When religious leaders tell their flock to kill

I have been looking at Islamist extremism as a form of terrorism for a very long time – more than two decades. When we delve into this topic we have to broach the very sensitive topic of religion and one religion in particular – Islam. Many are uncomfortable with this and many have tried to get away with the claim that Islamist extremism has nothing to do with Islam, a laughable and preposterous statement that I have torn apart on many, many occasions.

Of course when we examine those who elect to engage in this form of terrorism (note that I wrote ‘elect’ and not ‘were brainwashed’ or ‘were hornswoggled’ – God how I love that word!) we have to accept that it is possible for anyone who says they are Muslim to become an Islamist terrorist. Anyone regardless of background. I really think I have written enough to back up my views on ‘everyone can become a terrorist’ to not have to repeat my reasoning here.

What is really important, however, for those seeking to join the myriad jihadi groups or convince themselves that carrying out an attack at home is ok, is the presence of a radicaliser – an eminence grise if you will – since the notion of ‘self-radicalisation’ is a myth that keeps cropping up despite its inaccuracy. These influencers help to set the stage and provide the religious justification for why it is permissible, or even mandatory to kill Islam’s enemies.

And when it comes to Islam’s ‘enemies’ the list is a long one. In a nutshell, anyone who does not subscribe to the narrow religious and world views of of the terrorists is fair game. More importantly, when religious leaders, men seen as guides and upstanding citizens, provide the inspiration, we are in trouble.

A recent case in Singapore was the impetus for this blog. Singaporean officials announced on January 16 that a former religious teacher and one of his students have been issued restriction orders under the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for “propagating beliefs promoting violence and views detrimental to the cohesion of Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society”. Among the ‘lessons’ given by the teacher were that “it was compulsory to kill apostates, defined broadly to include non-believers, Sufis, Shi’ites and Muslims who have renounced Islam or disregarded texts and rulings from the Quran and Sunnah ” and that “Muslims were allowed to defend themselves by waging ‘armed jihad’ against ‘infidels who persecuted them”. Not a lot of subtlety there, eh?

As for the student, he was arrested under the ISA last September after he was found to hold radical views on the use of armed violence against the perceived enemies of Islam. According to the MHA “the exclusivist religious teachings he imbibed from the classes rendered him susceptible to the more radical and violent influences he later encountered on social media” and over time he became convinced that it was legitimate to kill those he felt were oppressors of Islam, including non-Muslims and Shi’ites. Like teacher like student.

Singapore does not mess around when it finds out that terrorism turns your crank. Under a restriction order a person cannot travel out of Singapore, change addresses or jobs without approval, issue public statements, address public meetings or print, distribute or contribute to any publication without approval.

Some might see these conditions as draconian and heavy-handed and we sure as hell could not get away with them in Canada I doubt (I wonder just how limiting are peace bonds, like the one deceased Islamic State wannabe Aaron Driver was under?). Then again, does a society want a jihadi cleric, or his student, to have free rein to recruit foot soldiers for terrorism? Food for thought that.

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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