect Islamic life all around the world.

These revolutions deconstruct the Jihadists’ worldview and arguments toward radicalization, thus limiting their influence on potential Muslim recruits. Ultimately, the Arab Spring has the potential to help make this world a safer place for everyone.

How, one may ask?

The answer has to do with how radicalization works and how young Muslims become radicalized. The Arab Spring has the potential to affect the radicalization and de-radicalization of Muslims in the West and around the world.

Ten years ago, not many people knew much about how radicalization works. There was little research in the area. But today, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, we understand a lot more about the process of going to the extreme.

Such knowledge can be partly attributed to the work of Marc Sageman, a former United States Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted the largest survey of radical Muslims to date in an effort to understand and pinpoint the causes for radicalization.

He analyzed more than 500 profiles and concluded that radicalization normally occurs in four stages: (1) It is sparked when the individual reacts with moral outrage to stories of Muslims suffering around the world; (2) for some, that spark is inflamed by an interpretation that explains such suffering in the context of a wider war between Islam and the West; (3) the ensuing resentment is fuelled by negative personal experiences in Western countries (e.g., discrimination, inequality or just an inability to get on despite good qualifications); and (4) the individual joins a terrorist network that becomes like a second family, albeit, one closed to the outside world. This situation stokes the radical worldview and prepares the individual for action and, in some cases, martyrdom.

Therefore, radicalization can only take place when the individual believes in the Manichaean division of the world between good Muslims being oppressed by bad non-Muslims. That was always the worldview peddled by the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was for years Osama bin Laden’s deputy and now the new leader of Al-Qaida after Bin Laden’s death. Such narrative nourishes the hatred on which radicalization feeds. For example, militant jihadis – those who believe that Islam justifies violence against civilians to further political objectives – point to the Iraq war as a prime example of how the West wants to “invade Muslim countries.” Notably, this narrative is not exclusive to radicals alone. Many mainstream Muslims also tend to divide the world into “us vs. them” along Muslim and non-Muslim lines. The difference between the two groups is that jihadists use such arguments to persuade their followers to take violent action for political objectives.

The Arab Spring strongly undermines this narrative in at least five ways.


The people’s struggle in the Middle East is not one of Islam vs. the West, or Muslims against non-Muslims. Rather, it is Muslim citizens of Muslim-majority countries seeking more political rights from governments comprised of Muslims.

This context jars with the jihadi message that the central and most urgent struggle for Muslims should be about Muslims versus non-Muslims. Thus, the “us vs. them” scenario no longer seems to be the most pressing concern on the Arab street.


The current revolution is not a religious dispute. It is a political one. The jihadi worldview is based on the premise that all conflict is fundamentally religious. But along comes this movement, which has thrown up new divisions in which the participants are manifestly not separated along sectarian lines. This new scenario calls into question the relevance of the jihadi message to the real needs of Muslims around the world.

The fact that the Arab Spring is not “Muslim vs. the West” and that it is a political struggle rather than a religious one affects the jihadi narrative. It doesn’t rebut or bolster it. Rather, it makes the jihadi perspective less relevant. There were already signs that the intellectual tide in the Muslim world was turning away from al-Qaida-style jihadism. In Pakistan, for instance, a May 2011 Pew Research survey showed that confidence in Bin Laden fell from 46 percent in 2003 to 18 percent last year. The drop in Jordan was from 56 percent in 2003 to 13 percent this year, and 19 percent to 1 percent in Lebanon. The Arab Spring further strengthens this trend.

With an Arab Spring backdrop, a young Muslim in the West or anywhere else may still go through the first stage of radicalization – reacting with moral outrage to stories of Muslims suffering around the world. However, it will be less likely that he or she will move onto the second stage – interpreting that suffering in terms of a wider war between Islam and the West. As far as the revolutions are concerned, Western nations have welcomed the democratization and the demands of the Egyptians at Tahrir Square and the Tunisians on the street, and have even provided military support to the revolutionaries in Libya. Thus, these revolutions remove the religious pillars of the jihadi perspective, making it harder to view the world as “us vs. them.”


By being genuinely popular, the Arab Spring undercuts jihadis’ argument that they represent the sentiments of the masses. Jihadism has never been a popular grassroots ideology in the Muslim world, with estimates of less than 1 percent of the global 1.9 billion Muslim as supporters. Otherwise we would see a lot more violent actions throughout the world and with much more frequency. Jihadism has always been considered an extreme, fringe ideology that did not necessarily serve the needs or reflect the opinions of the masses, despite al-Qaida’s best efforts to sway public opinion with its savvy media operations.


The revolutions undermine one of the fundamental tenets of jihadism, which states that democracy is not Islamic because the only legitimate rule is rule by God. Jihadists want religious leaders in control of governments. But when religious parties become involved in the politics of governing, the jihadist argument falls apart. This is especially true with Islamist parties – for example the Ennahda party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, pledging to work within the democratic system, or even claiming that democracy is in their interests. Such examples absolutely undercut the jihadi worldview that Islam is incompatible with democracy.


Finally, the Arab Spring exposes jihadi ideas to the harsh competition of the political beauty contest. Groups and political parties with jihadi ideas will have to rethink their political agendas. Democracy forces Islamists in various countries to think electorally, thus compelling them toward internal debates about how to best appeal to the electorate. Normally, these arguments are won by the moderates because they understand that the harsh jihadi message is not popular.

Even then the Islamists are far from guaranteed electoral victory, compared with the more liberal, leftist or nationalist parties. Certainly in Tunisia, the Islamists are a fringe party. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized party, but there are few indications that its ideas resonate with a majority and some signs that it understands the need to moderate its message to compete electorally.

Ultimately, the Arab Spring undermines the jihadi narrative by allowing it to compete in the marketplace of ideas, where it will likely not do well in most countries. This is one of the most effective rebuttals to the jihadi ideology because when jihadists compete and fail in the political arena, they demonstrate that they do not represent the vast majority of Muslims worldwide.


While one can be optimistic about the effects of the Arab Spring on jihadism, such a positive outlook does not spell the end of radical ideologies throughout the world. The trends that drive Islamic radicalization still exist today. Muslim suffering at the hands of Western nations has not gone away. For instance, discrimination against Muslims still remains, particularly in Western nations, where Islamophobia is on the rise. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and allied operations in Afghanistan continue to kill civilians and incite Muslim anger across the globe. The nature of radicalization allows for an uptick in jihadi movements if, and when, Western foreign and military policies take a provocative turn in the future.

But now the Arab Spring presents Muslims with a choice. They can choose to follow the successful path of the revolutionaries in the Middle East, which helped to oust Arab authoritarians in Tunisia and Egypt. Or they can choose to use violence to achieve political aims, which has only fueled more death and violence across the globe. My guess is that potential Muslim radicals will lean toward the former and opt out of jihadism.

Only time will tell whether the current trend toward democratization in the Arab world will eventually lead to greater liberalization and freedom for Muslims in the region and beyond. The hope is that yes, democracy will prevail and that ultimately, it will deconstruct radical jihadist arguments, thus helping to create a safer, more peaceful world. §

Azeem Ibrahim is a director and policy board member at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a former international securities fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the Yale World Fellows Program. He is also a contributing editor to The Islamic Monthly.

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