Tackling the Real Cause of Islamic Extremism
The events surrounding the terrorist attempt on Christmas Day are becoming common knowledge: how the 23-year-old alleged bomber was the son of a wealthy Nigerian financier who warned United States diplomats that his son might be a security risk; how the young man had studied mechanical engineering at University College London and lived in a luxury apartment; how he dropped out of a postgraduate business course in Dubai to travel to Yemen; how he apparently got past airport security with 80g of highly explosive, colourless PETN crystals hidden in his trousers; how a heroic passenger jumped on him when he saw fire coming from his seat, and a larger group of fellow passengers held him down.
But in the days since the incident, one of the questions I have heard most frequently has been some variant on: “How could a young man in his position want to do it?” How, with such a good education? How, coming from such a well-off family? How, given all the chances in life? How, when he had every opportunity to make so much of himself?”
These are natural questions to ask. But they are based on an incorrect premise and a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives young men to become radicals.
All these questions assume that there is some link between disadvantage and radicalisation. In fact, the evidence is that there is not. One does not normally come to believe it is God’s will for you to murder innocent strangers because you grew up poor, or hungry, or uneducated, or generally disadvantaged. So those who wonder why a young man with such advantages could want to be a terrorist are barking up the wrong tree.
To understand why young men turn to terrorism, we need evidence.
Former CIA case officer Marc Sageman has made one of the most thorough analyses of al-Qaeda networks ever conducted. He assembled more than 500 profiles of individual terrorists, their personal characteristics and motivations, how they were recruited and how they are organised.
What he discovers is that terrorists are most likely to be motivated not by disadvantage but by a sense of moral disgust.
He sets out four stages by which this radicalisation normally happens.
It is sparked when the individual reacts to stories of Muslim suffering around the world with moral outrage. Some of those who feel outraged will progress to the second stage, in which they interpret that suffering in the context of a wider Manichaean war between Islam and the West.
Of those who take that view, a minority will progress to the third stage, in which their smouldering resentment will be fuelled by bad personal experiences in western countries, such as discrimination, inequality or just an inability to get on despite good qualifications.
Of those who undergo these three stages, fewer undergo the fourth, in which the individual joins a circle of friends which becomes like a family closed to the outside world, which shuts out the critical thinking which might challenge the radical worldview. They read, listen to and watch only material which stokes their view of the world and prepares them for action and, in some cases, the murder of innocents.
Why does all this matter? It matters because we cannot beat the radicalisation which leads to terrorism unless we first understand it.
I believe, and have argued publicly, that there is only one way to beat terrorism over the long term: reduce the motivation for young people to radicalise in the first place. It is no good trying only to dismantle terrorist networks. As the Christmas Day attack shows, a determined terrorist does not need a group to stage an attack — they just need the kind of know-how they can access online. It should not be a surprise that US homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano has said that there was no indication that this alleged attacker was “part of anything larger”.
The Solas Foundation in Scotland is showing one way that we can break the link between perceptions of foreign policy and radicalisation, and provide the kind of education in authentic Islamic scholarship which delegitimises the violent methods of Islamic extremists. I believe that this is the best way to reduce the motivation to radicalise.
What we are aiming for is not cure but prevention, the quiet changing of minds that cuts off the attraction of radical discourses at the root. We set Islamic teachings in their proper context. We give advice on how to apply Muslim ethics in modern society to both Islamic organisations and non-Islamic organisations who would like to tailor their services better to Muslims. And we work to educate a new generation of community leaders, educators and advocates who will be able to strengthen the British Muslim community. Crucially, the Solas Foundation is run by teachers who are credible to young people. Both of our leading scholars, Shaykh Amer Jamil and Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed, were born and educated in the West, before travelling and studying in the Muslim world with some of the leading Islamic theologians.
This combination of width of both scholarship and personal experience makes them uniquely qualified to relate to young people, teach Islamic scholarship authoritatively and explain how it fits into a modern context.
They are also prime examples of how Solas will encourage home-grown scholars, so that, in time, British mosques can reduce their reliance on preachers from abroad, who often cannot relate to the issues of the day.
Ultimately, the Solas Foundation will be a success if young people no longer interpret the news they see on TV with reference to extreme and narrow perversions of the rich traditions of Islam. Because, as the privileged biography of the Christmas Day attacker showed, it was the disgust that that news provoked which provokes radicalisation, not disadvantage.
We misunderstand the causes of this kind of terrorism at our peril.
Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a research scholar in the International Security Programme at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a World Fellow at Yale University and a strategic adviser to Solas.
This article was published in The Scotsman on January 6, 2010: