What radicalizes Islamists . . . and can it be reversed?
Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
I've long wondered what radicalizes some Muslims to become Islamists. The answer is not so simple as some people claim, namely, that the Qur'an, the Hadith, and the Sira themselves radicalize Muslims. If this were the case, I think that many more Muslims would be Islamists. Now, I do think that these three sources play an important role in radicalization, but only after a Muslim's attention has become riveted to the violent passages in these three.
In countries like Pakistan, where public education is largely unavailable to the poor, many religious madrasas offer an education, but one that intentionally radicalizes students. Radicalization in the West takes place along a different path, and Katrin Bennhold investigates how some Muslims set off on that path - and how they can be led off that path - in "Same Anger, Different Ideologies: 2 Outcasts' Paths" (NYT, March 5, 2015). Bennhold actually compares the seemingly similar paths of a radical Muslim and a Neo-Nazi, but I'll concentrate on the Islamist since Neo-Nazis pose little threat, whereas Islamists pose a significant danger:
Born and raised in leafy West London, Ibrahim Ahmed always supported the local soccer club and listened to what he called "white music." But in school he was a "Muslim," and he became increasingly disaffected with British society. When recruiters approached him in a mosque 18 years ago and told him that he could fight a holy war right here at home, he readily agreed . . . . [He] had grievances that eroded . . . [his] self-esteem and made . . . [him] angry . . . . [He was] seduced by a [radical Islamist] narrative that put . . . [him] at the center of a greater cause and offered . . . what . . . [he] craved most: a sense of belonging and a plan to act on . . . [his] resentment . . . . [He] eventually walked away from violence, dissuaded not by law enforcement officials or relatives but by former extremists like [himself].Why does this dissuasion by former extremists work? It works, apparently, because not only is the radicalization process remarkably similar for Muslims generally, so is the de-radicalization process:
[This point is] instructive as Europe tries to recover from two deadly attacks in two months, both of them committed in the name of Islam. Religious ideology plays a central role in the radicalization of young Muslim Europeans currently being lured to join the Islamic State or kill in the group's name at home. But the psychological process underlying radicalization is remarkably universal . . . . Today, the recruitment success of groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is considered the greatest [terrorist] threat. But decades of researching, infiltrating and countering other movements offer some lessons at a time when governments are scrambling for ways to head off the threat beyond tightening security . . . . One lesson . . . is that former extremists have a central role to play in the argument against radical temptations. They have a credibility that governments lack.How do the ex-radicals help? Apparently, they do so by showing the reality of, for instance, the jihad in Syria. Amy Thornton, of the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London, explains:
"We need to replace fantasy with reality, . . . Formers play a very important role. Only they can credibly say: Syria is not a video game, you may end up cleaning toilets, babysitting on the front line; it's not what you're being promised."But this sounds odd, as though the former extremists were promised the opportunity to kill infidels, yet forced to do only mundane things during the jihad and therefore returned to the West in disappointment, lamenting that they hadn't gotten an opportunity to fight. So . . . if they had fought on the front lines and had experienced successful jihad, would they have remained radicals? Whatever the answer to that, we learn that de-radicalization alone is not sufficient:
Another lesson . . . is that debunking extremist propaganda alone is not enough. Outreach efforts are most effective . . . when they offer a counternarrative and tangible alternatives to violence . . . . [For example, a] pioneering program in Denmark treats onetime fighters not as potential terrorists but as wayward youths. Closely watched by the authorities around Europe, the program involves counseling, help with readmission to school and meetings with parents . . . . There are limits to the willingness of governments to rely on such a program. But experts in radicalization said that understanding the process by which people fell for the medieval brutality of a religious ideology is vital to combating it.John Horgan, author of The Psychology of Terrorism and director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell is an expert who focuses not on the "why," but on the "how":
"We won't make any progress at all if we continue to obsess over the question 'why' someone becomes an extremist . . . . A better starting point is asking 'how.'"Well, how then did Mr. Ahmed become radicalized?
Holy war was . . . what was proposed to Mr. Ahmed in a South London mosque in 1997 . . . . [In fact, he] did not grow up religious. His parents, shop owners who had immigrated from Pakistan and India, raised him and his two brothers in a middle-class neighborhood where they were the only nonwhite children. At school, white boys threw racist insults and chipped slate tiles at him . . . . [He] joined a Muslim gang . . . to defend himself, but also to take revenge . . . . [In] a mosque one day, he met men who told him Britain was a Dar al-Harb, a land of war, and that he was a soldier. Within a month, he had joined the [armed] security wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic organization committed to establishing a caliphate in the Middle East . . . . [He] was on call as part of a secret Muslim brigade that . . . [used guns and Molotov cocktails on] anyone reported to have [caused problems for Muslims].What drew him away from radical Islam?
Eventually, . . . [he] began having doubts . . . . He had never paid attention when his family said that Islam and violence were incompatible. But when a Salafi preacher who had once been involved in gang violence told him as much in 1999, he listened [to the man] . . . . "He said he shared my grievances but that violence was not the way to address them" . . . . That is the message he tries to get across to the teenagers he counsels.How's that working out?
[C]ounterextremism work has become trickier over the years. The Internet has given militants direct access to teenagers. The video-game culture glorifies extreme violence. And radical movements have become smarter at marketing.The job of de-radicalization is getting harder, or so Mr. Ahmed seems to imply. Moreover, are there enough counterextremists to de-radicalize the huge numbers of extremists?
I have my doubts . . .