Why Do They Do It? How to Answer the Question

Why Do They Do It? How to Answer the Question

Have you ever had an experience like this: You are talking with a non-Muslim friend about current affairs and the conversation turns to the latest foiled terror plot. With a look in their eyes that says, “Hey, you’re a Muslim, you must understand what these guys are up to,” they ask you, “What is it all about? Why do they do it?”

What are you supposed to tell them?

On the face of it, the question couldn’t be any more reasonable. What, indeed, drives a 30-year-old man from Bridgeport, Conn., to make four improvised bombs out of alarm clocks, gasoline, firecrackers, a pressure cooker and 250 pounds of fertilizer in plastic bags? What makes Faisal Shahzad put all this into the back of a car, park it on Broadway and hope it explodes, killing and injuring as many of his fellow Americans as possible?

And of course, it’s not just him. What motivated Nidal Hasan, a United States Army psychiatrist, to kill 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian student responsible for the Christmas Day bomb attempt of an airliner, or John Walker Lindh, the man known as the “American Taliban?”

Why do they do it? What do you say? I think the best way to answer – to explain one world to the other, to contextualize something so evil and to generally try to make someone who doesn’t know about Islam understand – is by offering a bit of background on the intellectual roots of terror and the sociological reasons why someone would turn to terrorism.


Firstly, I think it’s important to contextualize and explain that, unlike the Islam portrayed in the media, mainstream Islam isn’t about politics. It’s about ethics. Like other mainstream religions, its core values are mercy, compassion, peace and honoring the sanctity of life.

But like most mainstream religions, it has its strands, schisms and sects. Christianity, by way of comparison, includes Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, and each has its own sub-denominations. Islam is much the same. Moreover, with 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, there is no single overarching authority.

One of the consequences of this, one might explain, is that if somebody who looks the part claims to be speaking or acting for Islam, there is no single authority to stand up and say that Islam rejects what he or she says. It is similar to a so-called pastor, such as Terry Jones, who claims a Christian mandate to burn the Qur’an, or a Jew such as Yigal Amir who believes that he is acting in the name of Judaism by killing Yitzhak Rabin. They are wrong, but there is no unified authority to say so in the name of the religion, or who can stop their co-religionists from believing that they are right.

The situation is exacerbated by a sensationalist media that has an inherent pro-conflict bias. In that media environment, religious incitement and radicals make headlines in a way that spiritual or mystical religious figures could only dream of. That, in turn, feeds negative images of Muslims to the public, who become all too ready to believe the worst about Islam and Muslims, which then feeds resentment and Islamophobia, one of the prime sociological conditions for radicalization.

Although the vast majority of Muslims around the world believe that Islam is about personal ethics, prayer, charity, the ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), fasting during Ramadan and the Hajj, rogue offshoots can develop and claim that Islam is about something else. They can be contradicted, but no one can make them listen.

That is what has happened with Jihadism. Over the past few decades, particularly in Saudi Arabia, its development was provoked by what adherents regard as the infidel presence of non-Muslim troops in Saudi territory, and bolstered by erroneous but widely believed interpretations of certain Islamic medieval texts. It is characterized by a call for violent action against Muslim leaders and foreign occupying forces, a sanctioning of martyrdom operations, and a deeply un- Islamic encouragement of violence against civilians.

This strand of Islam is attractive to demagogues seeking a following. With the rise of the Internet, anyone can don religious garb, claim themselves as a “scholar,” distribute messages of incitement and hate, and call them sermons. An example of a “Muslim scholar” – who is accused of radicalizing the aforementioned U.S. Army psychiatrist, the Christmas Day bomber or the “American Taliban” – is Anwar al-Awlaki. He is, in fact, not a Muslim scholar nor does he claim to have any qualifications from an Islamic seat of learning.

Sadly, he is all too representative of the class of misinformed “leaders.” Al-Qaida’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has no Islamic qualifications but is a medical doctor; Abu Musab al-Suri, “one of al-Qaida’s leading military thinkers,” studied mechanical engineering, (and failed to complete the degree); Abd al-Qadir bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, lauded as one of “the most influential Egyptian Jihadi theorists,” also lacks a formal religious education. Even Osama Bin Laden has had no formal religious training. (Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, is on record as having stated that Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa issuing a jihad against America was “null and void” as Bin Laden was not actually qualified to even make a fatwa.)

