Muslims around the world have exerted countless efforts and continue to vehemently assert that actions carried out by extremist groups such as the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), have nothing to do with Islam.
However, despite an official letter signed by some 126 Muslim scholars and theologians condemning ISIS on theological grounds, a number of popularized articles insist on continuing to provide explanations that revolve around religion-based topics, including the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, how the Saudis exported this type of extremist ideology and used petro dollars to fuel the rise of Salafism, and how ISIS’ theology is based on apocalyptic notions present in Islamic texts.
In contrast to academics offering intellectually lazy, even if lengthy, analyses that can serve more as examples of fundamental attribution error, Al Jazeera English presenter, Mehdi Hasan articulates in his recent article for the NewStatesman, that actual experts who have in fact worked closely with violent extremists assert, “religion has a role but it is a role of justification. It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”
Still, the allure behind the popularity of the religion-focused discourse in the West partly lies in its ability to trivialize the role of politics and Western foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. The focus on Islam here places the blame for extremism on an internal factor to the people of MENA rather than acknowledging it to be primarily a last resort type reaction to neocolonialist external forces that have been ensuring the subjugation of these populations for the past century.
When it comes to MENA, Western foreign policy is more concerned with securing economic and political interests than in facilitating the realization of the right for self-determination. For instance, Ryan C. Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, previously noted in a New York Times article why the U.S. prefers to have a murderous dictator such as Bashar Al Assad to remain in power in Syria by rhetorically asking, “…do we really want the alternative – a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda?” Little did Crocker know, six months after he asked this question, ISIS, a group that has eclipsed Al Qaeda in all measures, declared a pseudo-state they refer to as an Islamic caliphate spanning a third of Iraq and a third of Syria, an area approximately the size of Britain.
The ubiquitous use of religious rhetoric by ISIS militants makes them partly responsible for spreading the notion that Islam is the primary motive for their gratuitous violence. Of course, some individuals can be motivated by religious fanaticism. But the issue here is not whether religion is a contributing factor that may motivate some individuals to take great personal risks and join ISIS. Rather, the question that should be asked is whether extremist religious ideology is a major cause for the rise of ISIS, warranting the amount of attention granted to it in the media. Based on the number of essays and opinion articles produced over the past year, one would get the impression that, yes, ideology contributed to feeding the ISIS beast. But the available empirical evidence suggests a different conclusion.
As articulated by Swedish terrorism expert, Magnus Ranstorp, in a paper for the Journal of International Affairs, almost all major religious terrorist groups are comprised of individuals who experienced a sense of crisis in their environment. This crisis is multifaceted, involving social, political, economic, cultural, psychological, and spiritual factors. Furthermore, the crisis is perceived as a threat to identity and survival. Religion becomes a refuge that provides physical and psychological protection against experienced repression, as well as a very effective tool for activism and political action. In fact, groups such as ISIS engage in a process in which historic religious symbols are reworked to fit present-day conditions to inspire militants and new recruits to act against their enemies. Interestingly, Ranstorp also notes that almost all contemporary religious terrorist groups are
“either offshoots or on the fringe of broader movements. As such, militant extremists’ decisions to organize, break away or remain on the fringe are, to a large extent, conditioned by the political context within which they operate. Their decisions are shaped by doctrinal differences, tactical and local issues, and the degree of threat that they perceive secularization poses to their cause… The internal threat of secularization is often manifest in a vociferous and virulent rejection of the corrupt political parties, the legitimacy of the regime, and also the lackluster and inhibited character of the existing religious establishment. Thus, religious terrorism serves as the only effective vehicle for political opposition… The religious terrorist groups’ perception of a threat of secularization from within the same society is also manifest in the symbolism used in the selection of their names, indicating that they have an absolute monopoly of the truth revealed by God… These names also endow them with religious legitimacy, historical authenticity and justification for their actions in the eyes of their followers and potential new recruits”. [Emphasis added]
In other words, young people in the MENA region are unable to democratically elect their own leaders, or to even speak against increased government corruption or economic failures resulting in having the highest regional youth unemployment in the world despite having an abundance of wealth from natural resources. Thus, they look to Islam as the solution for all their problems. This is further exacerbated by the simpleton idea constantly voiced by Islamists giving the impression that the only way out is the implementation of some vaguely defined notion of Sharia. This legal framework remains an abstract message rooted in the cooption of religious rhetoric to sell utopian visions to Muslim masses to achieve the goals of Islamist political parties.
