By: Yaya J. Fanusie. Yaya is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. He is the director of analysis at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. He tweets at @signcurve and produces a personal storytelling podcast about his journey to Islam and working in national security called Rhythm of Wisdom.
The recent terrorist attacks in London show that jihadist conflicts around the globe are likely to continue ricocheting in the West. To keep up with this threat, the U.S. is leveraging all elements of its power. In the past few months, the U.S. Treasury Department has designated more than a dozen people for their involvement with al-Qa’ida (AQ) or the Islamic State (IS). They’re a diverse bunch. Two of the individuals are from the UK. Another pair are Canadian. The list also includes a Trinidadian, Malaysian, Indonesian, a Swede, and a guy from New Zealand. Clearly, the world’s most deadliest terrorist groups are equal opportunity recruiters. And these designations belie the idea that the U.S. can counter jihadist terrorism through a national security policy focus on the Middle East.
Obviously, these individuals do not represent the dominant attitudes of Muslims in these countries. But as a convert to Islam who spent several years working as a counterterrorism analyst for the CIA, I am particularly concerned about extremist narratives calling on Muslims in the West to support terrorist groups. The phenomenon of Muslims leaving places where Islam exists in relatively pluralistic environments to join al-Qa’ida and IS offers insights into the paths of jihadist radicalization and, hopefully, some ways to undercut it.
While many may posit that what is needed is a shift in the Islamic theology that terrorists embrace, both my observations as an analyst and my personal experience within Islam point me to a more targeted conclusion. Countering extremists requires shifting how they think more than what they believe. And while religion is central to jihadist narratives, culture is a way more malleable variable that determines how one approaches religion.
It’s not about the organization, but the cause. One of the recent Treasury designees, British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh, left the UK in 2012 to join al-Qa’ida’s branch in Syria. But he later left that group to join IS where he became part of a quartet of Brits known for torturing and beheading hostages. Trinidadian IS sniper Shawn Dominic Crawford said in an interview with the group’s English-language magazine that before moving to Syria, he was part of a vigilante group in Trinidad that took revenge on non-Muslims accused of harming local Muslims. For 20 years, UK extremist Anjem Choudary encouraged followers to support jihadist movements. When IS took over territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, he quickly pledged allegiance to the group from London.
While violent radicalization is a complicated process, the ideological attraction at play here is relatively simple. These folks desire to establish an Old World caliphate and are galvanized by the allure of fighting against forces they perceive as antagonists of Islam. If the operational structures of IS and al-Qa’ida were to disappear overnight, it would make little difference. As long as the jihadist mindset persists, new organizations would likely arise and draw new adherents.
Countering the extremist narrative requires proving that the jihadist struggle is not analogous to Prophet Muhammad’s mission. The jihadist narrative can’t be neutralized without attacking its base assumptions head-on. The argument that Muslims should leave their lands to join IS or AQ is enabled only by an incorrect reasoning that the historical occasions of Muhammad emigrating Mecca and fighting his pagan persecutors are precedents with a literal modern analog.
There are lots of scholarly arguments to counter this thinking, but the best approach is to invoke simple concepts that can resonate broadly amongst Muslims. One is that the Prophet’s mission was a universal and dynamic one that provides a mode to follow, but not necessarily a script. In the 21st chapter of the Qur’an (called The Prophets), Muhammad is described as someone who was sent as a mercy to all the worlds. The Arabic term for “all the worlds” (alameen) more appropriately should be understood as all the systems of knowledge. Its root meaning denotes knowledge and science, as one prominent American Muslim commentator pointed out decades ago.
This description from the Qur’an itself indicates that Muslims should approach Muhammad as a model to derive inspiration for bringing benefit to any setting. And the benefit should connect with the nature of that environment. The implication: Establishing Islamic life is not about implementing a carbon copy of life in 7th century Medina.
At the same time, this critical period in Islamic history is not to be discarded from Muslim identity consciousness. Rather, Muslims should study all of it, even elements which may not jibe with our 21st century environment, to derive spiritual principles to benefit the moral, material, and psychological well-being of contemporary human society.
Jihadist Salafis miss this mode because they approach Muhammad and his early followers like characters in an ancient play. And when the contemporary world is vastly different from that play’s script, they believe they must destroy the environment just so they can create a replica theater, complete with stage, costumes, and props to fit the play’s period. Proof of this is in their approach to antiquities.
The Taliban’s demolition of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan in early 2001 and Islamic State’s destruction of countless ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria since 2014 is the unfortunate logical conclusion of a kindergarten-level understanding of Islam. The Qur’an does recount the story of another prophet, Abraham, smashing idol statues. And Muhammad reportedly destroyed idols that had been placed around the Kabba. But by interpreting these accounts as precise acts to imitate, their spiritual significance evades literalist thinkers.
However, when one views these acts as a mode instead of script, idols can represent concepts, habits, traditions, or possessions that people cling to that hinder the soul and constrain the intellect. They also can point to the barriers people imagine between themselves and God. This interpretation allows for personal analogy, where anyone can reflect on what may be the “idols” in their life that they need to remove for the progression of their soul.
