ZANZIBAR – The campfire sparked and moved with and against the wind. I had remarked that all men are obsessed with fire. Whenever there’s one, we feel the need to poke it constantly, to make it a bigger fire, as if we automatically feel responsible for not letting it die. I drank my overly expensive Safari, bought in a special tourist shop outside of town. I say “special” because the Muslim supermarket did not sell any, and this shop was exclusively selling sin.
‘I wonder about Muslims..’, one of the Ugandans said, looking philosophically into the fire. ‘I do not understand them’. The extreme ones, that is.
One of the girls was a Muslima, as it turns out. If I would’ve had to guess, it would’ve been anyone but her. Although an ugly generalisation, a skinny girl, claiming to weigh 44 kilos, with a push-up bra, lots of make-up, wearing variations of pink and tigerprint does not associate easily with the Muslim faith.
Suddenly, one of the Ugandans spoke up. He studied Islamic history, and gave us an overview of the history of the Jihad, and the wars the prophet Mohammed fought after establishing the Muslim faith. As interesting as that piece of history was, what followed was a question that does not have an answer. Are Muslims peaceful? The Muslima spoke up. Those terrorists, they’re not real Muslims. They do, in actuality, not follow Muslim dogma. She gave a couple of examples which I cannot recall anymore. All were very detailed.
They’re not real Muslims. If they’re not real for the reasons you just mentioned, you’re not against extremism, just against these particular strains of it. But, she seemed peaceful enough, so I kept silent. I was observing the discussion, and processing what was being said by attempting to place it into cultural context, when I was awoken from my introspection.
‘So, what do you think?’
As a side-note, discussing with Ugandans is very pleasant. They ask for your opinion, listen to it and try to come up with concluding remarks on a consensus.
I decided to stir the debate. ‘I think no religion is peaceful or violent’, I said, quoting Reza Aslan, ‘it’s just an ideology. People are peaceful or violent. If you are a violent person, your Islam, your Christianity, your Buddhism, and your Hinduism are going to be violent’. It was silent a couple of seconds.
I would like to use that time to edge the blade. Reza Aslan is right when it comes to the main religious texts in this world. Ideology, however, can be violent. Nazism was violent, so was the KKK. There are no peaceful interpretations possible here, I reckon. The power of religious texts like the Bible and the Quran is that you can interpret them any way you like. Give me the books, and I can claim anything, really. Modern Christianity mainly consists of shopping in 5,000 years of Biblical history, picking out what you like and ignoring what you oppose. That is why one Christian can believe in gay marriage while the other condemns it. What, then, determines that interpretation? According to Reza Aslan, it is ‘their politics, their social world, the way they see their communities, and the way they see themselves’
In the study of emotions, it is said that our opinion is formed milliseconds before our brain realises it. From our subconscious, our perspective emerges, after which it is rationalised and justified by our conscious brain. Without that emotional input, decision-making is hopelessly impaired. This means that my initial view on abortion may not be a result of the arguments I can provide, but of an emotional reflex I have when I think about abortions.This of course depends on how emotionally invested you are in such opinions, however, religiosity tends to consist of opinions that are well-cared for emotionally.
So, suppose I am a violent person. That violence stems from a fundamental, perhaps subconscious, emotional stirring which is in turn an effect to a cause both internal and external: my hormones, my genetical make-up, but also my socialisation, my social standing, my culture, and how people treat me.
I read the Bible or the Quran, or whatever religious text I am familiar with or feel like I should be familiar with, and I justify my violence with my religion. This abuse of religion is as old as religion itself. Let us, for a moment, consider Christianity. Many of the atrocities and power structures in the Middle Ages were justified by Catholicism. Then, after Europe recovered from these dark ages, there was slavery, and later colonialism. The inferiority of the Other (e.g. the black man) was justified by quoting the Bible. The Nazis rehashed these interpretations to justify the Holocaust. Years of xenophobia and violence against immigrants have been justified by the abuse of Christianity.
Does that mean Christianity is a violent religion? No, of course not. The vast majority of Christians I know and have known are absolutely not violent.