Discussions on the theological waters that groups such as ISIS tread on were eloquently critiqued in a recent article by Ziya Meral in War on the Rocks, “The Question of Theodicy and Jihad,” where he notes how these discussions are confusing theological justifications made by ISIS with causes behind the rise of ISIS and why violence appeals to young extremists in the first place. Meral points out that the confusion of these debates results from having missed the fact that theology is the last point of discussion for ISIS militants, coming after they have already decided to be violent.
Between Speculation and Reality
Known as the “Hipster Jihadi” for his distinctive curly-haired, bearded look, Islam Yaken, a young Egyptian ISIS militant, presents an illustration of Meral’s point. In Mona El-Naggar’s feature of Yaken for the New York Times, his radicalization process is presented as a transformation in response to a personal struggle between the desire to live a modern “Western lifestyle” and the guilt of living impiously. El-Naggar’s feature does mention in passing the poor economic and political conditions in Egypt that made Yaken feel hopeless to achieve his aspirations of running his own successful gym business. But the overall message to be taken from how Yaken’s transformation occurred was that it was primarily due to the increasingly conservative religious thinking present in the general milieu, which places the cause of his radicalization within Islam itself.
Fortunately, Yaken did not leave the matter for us to speculate and deduce only based on what his friends had to say. He published a post in Arabic entitled “The Story of the Poor Servant’s Response to the Clarion Call”, where he outlined his personal journey towards radicalization and explained what motivated him to join ISIS. According to Yaken, after he became religious, possibly following the passing of a close friend in a motorcycle accident in 2012, he and his like-minded friends were lamenting the conditions of Muslims in the world:
“In the beginning of 2013, we were observing the state of Muslims and Islam all over the globe, in Syria, Burma, Palestine, and everywhere else and what has befallen them in humiliation, subjugation, and weakness. We were intuitively thinking about fighting, but we did not know how, because we only heard about it from stories and books, as well as from television, the Internet, and from Shaykh Usama bin Laden. We then began to talk about Jihad, which we thought was a dream and only saw as lines written in books, as well as the past glories of Muslims. We wanted to help Muslims, especially in Syria because that is where the action was. Then we started to hear about the groups and brigades of fighters as everyone else heard about them, and we continued to talk about it. This dream grew with us as we read about the virtues of Syria and Jihad, and we finally became certain that there is no solution except through Jihad without knowing [any of its conditions] – it was just a gut feeling.”
Yaken goes on after this to explain that he went to his Quran teacher to ask him about Jihad in Syria, and how he dismissed his answers because they were not coinciding with what he already decided:
“…so what is happening to Muslims and the raping of women over there, the killing and displacement – is it not obligatory upon us to aid them? Do I just sit with my family and there are mothers whose sons are being killed and daughters are being raped?”
Following this final conversation with his Quran teacher, Yaken began taking matters of theology into his own hands to serve his objectives. At this point, Yaken starts listing verses from the Quran without reference to any scholarly authority to justify a decision he already clearly stated was made based on a “gut feeling.”
Rage and Despair
The gut feeling Yaken refers to can aptly be described as rage. As the Trinity College Dublin philosopher, Antti Kauppinen frames it, rage is the cousin feeling of anger and hate, motivated by the perception of being pushed into a corner after being portrayed as unreasonable for making demands rooted in basic needs that are being denied. Rage is born out of the feeling of an imposed injustice, being treated with pseudo-respect, and a failure of all rational means to change one’s situation. Violence gives the perception of having some power, even if it is illusory and only for a time, as well as a feeling of restored respect as one goes down in flames or blows oneself into pieces. With everything else lost, religion is all that is left, and it becomes a tool to be used, even if, without conscious awareness of doing so, to facilitate one’s goals.
Part of the rage that extremists have garnered was explained in a recent interview with two young Lebanese social workers, who spend many hours every week with imprisoned extremists in Lebanon. When asked about the ugliness of beheadings and why they do it, an ISIS militant responded, “Slaughtering takes only five to 10 minutes and then they die, but what about Guantanamo prisoners? The US government tortures them every day and then says they died because they were sick – no, they die because of torture. In fact, we are giving them mercy.” He then went on to explain how the mental preparation to carry out the beheadings involved spending days watching videos of Abu Ghraib and pictures of American soldiers torturing and raping prisoners during the Iraqi war.
