Fringe theories on terrorism – 1

In light of all the terrorist attacks that occur with disturbing frequency, it is not surprising that a lot of ink is dedicated to violent extremism.  Newspapers, journals, books (some time ago I read somewhere that 10,000 books had been published on terrorism since 9/11 – I wonder what that number is now?) and other media devote a lot of time and effort to the what, where and why of killing in the name of ideology.  There have been many excellent ideas and analyses of terrorism in recent years, some not so excellent, and some that really try to push our understanding to new levels.  It is this latter category that I wish to devote this blog and the next.

The two sets of findings or theories I will talk about are definitely not mainstream in my opinion, and that is usually a good thing.  Getting beyond collected wisdom and accepted truth often leads us to new discoveries and the realisation that what we thought was right is in fact not.  On the other hand, sometimes “out of the box” thinking fails to convince.  As I will attempt to show, neither of these “radical” viewpoints have revolutionised our way of seeing and dealing with terrorism, and both have critical errors in them.

First I wish to talk about an argument put forward in Atlantic Monthly by Kate Gilsinan on whether Islamic State could exist without Islam.  She cites Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding who believes that IS is a violent group that happens to use Islam and goes on to cite all the non-Muslim terrorist groups in the Middle East.  In her opinion, it is IS brutality that drives its choice of sacred texts, not the opposite.  This article is in direct contrast to a previous one in the same magazine by Graeme Wood: What ISIS really wants?

I think that the Gilsinian article, and Ms Mogahed’s views, are both blindingly obvious and dangerously wrong.  Of course terrorism can exist without Islam, or any other religion for that matter.  In fact, prior to what legendary US academic David Rappoport calls the “fourth wave” of terrorism, most if not all groups were anything but religious.  Anarchists, nationalists, socialists and others all fought for different reasons, none of which were linked to mainstream faith.

So why do we need to put forward the “un-Islamicness” of IS?  I fear that the reason revolves around our discomfort with talking about religion and how the faith of over a billion people can be twisted to justify violence in the name of a deity.  In a world where all those who adhere to Islam are tainted with the terrorist brush (ahem, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ann Coulter, Geert Wilders and others), we feel it necessary to go to the other extreme and maintain that IS has nothing to do with Islam.  And doing so is a fateful error.

This is why Ms Mogahed’s views are dangerously wrong. Could a terrorist group like IS exist without Islam?  Absolutely, except it wouldn’t be Islamic State.  It would be something completely different.  As noted, there are, unfortunately, too many organisations that use terror tactics in accordance with some set of ideas and values that are not religious, and many of these operate in Syria and Iraq.  But IS is not one of those.

It is simply impossible to understand IS – its origins, its goals, its methods, its recruiting tactics, its future – without a solid understanding of Islam.  I will repeat it here: the IS version of Islam has little in common with that of a billion Muslims.  IS does, however, rely crucially on Islam for its very existence.

If we are to come up with a viable solution for IS and get rid of this truly barbaric and inhuman bunch of extremists, we need to stay away from pussy footing around its use of religion to condone acts of violence.  Yes, we have to construct our dialogue in careful ways so as not to alienate people unnecessarily, but we must be honest to our analysis, and use facts (i.e. what IS says and writes) to bolster that analysis.

So this radical theory fails in my opinion.  If you are going to read Atlantic Monthly articles on IS, Mr. Wood’s offering is superior to Ms. Gilsinian’s.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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