April 2nd 2016
Can the beliefs that feed terrorism be changed?
ACCORDING to Peter Neumann, a terrorism-watcher at King’s College London, experience points to three common features in successful efforts to wean someone off extremism. He must already have inner doubts; trusted people, whether imams, friends or relatives, must be involved; and he must be offered an alternative peer group. He may also be more concerned with personal problems or geopolitical grievances than matters of theology.
Still, given that IS’s appeal lies in a perverse but seductive form of religion, some of the counter-argument has to be religious. How to persuade a jihadist, or somebody tempted by jihadism, that there might be better, and truer, ways to understand Islam than the murderous fanaticism of IS and similar groups?
One approach is to challenge their vision of the world, according to which a place belongs either to Dar al-Islam, the realm where Islam prevails, or to Dar al-Harb, where the faith’s enemies are to be found. In the land it controls, IS claims to have re-established Dar al-Islam with a purity comparable to the first Muslim community. The more idealised his vision of Dar al-Islam, the easier it is for an impressionable young Muslim to convince himself that everywhere else is Dar al-Harb, a zone of adversaries deserving no mercy.
But a mentor can show that this division has never been binary. There are intermediate situations such as Dar al-Dawa, the abode of invitation, where Islam does not predominate but can be practised and preached freely. Another important term is Dar al-Ahd, abode of the contract: places which live in established peace with Muslims. Some Muslim scholars say the West is a more comfortable place to practise the faith than many Muslim-majority countries. And Islam has a lot to say about loyalty and obedience to states that allow Muslims to live safely and devoutly.
To the jihadist and the Islamo-sceptical Westerner alike, sharia law may conjure up images of cruel religious punishment. To a young Muslim frustrated by the ambivalence of life in the West, there may be something seductive about the idea of swift, ruthless justice, ordained by God and therefore not open to question. But a mentor can suggest returning to the original meaning of sharia: a way of promoting the well-being of the individual and the community. The term refers not only to retribution but to Islam’s positive guidance for living generously and humbly.
A hardened jihadist may have been swayed by “The Management of Savagery”, a kind of manifesto for al-Qaeda and its imitators that was published online in 2004. It calls for merciless violence, especially in Muslim countries where Western countries have some influence. The intention is to foment grievance, force the West to over-react and bring about chaos and collapse from which a true caliphate can emerge. It may be possible to convince the subject that all this is alien to the philosophy of war set out in the Koran and by its interpreters. These emphasise that war should only be waged in response to aggression, treachery or a broken treaty, and that civilians should be spared.
Today’s jihadists can also be cast in an unflattering light by drawing parallels with an extremist sect from Islam’s earliest days. Known as the Khawarij, they turned against the caliph of the day and assassinated him, because he was emollient enough to submit to arbitration in a conflict with a rival. The Sunni preachers of IS strongly reject the comparison between themselves and the Khawarij. But the defining feature of the Khawarij, shared with today’s terrorists, was a fondness for denouncing as infidel any Muslim less fanatical than themselves.
Among Muslims who set out to woo people away from terrorism, none of these points is much disputed. Each is intended to challenge the jihadists’ claim to be returning to Islam’s purest sources. But that does not mean that the work is free of controversy.
In Britain, especially, there has been bitter argument, not over how to go about mentoring, but over who should do it. Is the job best given to religious teachers who themselves hold quite hard-line theological and political views and can therefore partly empathise with their subjects, or should it be restricted to those who espouse secular notions of liberty and equality, including, for example, gay rights?
Words and wounds
In recent years, the more restrictive view has prevailed. In comparison with interventions focused on social work elsewhere, Britain’s deradicalisation programme, known as Channel, is perceived to be police-led. It is part of an anti-terror strategy known as Prevent, which was denounced this week by a teachers’ union for requiring teachers to report on their pupils.
Channel is also theology-heavy — but it only uses mentors who espouse liberal democracy, secular law and Western notions of freedom, tolerance and equality. They must unconditionally oppose attacks on British forces. Rashad Ali, one of those mentors and a fellow of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank in London, argues that deradicalisation can be worse than useless if practitioners, while condemning IS, condone other violence.
The difficulty, insists Alyas Karmani, a British imam who has mentored jailed extremists but has now fallen out of official favour, is that restricting the pool to such impeccably liberal-minded folk disqualifies the great majority of those well-placed to communicate and empathise with their subjects. In particular, imams who share their subjects’ anger at Western foreign policy, for example the use of drones over Pakistan and Afghanistan, are excluded.
In Islamic terminology, there is a degree of ijma, or consensus, on what to say to a would-be jihadist. But on who should say it there is fitna, a state of dangerous strife.