The self-proclaimed “Islamic State’s” (ISIS) burning to death of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasba and recent beheading of 21 Egyptians in Libya are just the latest incidents in a series of escalating acts of violence that epitomize the seemingly senseless carnage that so often results from the political radicalization of individual Muslims. As the international media zeroes in on such instances, one often struggles to make sense of the perpetrators’ true motives. But understanding the circumstances that lead up to such viciousness is key if governments are to minimize such acts in the future.
A striking similarity among many radicalized jihadists is how little they actually know about Islam and the Qur’an. Those who join these violent extremist groups rarely have formal training or disciplined teaching in the religion; in fact, in most cases they have no more than a rudimentary understanding often shaped by online sources or talking to extremists online. Akil Awan, a lecturer in political violence and terrorism at the University of London’s Royal Holloway, suggests that those drawn to jihadism are usually raised in largely secular households or possess only a rudimentary grasp of Islam that rarely extends to religious practice. Research shows that in many cases these would-be jihadists were hardly strict adherents to Islam’s major tenants before turning to violence. Take, for instance, the case of Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, two British men jailed for travelling to Syria in 2013 to join an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group. Before their departure, they purchased Islam for Dummies and The Qur’an for Dummies, an act that hardly suggests a deep understanding of Islam’s historic and religious tradition.
We can see a similar situation in the case of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the two brothers accused of carrying out the massacre at the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Awan points out that these orphans of Algerian background were not raised as pious Muslims. In fact, Chérif led a decidedly non-devout and hedonistic life: smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, listening to gangster rap, and having numerous girlfriends. Cherif, who also went by the name “Abu Issen,” had been part of the “Buttes-Chaumont network” that helped send would-be jihadis to fight alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq after the US-UK invasion in 2003. During his 2008 trial, Chérif’s lawyer said that his client described himself as an “occasional Muslim.” Others have described him as a “confused chameleon,” aptly summing up the troubled identity crises commonly experienced by many jihadists.
Awan points out that this crisis of identity often leads minority individuals to a dislocated sense of self, one characterized by alienation from the mainstream and parental cultures. Those susceptible youth who succumb to emotional and psychological schizophrenia soon begin to feel a sense of increased isolation, of not belonging to either camp. Their precarious predicament makes the ideas pitched by radical recruiters and preachers of violent extremism – being part of an ummah (the global community of believers) that does not worry about one’s race, ethnicity, or place of birth – persuasive and attractive. The prospect of membership, expressed as an opportunity to join the side of like-minded believers besieged by evil forces, and of being part of a cosmic struggle against the military onslaught of “Western Crusaders” attempting to impose their will on Muslim societies, appeals to many vulnerable youth. And why not, for its worldview and sense of purpose are clear and easy-to-understand. Such perceptions also allow them to respond to the political and economic grievances held by Muslims worldwide. This does not exonerate religion; but as Awan correctly suggests, religion is also a product of social, economic, and political factors that become translated into solutions for these individuals. In most cases, terrorist actions are motivated by political concerns that are, perhaps, couched in religious garb to validate their heinous crimes. Religion might provide the motif or stamp of approval for their action, but not for the original motive.
This perversion of Islam into an ideology that allows the wanton killing of innocent people in pursuit of a utopian society needs to be confronted directly. But contrary to what many believe, what is needed is more Islam, not less. However, it must be the normative, traditional Islam – the Islam that exemplifies centuries of scholarly and theological consensus that neutralizes such perversions. Any other “version” of Islam is not likely to have credibility among extremists. The consensus is clear: The murder of innocent people under any circumstances is prohibited. This message must be forcefully conveyed and instilled into the minds of vulnerable youth who have fallen for misappropriations of Islamic scripture. Muslims are engaging and leading an ideological and theological battle that only reputable and legitimate Muslim scholars can win. And yet this approach cannot unfold if the broader society continues to “stigmatize,” “modernize,” and/or “secularize” these individuals, for such reactions often do more harm than good and usually play right into the jihadi narrative that “outsiders” are attempting to malign and misguide Muslims from “true” Islam.
Appropriately trained Muslim scholars who represent the authentic Islamic tradition must be empowered to lead this effort and equipped with ways to allow their voices maximal reach. For example, unstable Yemen’s de-radicalization program, based on the “Committee for Dialogue,” features well-established, authentic Muslim scholars who engage with suspected al-Qaeda members and sympathizers to discuss basic Islamic concepts. Participating religious figures pay special attention to the concept of jihad in order to address the misconceptions held by radicalized individuals. This particular program and others like it, which have shown success elsewhere, emphasize three points: (1) Islam views acts of violence as unacceptable, and the Qur’an condemns the killing of civilians in all cases; (2) the individual’s interpretation of Islam is erroneous; and (3) only legitimate Muslim scholars have the necessary knowledge and qualifications to interpret the Qur’an.
These foundations form a basis upon which a process of de-radicalization can be initiated. Governing structures that are serious about improving public safety by mitigating radicalization and terrorism must encourage this kind of work. But this cannot be done if the state continues to alienate Islam, in sociopolitical terms, as a belief system that naturally urges its adherents toward violence and, therefore, must somehow be curbed. Such an antagonistic approach will only backfire.