Sadly, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had warned about this: “Truly God does not remove knowledge by extracting it from (His) servants. Rather He removes knowledge by removing the scholars, until when no scholar remains, the people take ignoramuses as their leaders. Then they are consulted and give fatwas without knowledge. So they are astray and lead others astray.” (Sahih Muslim, 8:60).


Then there are the sociological reasons why any individual might fall for these perverse strands. Over the previous decade or so, a growing body of research has taught us how these rogue doctrines turn ordinary men and women, like Faisal Shahzad, into terrorists. The most impressive body of evidence that I have seen was compiled by former CIA operations officer Marc Sageman, who conducted the largest survey of radical Muslims to date in an effort to locate the causes for radicalization.

He analyzed more than 500 terrorist profiles and concluded that radicalization normally occurs in four distinct 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 fueled 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 initiate for action and, in some cases, martyrdom.

The crucial stage in this process is reached when a young Muslim begins to believe that Islam justifies violence and closes his or her mind to other viewpoints.

Of course, the Internet has also played a role. It has made lectures, videos and texts advocating the Jihadist worldview easy to find, and gave adherents access to information such as how to turn a mobile phone into a bomb. The process has also been facilitated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have acted as a training ground for many Jihadists.

What is to be done?

Needless to say, your non-Muslim friend might ask, given all this information, what then is to be done? And here, of course, the debate is ongoing.

But I know what my answer will be.

Jihadism, I’d argue, is an ideology, a belief system. Like any belief system, an individual might be drawn toward it at one point in his or her life, and repelled by it at another. He might subscribe to it strongly or weakly, in full or only in part. Crucially, he might be driven to act on it, or he might just hold it as a set of beliefs.

For this reason, there is no military solution to it in the long-term. I believe that the best way to examine what should be done against this threat is to ask what the Jihadists themselves, like al-Qaida, regard as the biggest threat to their success?

The answer is authentic Islamic education. To them, the biggest danger to their long-term recruitment, motivation and longevity is the idea that young people might begin to see that authentic Islam actually condemns the violence they espouse, and that the “scholarship” they use to justify it is baseless.

There is ample evidence for this. A leaked 2008 report from Britain’s MI5 secret service’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, which comprehensively investigated pathways into terrorism, states that “there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.”

But to me, the most compelling reason to believe that authentic Islamic education is the biggest threat to Jihadism is simple: it works.

It has been used successfully by governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for many years. It is effective and cheap, if not free. For example, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, was a respected Jihadist thinker whose previous works influenced leading figures in al-Qaida. Then, he changed his mind. He published a book, “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” strongly renouncing violent jihad. In an interview with the Egyptian press, he argued that his book posed an acute problem for al-Qaida because, as he told Al Hayat, it “has no one who is qualified from a Shari’a perspective to make a response.” The story was front-page news in many Muslim countries because they understood the authority that al-Sharif has. The effect was electric. Many Muslim scholars sided with al-Sharif, and al-Qaida was stung into writing a 200-page response.

Other countries understand this and have started to act on it. They send Islamic scholars into prisons to show convicted Jihadists that they have been hoodwinked by a perversion of Islam that justifies violence. The tactic of undermining the intellectual conditions that foster radicalization has been used by governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for many years.

My friends and I have started to act on this. Our center in Glasgow, Scotland, has begun to do something similar in Britain. It offers genuine, authentic Islamic teachings that put the history of Islamic thought in its proper context. Rather than aiming to cure radicalization, it aims to prevent it by quietly changing young minds to cut off the attraction of radical discourses. It has, I’m proud to say, attracted positive attention from the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon.

I believe that ultimately, this is the lesson that we must learn from Jihadists such as Faisal Shahzad. When mainstream Islamic teachings are presented clearly and conclusively, aberrant views can be corrected and the motivation to radicalize undermined. §

Azeem Ibrahim is a director and policy board member at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the Yale World Fellows Program.

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