The next question arises. If violent extremism is simply an abuse of religion, then what makes people violent extremists?
In 2011, Google Ideas and Tribeca Films co-organised the Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) in Dublin, Ireland. They invited victims and formers. Panels on extremism and radicalisation took place, where former skinheads, Crips gang members, jihadists, terrorists, and members of international crime gangs were sitting next to each other and next to victims of terrorism and violent extremism, discussing how people turn into violent extremists.
An often heard explanation for violent extremism is vulnerability. Especially young people, who feel alienated from their environments, turn to (violent) extremism because of the wholesome identity it provides. Naturally this is an absurd simplification of this argument, but it describes its core statement: people turn into violent extremists because they feel their environment is not welcoming them. We’re talking about marginalisation, discrimination, racism, structural inequality in the form of socio-economical poverty and unequal opportunities.
Others claim that it is the ideology that turned regular members of society into suicide bombers, avenging their Prophet. The panel of formers concluded it was both ideology and identity: the ideology provides for the identity. The commitment to a set of ideas presents to these people an identity and social belonging, and for many, this was the reason they joined these organisations. This is, then, what every extremist organisation has in common. A very emotional appeal of ideology and identity.
Then, why are we talking about Muslim extremists? Perhaps because of the body count, perhaps because of the media coverage that has been too quickly in depicting the Other as incompatible with the rest of the (Western) world. Perhaps there is also a different reason.
Noman Benotman is a quiet, eloquently dressed, almost reserved individual. You wouldnt’ think that for 20 years, he was an Islamic religious warrior, although he firstly identified himself as a nationalist, not religious revolutionist. Born in an aristocratic Libyan family, the revolution that brought Qadaffi to power left him and his family as an undesirable members of society. He joined the Muhajideen, the soldiers that fought the Sovjet-Union when they invaded Afghanistan in the late 80s. For him, the violence was a way to achieve his political goals, which was the liberation of Libya and the establishment of an Islamic State, and for 20 years he attempted to do exactly that as one of the leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
When, in the summer of 2000, all leader figures of Al-Qaeda and associated extremist groups convened in Afghanistan, Noman Benotman told Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri the Jihad had been a failure. After 20 years of violence, they had not achieved their political goals, and it was time to reconsider their strategies. Bin Laden told him he had one more attack to organise against the U.S., after which he would retire. In 2001, the Twin Towers came down. That was the start of what we now refer to as the Global Jihad and the end of Bin Laden’s retirement plans.
During the panel discussion at SAVE, Mr. Benotman remarked that the strength of Al-Qaeda is the comprehensive ideology. For the 1%, who purposefully designed this ideology, it was a way to recruit people and keep them in line; a terrifying means to a political end. The well-organised structure of Al-Qaeda has been the subject of quite some research.
Al-Quada and all the terrorist groups that followed or co-existed with them, hijacked Jihad as it is defined in some 40 verses in the Quran. Although actual interpretation of this religious concept by Muslim scholars is sometimes limited to an internal Jihad, which is the struggle within one’s soul between good and evil, Mr. Benotman argued that there is a physical but defensive Jihad that is mentioned in those verses as well. What this Jihad means is essentially war. He put forth the statement that Jihad can only be used by the proper authorities in the same way only countries can declare war. What he, and all the other Jihadists, attempt(ed) to do with announcing a Jihad on the West, or in his case, in Libya, without embodying this authority, also implying the support of the people these authorities are responsible for, is then an act of terrorism. The extremist ideologies of these terrorist organisations in combination with the abuse of religion has proven to be a deadly but fertile combination. The template that perhaps started with Al-Qaeda and its associated organisations, has been used by many violent extremists to justify their violence.
For him [Noman Benotman], the horrific killings in Nigeria, the recent attacks in Paris, all are violence without an end. For many of these organisations, the political ends that for the leaders justified the manipulation of their followers simply do not exist anymore. Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab are simply murdering people, although they might proclaim a bigger end to their means, their violence is without direction. One could argue differently, of course, – Boko Haram is fighting against the Nigerian government after all, and is at least proclaiming to be interested in founding an Islamic State. However, perhaps we can question the political reality and manipulation skills of those leaders when compared to the designers of the ideology. The crown of manipulation and abuse of the Islam has been handed over to IS, whose leaders, exactly like Al-Qaeda, use the extremist ideology to achieve their political ends.
