Just as Catholics are famous for their burden of guilt, so it is with Muslims and their burden of responsibility for the Ummah. From a very young age, one is taught that the plight of Muslims the world over is a single battle, one in which they are all a part.
Being brought up in the western world, a young Muslim’s opinion will be shaped by the fortunate opportunity to have, the best of both worlds. Living in a liberal society whereby one is allowed to experience all aspects of life, and culture, whilst at the same time maintaining whatever religious and moral beliefs they possess. Most young Muslims have managed to form strong relationships with those around them, openly discussing all aspects of their lives.
All aspects that is apart from one. Politics is a dirty word in Arabic, although you will never find a lack of volunteers willing to publicly voice their opinion, from shisha cafes in Cairo and the bookseller in Beirut to living rooms across America and the UK. As is the same with all other cultures, there is minimal consensus with regards to general political opinion, however, many across the Middle East and perhaps, more worryingly, here at home, seem to have only one opinion in relation to foreign policy, and that is that the foreign policy of ‘the West’ is against the Middle East, against Arabs and against Islam. There is no middle ground.
Marc Sageman presents the ‘bunches of guys’ theory, that suggests the biggest terror threat comes from homegrown disaffected young men (and increasingly today, women) who undertake the process of radicalisation together. The notion that one cannot be radicalised if they do not want to, does not really hold weight in this argument.
Islam is a way of life, not merely a set of rules to live by. Those who have been radicalised, who have gone on to attempt to seek revenge have been Muslim, not necessarily Arab, or Asian, rather their common denominator is their faith. In this regard, singling out the Arab and Asian communities will have little effect, and possibly have the effect of making them more disenchanted.
The root problem of radical Islam stems from a lack of understanding, on behalf of the people involved, of their own religion and the politics of the situations in which they find themselves. Whenever a series of crimes are investigated, the police always look for the similarities and what the trends are. In this case, religion is the common factor. Therefore, in order to combat the problem of radicalisation, Islam needs to be studied and understood. As previously mentioned, Islam teaches that unity in the Ummah is what ensures Islam continues to be a powerful force in world politics as well as a religion.
Young disenfranchised Muslims feel that the Western states present an anti-Islam bias towards the region. Throughout the history of the 20th century, they learn of conflict after conflict that took place under the pretence of humanitarian interventions, security, liberation and money. They, incorrectly, believe that a war is being waged against Islam, and therefore, in their minds, their understanding of waging a holy war, is justifiable.
Why people turn to radical Islam
But what drives these people to take up arms and board a tube train with a bomb inside their backpack? What would lead anyone to behead innocent journalists and aid workers? Or to walk into the office of a newspaper and kill everyone inside? The war on terror which they feel is being waged against the Muslim population, is in fact being waged against groups like Al-Qaeda and against organisations like IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. It’s simply just that these groups no longer plot from inside a cave many thousands of miles away, they’ve come to our doorstep. According to Bruce Hoffman, the threat of terrorism comes from the ability of these groups to gain support from these young men and train them to fight in the name of Islam.
The process of radicalisation has different stages. As with drugs, those close to someone who may be becoming radicalised would benefit to pay close attention to the changing behaviours. The first stage usually sees someone become more religious, in some cases, someone who has never been religious, maybe did not even follow Islam very closely, may start praying often, and observing religious requirements. The individual may eventually start to enforce their opinions onto others. However it is not uncommon for many people to turn towards their faith at different times of their lives and this alone isn’t proof that someone is becoming radicalised or planning anything untoward.
The reasons for the link between increased devoutness and radicalisation is largely due to the spirituality of religion. When one practices Islam, or any other religion for that matter, and really gets into it, begins to understand, one can reach a level of spirituality in which you are very aware of your shortcomings and brings about an urge to improve yourself. Once someone reaches this level of spirituality, it is easy for those with agendas of their own, the leaders of IS and Al-Qaeda for example, to manipulate them, to change their understanding to fit their own agendas.