Interestingly, Kauppinen argues that although rage does not absolve moral responsibility for wrongful harms committed by the one acting out of rage, a large part of such responsibility does fall on those who created the situation in which rage is warranted. But such responsibility is what we in the West continue to ignore. As mentioned earlier, Western media focuses on Islam because it misdirects public attention to those acting out of rage. Otherwise, the media would have to place the focus on the Western governments that participate in creating the very conditions permitting the rise of ISIS. This is an uncomfortable position for the media to be in considering how Western governments are touted as representatives of the people, and the people will not want to be told they are responsible for ISIS. It should be noted that ISIS militants use this exact line of reasoning about responsibility to justify killing innocent aid workers and journalists.
The Question of Islamic Legitimacy
Islam Yaken’s use of the Quran for his purposes is a microcosm of how ISIS operates with regards to religion. One way to examine the significance of theology to ISIS’ propaganda is to remove the references to Islamic texts from their messages and assess whether the justifications offered for their actions remain coherent. Such exercise would reveal that ISIS militants could offer perfectly coherent political messages and goals without appealing to religion at all. It also offers an explanation for why most Muslims, despite their various differences on other issues, have unanimously rejected ISIS and judged them as un-Islamic.
This is not simply a matter of picking and choosing what one prefers from the Islamic tradition’s corpus. In contrast to ISIS militants, for whom theology is the final stage after having decided to turn violent, the majority of practicing Muslims take theology as the lens through which the current world’s state of affairs were to be viewed before any decisions about how to react are made. It is also why this cannot be dismissed as simply a difference of equivalent opinions. The majority of over 1.6 billion Muslims with their scholars and theologians have taken Islam as an a priori guide for renouncing terrorism, whereas the minority represented by ISIS militants and their sympathizers utilized Islam as a post hoc justification for extremist violence.
Furthermore, as previously noted by Middle East scholar, H.A. Hellyer, ISIS represents a severance from the Islamic tradition having rejected the interpretative methodology used by Muslim scholars for the past 14 centuries, and broke a connected chain of transmission and understanding that goes all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad. From an Islamic perspective, quoting passages from the Quran or isolated historical reports to make an action legitimate is never sufficient. One cannot simply skip over peer reviewed scholarly authority, which has been established for over 1400 years, pretend none of it exists, and then claim their actions are congruent with Islamic teachings. But ISIS militants do this all the time. Accepting their claims not only grants them a religious credibility they crave but do not deserve, but also harms Muslim-led efforts to counter radicalization.
Illusions and Radicalization
Despite being un-Islamic, ISIS militants are sincere in their views and their intelligence should not be underestimated. Their formulation of beliefs about the world and how they religiously justify their actions are byproducts of a perception about current events, which fundamentally differs from the remainder of Muslims. Their worldview can be elucidated using known cases of visual illusions such as the Müller-Lyer illusion.
As Kauppinen explains in another essay, sensory illusions affect intuition and judgment, which can in turn influence moral motivation. Despite forehand knowledge that the lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion are equal in length, the context in which they are presented allows the senses to present a conclusion that is contrary to this fact, which the mind has to actively suppress. Depending on the degree and how content-rich the background in which facts are presented, as well as the level of knowledge about these facts, the senses may overwhelm what one knows to be a correct judgment.
This observation can provide an account for how a supposedly gentle, peaceful, and quiet young man, who grew up in a middle class neighborhood of West London, like Mohammed Emwazi (also known as Jihadi John), can turn into a brutal executioner of innocent hostages in Syria. Within the context of the radicalization process, the success of ISIS in recruiting young foreigners is a result of altering sympathizers’ perceptions through the use of virally successful propaganda.
ISIS videos have been lauded for their Hollywood-style footage and projection of glamorous freedom fighters, seeking to bring an end to Western hegemony and local corruption and oppression. This visual illusion is powerful enough to lure young men and women to take risks and make arrangements to join ISIS. Social media recruiting is made even easier by the fact that these youth are generally ignorant of Islamic teachings and practices. This was revealed in a leaked classified briefing note by the British MI5’s behavioural science unit, which stated that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could…be regarded as religious novices.” As some have arrived to the battlefield and came face to face with the bitter reality on the ground, those who were able to defect have begun to speak out to save others from being duped by the slick videos and religious rhetoric.
Nevertheless, religion can serve as a powerful source to sustain the motivation of an ISIS militant. When confronted by mighty enemies with more sophisticated weaponry, militants may quickly become disenchanted with their cause if the primary goals of such groups are restricted to temporal political gains. Such disillusion and loss of hope for success in this world can be mitigated through theological references to delights and greater rewards in the next world for those who sacrifice their lives for God. Furthermore, the types of grotesque, personal violence ISIS militants engage in aggrandize the perception of their capabilities in each militant’s eyes. In addition, religious symbolism is used to engender a greater sense of fear in their enemies as it provokes the unknown.
