The rolling hills of West Sussex provide a beautiful backdrop for just about any activity. I have just returned from a two and a half day conference at Wiston House (Wilton Park) at which 50 people were charged with looking at the relationship between religion and radicalisation. An emotional and difficult topic to be sure and one which not surprisingly saw very heated discussion and passion.
Upon reflection, one very simple question posed by an EU official at the outset has stayed with me: does yelling Allahu Akbar link terrorist acts to Islam? As there is no question that many extremists choose to use this phrase when they perform their violent actions there really is no way to avoid asking it. That one small query led to a range of responses, from the all too typical “terrorism has nothing to do with Islam” to “Islam has a problem with terrorism”. One speaker asked provocatively why it seemed that only young Muslims, and not young Christians, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus and atheists among others, were blowing themselves up. After all, many people have grievances: why is it that only Muslims choose to address them through self-sacrifice (and the deaths of other innocents in the process)?
Taking this one step further, the participants all agreed that the conference’s religion/radicalisation juxtaposition really meant the Islam/radicalisation relationship. After all, attendees ranged from imams to Muslim civil society activists to government policy makers in Countering Violent Extremism to even one former spy (me). All made the comment that it was not Islam that was at issue but rather violent radicalisation but we all knew what the real focus was.
How then should we view this subject? Does Islam have a “problem” with terrorism? Is Islam itself the “problem”? The answer is one which applies to many of life’s challenges: it depends. Yes, there are aspects of Islam that provide oxygen to some terrorists but at the same time Islam and Muslims are the solution to the scourge of this form of violent extremism.
No honest analysis of terrorist groups such as Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and others can conclude that Islam has no role to play. An even cursory glance at the propaganda of these organisations quickly shows that Quranic verses, hadiths and the works of dozens of Muslim scholars over the last millennium and a half are used to support, justify and call for acts of violence. We do not see other groups use Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc. material in the same way nor to the same extent. There is thus clearly something in Islam that terrorists see as fundamental to their causes. Other faiths have violent pasts and violent scripture. It is nevertheless true that over the last few decades it is Muslim terrorists that have predominated on the religious extremism front.
And yet it would at the same time be difficult to maintain that these groups represent normative Islam. A very small number of the world’s billion and half Muslims resort to terrorism, and even if we include those that support violence the resulting figure is still minimal. It should therefore be obvious that Islam does not lead inevitably to terrorism.
Where then does Islam enter into the solution? We need look no further than to our own country for the answer. The recent Environics poll on Muslim Canadians provides some intriguing material. Carried out a decade after the first such survey, the poll shows that a majority of Canadian Muslims feel that this country allows them to practice their faith freely, are proud Canadians, want their communities to integrate into the greater Canadian polity and, of greatest importance for this article, want to cooperate with government agencies to address radicalisation. This last finding coincides with my experiences and exchanges with Muslim communities across Canada during my time with the federal government. In addition, the spike in Muslim voting in the last federal election clearly demonstrated that Canadian Muslims engaged in the political process to effect change. That is the hallmark of one’s acceptance of the rules of the road in a democracy.
The incidence of Islamist terrorism will unfortunately be with us for some time. Whatever happens to Islamic State and others, the spectre of jihadism will find another body to invade and wreak havoc. Combating terrorism will take many forms and involve many actors. Some of the most crucial actors will be our fellow Muslim Canadians. We have the advantage here that we can have this dialogue about religion: as I heard repeatedly in the UK, EU nations struggle with this topic.
In the end we in Canada will not solve terrorism on our own, but we can make a contribution. Yes, a small number of Canadians will venture down the path of Islamist violent extremism, and others around the world will act in similar ways. We cannot, however, allow the fringe to dictate our relationship with our co-citizens who make a real contribution to the success, and envy of many, that is Canada.