Identity in the Middle-East has always been a focal point where several planes come together. Are you an Arab? A Libyan? Or a Muslim? To whom do you owe your allegiance? Violent extremists mixed these elements and came up with an ideology that, as Mr. Benotman put it, answered every question you might possibly come up with. An ideology that answered to subconscious emotions and justified the anger of many disenfranchised (young) people.
Nowadays, Mr. Benotman is the president of the Quilliam Foundation, based in London. They are a think tank that tries to come up with creative solutions to violent extremism. They treat terrorism as the physical consequence of a violent ideology, which ultimately the root of all the violent extremism. How to combat ideology, then?
According to Mr. Benotman, we need to take back the concept of Jihad, and intervene in the ideology rather than in the country. It is too late to expect Muslims to handle their own crisis; this concerns everyone in this world because the abuse of the Islam has affected everyone. We need to have a global conversation about how to interrupt the extremist ideologies, and how to take back the religious but also political concepts that were hijacked by the leaders of these movements. There are already scholars, leaders, and other concerned citizens who have pointed out the true (religious) definition of the word Jihad, and started a conversation about how to bring it back to the realms of religion, where it belongs.
If ideology fuels the violence, then any violent reaction (‘we need to bomb them, bomb them, and bomb them again’) only puts gasoline on a growing fire. It gives the 1% of Jihadist leaders ammunition to keep their ideological apparatus in place: see?! They hate us. They hate you. You are not welcome in their midst. Join us, and we’ll welcome you.
How then to disrupt an ideology? From centuries of experience with heinous (war) crimes, we know that the ideology that justifies this violence (whether it be religious, political, or otherwise), a) dehumanises the enemy, b) stratifies individual responsibility, and c) prevents people from distancing themselves from the ideology. Genocide is a perfect example of such a mechanism. You kill them because you are being told they are not human. You are part something bigger that alleviates you from personal responsibility, and once you commit these acts of violence, there is no way out for you (although there are exceptions to be noted here).
These infidels, they deserve to die. Allah said so. We kill in the name of the Prophet, and with that divine inspiration, we commit violence. The tragic story of Achraf, the seventeen-year-old boy who went to Syria and got killed there illustrates that coming back is most definitely not easy.
Disruption of extremist ideology
a) dehumanisation and radicalisation: Where in the Quran does it say you can kill people? Is this interpretation absolute? What legitimate religious institutions support the leaders you believe in? What other purposes might these leaders have?
What do we know about the way they operate? What policies are there in place to prevent radicalisation and limit the opportunities for further development of extremist ideology? What is our role in the marginalisation of minority groups? How do we report on terrorism and extremist violence?
b) stratification of responsibility: If you shoot someone, who pulled the trigger? You or Allah? Whatever you do in the name of someone else, you are still responsible for your own actions, and you will answer only for your actions, in court, on during a judgment in an afterlife.
The feeling of powerlessness contributes to a stratification of responsibility when committing violence. The empowered feeling that is provided by extremist ideologies is not yours; it is borrowed. You are strong because you are surrounded by (perceived) strength. And with this strength, you inflict harm on other people, making you feel empowered yet not responsible.
c) getting out: the tragic case of Achraf shows us that hardly any efforts are being made to help people to get out. During the Summit Against Violent Extremism, formers were asked how they managed to distance themselves. Some realised it after many years, some after the birth of their child, some had to end up in prison to realise their wrongs, some were confronted by their mother. But hardly anyone got out through the help of a deradicalisation program. I am sure they do exist, but we are not up for the task that lies before us.
That night, at the campfire, I attempted to say all this. Obviously, I failed in the sense that I could have been more wholesome and perhaps more convincing. I don’t even remember what conclusion we reached, and we may have drifted off towards the end.
The misconceptions about violent extremism fuel the ideologies that keep it in place, and it is our role in this process we must recognize before we can hope to eradicate violent extremism and terrorism.