Confronting the Drivers of Radicalism

CEP Research Analyst


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The triple bombings in Brussels that killed 31 people serves as a reminder that despite almost 15 years since 9/11, there has been a fundamental failure among Muslims from the  government level down to the community level to confront the sectarian drivers radicalizing Muslims towards violence.

Belgium, like other parts of Europe, is a hub for Islamism, an ideology that has spread globally for almost 100 years through Salafi  interpreted Qurans, school curricula, media programming, social and civic institutions throughout the world. The result has been in many cases the demise of diverse indigenous Muslim cultures from Africa to Indonesia. President Obama in a recent interview, noted his shock in the increase of hijabi women in Indonesia, a place where he lived for a few years as a child. He attributed it to the success of fundamentalist proselytizing.

Gilles Kepel, professor and chair of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, concluded in the 1990s that European Muslims were becoming vulnerable to the Salafist movement, which urged Muslims to return to a literalist and austere “authentic Islam” that rejected integration in western countries and advocated for the infusion of Islam in every aspect of daily life. This group, Kepel argued in 2005, is responsible for 30 terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2005 throughout Europe.

Yet, Salafis comprise less than one percent of the global Muslim population. The majority of Muslims are not Salafi, they are Sunni and Shia. Within these two strains of Islam, further branches unfurl into more diverse interpretations of the faith – where music, art, and culture has flourished for hundreds of years -- despite ISIS’s continued destruction of their shrines, tombs, and history along with those of other indigenous religious groups.

As immigrants to Western countries, the majority of these men and women fled autocratic regimes and aspire to raise their children in better circumstances wherever that might be. As a result, and even among well-settled Muslim families, faith is a personal matter, and practiced along cultural norms, not by the out-of-context doctrinal rules that even non-violent extremists demand.

More importantly, there are Muslims who identify with Islam from a cultural, rather than purely spiritual perspective. Their identity is affirmed by their faith even if they practice nominally or not at all. These individuals exist in Muslim-majority countries, as well as in the West. They are gay, straight, liberal and conservative. They are themselves targets of extremism, and yet are nevertheless lumped together with radicalized Muslims when the media, politicians and Muslim leaders insist on only speaking in terms of Islam or not Islam. The truth is much more subtle than that.

The origins of Salafi jihadism can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt. One of the organization’s central ideologues is Sayyid Qutb. Qutb argued that living under Islamic law was the corrective corrupt societies needed. The brotherhood’s motto summarizes Qutb worldview with the simple statement, "The Quran is our constitution."

Yet, Muslim youth encounter a disproportionate number of fundamentalist organizations and literature when they want to learn more about their faith, as the Telegraph noted in a November 2015 article.

With both Muslim and non-Muslim communities trying to understand how to prevent the next terrorist attack, it should be important to concede the connections between Salafism and extremism. As one former grand Imam from the Mosque in Mecca concluded, “ISIS is a product of Salafism.”

To engage in this real war of ideas, Syed Hossein Nasr recently published a translation of the Quran in English. CNN asks, “Could this Quran curb extremism?” The commentaries are informed by Sunni and Shia scholarship and address issues that ISIS is accused of taking out of context or reading too narrowly in order to justify its violent extremist agenda.

The Study Quran is a chance to also address the Islamist organizations, and worldview broadly through revised curricula in schools, counter-narratives via social media, and sermons at religious institutions wherever needed.  Sunni Islam’s oldest and well-respected institution, Al-Azhar, in Egypt, has also called for sweeping educational reforms. The grand Imam, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, called “corrupting” interpretations of Islam for the violence done in Islam’s name at a conference in February 2015.

These are more thoughtful and simply better solutions to overly broad and fear-based reactions to murderous attacks, and must be part of a future without them.