Just what is the role of religion in radicalisation?

I like Tariq Ramadan, I really do. I have had the privilege of hearing him talk several times in Ottawa and I find him to be a very well spoken and intelligent man. And I don’t buy the accusation that as the grandson of Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing since I don’t buy the fearmongered over-exaggeration that the MB is the greatest threat to mankind.  Nor do I buy the allegations that he says one thing to French or English-speaking audiences and quite another to those who speak Arabic.  In fact, I happen to think that Mr. Ramadan is a great public intellectual and exactly the kind of leader the Muslim world needs.

All this praise is not to say that there are things on which we do not agree.  One of these is a recent column in the Guardian where he wrote that the role of religion in the radicalisation process is not so important.

Sorry, Mr. Ramadan, you are wrong.

In fairness, he does point out that there are other factors such as political grievances and socio-economic inequalities, although he falls into all too frequent trap of listing psychological imbalance and drug use, neither of which have been shown to be determinate drivers for radicalisation.

He also rightly says that many of those who go down the path to violent radicalisation are neither very religious nor particularly knowledgeable about their faith.  But to say that an absence of religious observance or understanding obviates the role of religion in the process or end-point of radicalisation is a serious error of analysis and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are faced with.

There is no other conclusion to draw from looking at Al Qaeda or Islamic State or other Islamist extremist groups than the one that their view of Islam is a crucial pillar of what they stand for and what they are trying to achieve.  After all, that is why we call them Islamist extremists.  They hew to an intolerant brand of Islam that brooks no opposition and they are doing their utmost to force that brand on all other Muslims and on the rest of us through violence.

Every single message they create is imbued with Islamist extremist rhetoric.  It is impossible to interpret this any other way.  The propaganda is not religious by accident.  IS and AQ are fervent believers that they are doing Allah’s work and that they will be triumphant one day.

Yes, they talk about grievances, both historical (Sykes-Picot) and current (the occupation of Muslim lands) but these grievances are secondary to their world view.

And it does not matter that the recruits are ignorant of Islam or non-practicing since the terrorist groups will instruct these wayward souls in the “true” meaning of Islam once they have their hooks into them.

I know that many Muslims are tired of hearing Islam associated with nothing but terrorism.  Unfortunately there are too many idiots out there – Ann Coulter, Robert Spencer, Glenn Beck, Geert Wilders is a very small sampling of a very much larger list – who do see Islam purely through the prism of the tiny minority who use it to justify the use of violence.  I am not Muslim myself but I can imagine the frustration of having to defend my faith time after time and having to condemn every terrorist attack where the assailant yells “Allahu Akbar”.  That has to wear on you after a while.

But we have to call Islamist extremists for what they are: Muslims who subscribe to a narrow and hateful interpretation of a faith that has a billion and a half adherents and who are really seeking our destruction because of that interpretation.

We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one.  We can continue to see that the vast, vast, vast majority of Muslims are really decent, everyday people but still label the tiny, tiny, tiny minority of Muslims who happen to be terrorists as those who follow their faith in an abnormal way.

If we fail to do so we will fail not only to really grasp what is going on but to come up with workable and effective solutions.



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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