As we can see from the recent events at home and abroad, one of the most debated security threats of our time finds its roots in a religious discourse, namely a violent and extreme vision of Islam (often called ‘Islamism’). The targeting of Christians and Shias, and the methods used, by ISIL goes beyond even the most gruesome and vilest of actions we have come to expect from Al-Qaida.
The word ‘Islamist’ is controversial (and imprecise) as its usage is quite broad and those who advocate a political project in the name of Islam (where the Arabic equivalent term, Islamiyun, comes from) can range from peaceful democrats to aggressive revolutionaries that are at war with ‘The West’. Pre 9/11 the term was often used to refer to the former, whilst post 9/11 the term has come to symbolise violent Jihadist movements. Many Muslims have dismissed this as a ‘distorted’ Islam, though it has been difficult for Muslims to simply say that ‘they are not (true) Muslims’ and disown the individuals. Likewise by arguing that ‘they are against our values’ or that ‘British multiculturalism has failed’, we do not get to the bottom of the complexity behind how such movements have gained traction in western countries, leading to the ‘radicalisation’ of some Muslim individuals.
So what creates this radicalisation of opinion? For some a simple answer is: ‘foreign policy’, or for others, it’s the ideology of ‘Islamism’. In my view neither of these on their own account for the transition from a position of anger and perhaps even alienation to the commitment and desire to join terrorist groups. The radicalisation process is a complex one where multiple factors come together:
i) Theological factors - While there is no shortage of those who interpret Islam to be a force for dialogue, cooperation and solidarity, some interpret Islam to be about ‘us and them’. This has been exacerbated by the sense that one is living in a ‘Dar al-Harb’ (territory of war) and also the idea of takfir (akin to excommunication). The Jihadist mindset seems to view the world to be in a state of war, or at least a war against key Western nations such as the US and UK. Reversing the normative Islamic worldview, conflict has become normalised and peace exceptionalised. Jihad is taken to be an offensive, pre-emptive act that can be used to change society and replace its leadership. This is initially targeted against the kuffar (disbelievers) but even Muslims are not spared: a narrowly defined notion of purity, the consequence of sin, and the concept of takfir are deployed to push people outside of the boundaries of Islam. For Jihadists, this then legitimises violence upon such people who may be deemed as supporters of the kuffar. It is also pertinent to note here that the contemporary movements like ISIL and AQ bear a Khawarij-like resemblance, so in some respects this is not new. The Khawarij were an extreme, intolerant and eventually violent sect that arose in early Islam and after numerous attempts at negotiation and appeasement were only stemmed by military conflict.
ii) Social exclusion - Whether this is about personal experience or the connection with a narrative of victimhood, there is often a sense of alienation expressed by those who display extreme views. This lends to a climate of alienation, which in turn feeds radicalisation. Hence an individual may come from a fairly wealthy family but is connected to a shared narrative of deprivation, disadvantage and exclusion that is felt in common with other Muslims. Such a sense of victimhood may be made more acute by perceptions of discrimination against Muslims.
iii) Foreign affairs - Over the last few decades we have been able to witness world events as they unfold, in a manner previously impossible. We cannot ignore the impact that foreign conflicts and policy decisions have had in radicalising Muslim opinion. In fact, this is one of the first issues of grievance referred to by those who commit acts of terror. Furthermore, the narrative goes beyond this and extends back to the colonial era, which had a tremendous impact in shaping the major Muslim movements and networks of the last century (and today). For some it goes even further back, a single narrative of the West at war with Islam, from the Crusades onwards.
iv) Identity/citizenship based factors - Though most Muslims have now come to terms with the notion of being British (as well as Muslim) and a number of fatwas have been generated regarding citizenship, voting, rule of law, civic participation, etc., those who go on to join violent movements have at some stage rejected their identity as British citizens and see themselves at war with this country. This involved a deep-seated rejection, often connected with the points above, of the notion of the social contract that should create a common sense of citizenry with rights and responsibilities.
v) Community infrastructure, role models and leadership - For a community whose demographics are skewed to the younger age brackets, adequate positive role models are still lacking and the middle class, which often stabilises a community, is only now beginning to grow. Experiences of anger, alienation, even discrimination, are part of the growth of new communities; but anger and frustrations that are not channelled into a positive vision for social change remain as latent energy for extremist movements to mop up.
vi) Recruiters - the radicalisation process usually requires active recruiters and radicalisers, whether these are face-to-face or online. There are of course ‘lone wolves’, who may stumble across information and decide of their own accord to carry out an attack. But most of the cases seem to have co-ordination and a connection with a network of some sort that organises and recruits, perhaps ‘grooms’, people into an extreme mind-set.
Aside from this, other factors such a psychological well-being are also important. But this very complex interplay of multiple factors may help to explain the process of radicalisation more accurately than a single cause. The British government is realising that the fight is a long-term one that involves ‘winning hearts and minds’. Muslim communities have also realised that a genuine mature, open and reflective conversation about extremism needs to be effectively nurtured from within.
But a negative counter narrative - of what one cannot be and should not be, as important as it is, can only go so far. Human beings are motivated best by positive aspirations rather than suppression of ideas. So, we need to develop a far more powerful (and positive) narrative of what an integrated, harmonious and contextual approach to faith can be for Muslims growing up in Britain and the West. Only when such a narrative can harmonise the sense of belonging to faith and nation, loyalty to religion and state, belonging to a community of believers as well as one’s fellow citizens, can there be a real ‘integration’. But furthermore, we also need a vision of what an indigenous Islam looks and feels like in Britain, just as we know what a Turkish, African or Indian Islam feels like, distinct from its Arab roots.
So whose role is it to nurture such a vision? Some see the absence of this as the failure of government policy. But in a liberal, secular society boundaries between religion and state are important. It may well be that government can do much to support such a venture, but it cannot be held responsible for driving it and engineering it. In fact, if it were to attempt that, we should rightly ask it to back off. This must be the role of civil society, for communities and religious bodies themselves. And the value of this pursuit lies far beyond counter-extremism, its most important contribution is in the realm of identify and integration; of building a stronger and more cohesive society and a more relevant and contextual community of faith.
This is a battle of ideas and to win that we need to foster a spirit of freedom rather than restriction. Ideas cannot be suppressed into extinction, they need to be confronted and debated. It is by confidently living the very values we feel are under threat (rather than constraining them for short-term gains) that we will show a positive narrative and eventually win the battle of ideas.
Dilwar Hussain is Chair of New Horizons in British Islam, a charity that works for reform in Muslim thought and practice.
Image from Wikimedia available in the public domain.