There is more than enough propaganda that can be used to indoctrinate with. Even a liberal, yet practising Muslim, whose loyalties lie very much with the Western state they may have grown up in, when watching the news of the recent war in Gaza during this last summer easily grows tired of the same old situation whereby it appears to be a never ending continuous struggle, where it is one rule for all, and another for the Muslim world. These preachers capitalise, they prey on these people like vultures; on the feelings of resentment that begin to grow when they are continuously told they are the enemy. They use highly questionable and simply incorrect definitions of verses from the Quran to legitimise their arguments. Terrorism is never the way to right a perceived wrong, especially to the rational mind. In the minds of these individuals however, they are doing as God tells them to protect the Ummah.
There is also something to be said for the type of individuals who become radicalised. In the light of Jihadi John being identified, we were fed information about him by a human rights organisation who described him as a kind and gentle man. How do we apply theory to and rationalise the idea that someone so nice, so ‘normal’ could be totally brainwashed into committing acts of such horror, that the likes of other terrorist groups try to distance themselves from it? A former Al-Qaeda operative who also worked with the British security services recently explained that those who were coming to the training camps were already either suicidal and wanted to die in ways which they mistakenly believed would be honourable, or they were homicidal maniacs intent on killing as many people as possible before going out in their own blaze of glory, quite literally. Sometimes theory just doesn’t work. Sometimes people are just simply evil.
Islam teaches to fight the jihad by spreading the word of Islam, and when it does refer to using violence, Islamic teachings are similar to jus ad bellum, setting out the laws of war, which each soldier must observe. The fundamental flaw in their logic is simply that. War in the Quran refers to all out, physical war. The references in the verses so often quoted refer to wars that that took place many centuries ago, and have no validity in the ideological war they are waging against all of us today.
However, the logic used by these self-proclaimed jihadi’s, whether they become a part of an organisation or continue to act alone or an individual group, they perceive that their enemy is not following their own rules, so they have no reason to do the same. This is the fundamental reason that we find ourselves in the same position conflict after conflict, after all an eye for an eye will only leave us all blind.
Radicalisation can be monitored, and should be the primary issue for any authority who wish to tackle terrorism. In order to understand the enemy, one must think like the enemy. As well as trying to think like the terrorists themselves, the governments of all states have to be more sympathetic in their approach to the moderate Muslim communities in their countries, because the possibility to create a forum for discussion, and develop a further understanding as to why some individuals feel like there is no other choice than to take up arms is vital if we are to prevent it from happening again.
The situation in the Middle East has been on going for many years, and has affected many generations, and will continue to do so if no long term solution is made; whilst Western states and coalition forces must help to resolve the conflicts they have partly, albeit unintentionally caused, a solution has to come from those primarily affected, rather than those on the outside whose only contribution is driven by their own foreign policy goals.
That said, there is no point looking to a big single event that will change the course of history, rather what needs to happen are many small, incremental decisions, that will, in turn allow the region to develop, albeit slowly.
There needs to be a new script written that sets out a definitive plan for the future that is based on conflict resolution, not merely to resolve current issues and maintain the current status quo, but to predict and resolve the problems that are likely to destabilise the entire region in the future. What is required is for the Muslim states, in Africa and Asia as well as in the Middle East to take control. If they feel the West is dictating to them, then they should take control of their own policies; to work more for their own people in order to give the western states less need to interfere. At the same time, the Western states need to allow them to develop their own regimes and implement their own policies without fear of retribution or interference.
Whilst democracy, and an elected government is the norm in western society, it has not been, and nor will it be in the near future, in Asian, African and Middle Eastern states. The Arab spring uprisings offered the briefest of glimmers before reality brought us all crashing down to earth again with a bang.
The Obama administration has taken a very different stance towards the region than his predecessor. However, in order for this to make any difference, Muslim states must themselves accept that they are ultimately responsible for weeding out the societal and cultural problems that have allowed these organisations to thrive. They must respond differently from now on, as past experience has clearly led to no avail. Only if there is an inclusive and comprehensive approach to understanding and tackling Radical Islamism can there be hope for a sustainable peace in the region.