The Failure of Democracy
The Arab Spring revolutions and protests seeking freedom and democracy invoked ideals that deeply resonated with people in the Western world. Hence, it was easy for pundits to rally initial popular support in the West for the Arab Spring even if Western governments could not direct its outcomes in MENA. However, the euphoric high from all the talks of democracy and freedom quickly dissipated when analysts began to voice their concerns that such conditions would create opportunities for Islamist parties to advance their agendas. Although presented as a concern for democracy and freedom, the real worry was how this would negatively impact Western interests in MENA. For this reason the U.S. supported the military coup in Egypt, overthrowing a democratically elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The return of a military dictatorship in Egypt, which implemented a restrictive assembly law to further crackdown on attempts to revolt and which stifles electoral campaigning, confirms for many young activists the failure of the Egyptian struggle for political change, freedom and democracy. Research into the psychology of radicalization identifies that among the contributing factors influencing an individual to take the path of terrorism is the perception that violence is absolutely necessary because the conventional political activity cannot produce any progress.
However, it is not sufficient to point out any number of factors as triggering catalysts for radicalization. Large numbers of people are equally exposed to the same contexts in which radicalization occurs, but only few take that path. In contrast to the majority, these few individuals view change as absolutely necessary. When all proper political channels to create that change are shut off, violence for them becomes necessary. When all physical pathways for change are a lost cause, the metaphysical is appealed to as providing something more powerful than the tyrants who remain in power. Hence, religious rhetoric gains currency value and groups such as ISIS become popular among the politically disenfranchised.
The Media and Islamophobia
A significant media problem that inadvertently plays into ISIS’ recruitment strategies is the use of language. There is a difference between referring to radicalization as a personal process vs. a religious awakening. In other words, radical Islam gives the impression that total adherence to Islamic tenets will inevitably lead one to becoming a terrorist. This is why attributing the causal source of extremism to Islam is Islamophobic. It gives credence to the idea that perfectly pleasant and law-abiding Muslims are walking ticking bombs, who at any moment may lash out and commit atrocities should they realize that their religion really expects them to do so. Moreover, the perception of such media platforms as Islamophobic propaganda mouthpieces for their enemies vindicates accusations from ISIS that they are truly fighting a war in defense of Islam.
The media’s role in promoting Islamophobia through the current religion-focused discussions of extremism is further exacerbated by the constant use of Arabic terms to refer to Islamic concepts. Foreign and technical language gives the impression of mystery and creates fear as it compounds uncertainties. Although referring to concepts that cannot be translated into single English words, Jihad, caliphate, and Sharia, do refer to specific actions that can in fact be translated.
In their own perception of what they are doing, ISIS militants believe they are engaged in a justified military struggle against forces of oppression (a jihad), and want to build a state (caliphate) governed by a rule of law that is above the whims of anyone who ascends to political leadership (Sharia). Put this way, discussions in the West will no longer be about Islam, but about the actual causal factors that brought about ISIS, and will propose solutions that actually have merit and a chance at curbing or eliminating this form of senseless violent extremism.
Moving Beyond Religion
The religious rhetoric and theological justifications provided by ISIS militants, and the subsequent focus on Islam to understand why this group behaves the way that it does are all reductive efforts to treat a complex problem in the most simplistic way. The ability of ISIS to quote verses from the Quran, as well as bring up isolated historical examples, albeit most of which are actually unverified reports, is not indicative of authenticity to Islam or validity of interpretation. Ali ibn Abī Tālib, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, said if he lost a camel he could find it in the Quran.
The appeal ISIS has for its sympathizers and potential recruits lies not necessarily in having “Islamic” as part of their name, but in its presentation as a formidable force against the tyranny and corruption of local rulers, as well as against powerful external enemies. Al Qaeda also uses religious rhetoric. But it does not have the weapons, the viral social media presence, or the powerful projection ISIS has managed to portray. Researchers have concluded that no single profile can be made for who will be radicalized. But one thing is for sure – when a large number of people feel despair, they will look for meaning in ugly ways.
ISIS cannot be neutralized by more analyses of the Islamic legal tradition or what conservative school of Islamic thought received support from which country. It also cannot be neutralized by overhauling Islamic education to curb extremism, as proposed by the grand imam of the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Egypt. Those who see the world as Islam Yaken saw it will not heed any calls that will not bring about change. And they certainly will not accept any religious authority that maintains the status quo. Empowering those who feel violence is their only way towards change is the only effective strategy for countering extremism today and in the future.