In this light, Prophet Muhammad’s mission provides a pattern for finding ways to bring mercy to all of the conflicts and disharmony we face, in all of our personal or social “worlds.”
A similar distinction should be made about Prophet Muhammad’s involvement in war, which jihadists claim as a precedent for their own insurgencies. The Qur’an does speak unequivocally about war as part of the early experience of the Muslim ummah, although verses about death or destruction appear only in about two percent of the entire text.
Again, plenty of scholarly arguments exist to rebuke the narrative calling for violence in jihadist conflicts around the world. But the best counter-narrative is a simple one. Most Muslims are familiar with the context surrounding Muhammad’s fight in the later half of his mission. The Qur’an granted permission to fight because Muslims were receiving unabated, violent religious persecution for more than a decade. Muhammad’s mode was to preach a simple, monotheistic message which had been forwarded by earlier prophets. It was met by the leaders of the Quraysh with what would today be called massive violations of human rights.
People were discriminated against, dispossessed, and killed because they would not abandon their worship. The first impulse of Muhammad was peaceful patience and perseverance for more than a decade. And the verse which eventually allowed fighting contextualized such self-defense as necessary for also protecting the freedom of worship of Jews and Christians.
This provides a Qur’anic litmus test to anyone evaluating the credibility of the jihadist cause. One should ask, “Is their fight responding to a real threat against religious freedom?”
Some jihadist sympathizers may point to events soon after the early Muslim community eventually gained victory over Mecca, where the Prophet sent out military expeditions to consolidate the strength of the newly empowered, yet fragile ummah. Arab tribes that submitted to new Muslim rule and agreed to embrace the Muslim identity were forced to destroy their idols and fall under the Prophet’s leadership.
However, history also shows that this period was one of negotiation and alliance-making, not political Islam absolutism. According to various biographers of Muhammad writing about this time, in many cases Arab tribes were allowed to keep their religious traditions in exchange for entering into agreements of cooperation, keeping their own distinct identity, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or pagan. Any hostility was based on whether the tribe would be a threat or ally to the nascent Muslim community, not whether it followed Islam’s beliefs and practices. The notion that non-Muslims, minding their own business, should be warred upon as a matter of course to convert them to Islam, was not part of the Prophet’s methodology or motivation in warfare.
But even with this context, Muslims in the 21st century must understand that the references to fighting and war in the Qur’an and in Muhammad’s biography have more apt implications for spirituality and mindset than any physical battle.
For example, the Qur’anic term often translated as martyr is shaheed, but it literally means “a witness.” Muslims use a derivative of this word toward the end of every ritual prayer when reciting the declaration of faith, bearing witness to God’s oneness and Muhammad’s messengership.
So, the word’s full Arabic meaning points to the concept of verifiable proof. And it implies giving one’s whole self for God. In Muhammad’s time, individuals certainly gave their lives on the battlefield. But this idea of selflessness and sacrifice can inspire the believer to strive in all types of endeavors. And the historical fighting against the Kafiroon, usually translated as “disbelievers” can be analogous to the struggle between faith and altruism on one hand and evil and selfishness on the other – even within one’s soul. In fact, the Qur’an corrects those who use the term “believer” loosely. The Book describes a believer as a lofty, internal condition and not just an external label one can profess.
Muslims must access the deeper insights of this scripture, otherwise shallow interpretations will continue to allow Islam to be hijacked by armed groups participating in terrorism, often under the facade of freedom-fighting or liberation movements.
Renewing Muslim culture is more appropriate than reforming Islam. The notion that Islam needs to be reformed as a religion is incorrectly presumptuous and even if it weren’t, it would be an elusive goal. This contention, widely promoted in some intellectual circles might just be inappropriate mirror imaging of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation came at a time when the Church controlled the Christian layman’s access to scripture, its interpretation, and in principle, the salvation of its followers. In many cases, the Church forbade translating the Bible into local languages from Latin in order to stop the influence of reformers it considered heretics.
Martin Luther’s reformation aimed to disrupt the authority that Church hierarchy held over religious teachings and emphasize the Bible alone as the source for all affairs of the faith. Luther also sought to make the Bible readable by the laity, and thus translated into local languages. This brought scriptural interpretation within the reach of the Christian masses.
This reformation’s end-state is already present in Islam, where it is widely accepted that the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad are the chief sources of the religion and that clerics, while important, are not the arbiters of individual salvation. The current problem of violence by Muslims in the name of religion is not the result of a centralized religious authority. In fact, some could argue that it is exacerbated by its lacking. Jihadist movements often prop up their own clerics who may have little credibility within mainstream Islamic scholarship.
So, Islam already is constituted in a way which allows for varied and competing expressions of the faith. So, why has not a more enlightened interpretation of Islam won over those who are attracted to jihadism? Culture. There is a culture of uncritical thinking which determines the way many Muslims engage Islam.
An overly-literalistic and shallow reading of scripture is not intrinsically part of Islam. I converted while in college in the late 1990s largely through self-study, reading an English translation of the Qur’an, and without much engagement with the Muslim community initially. Born and raised in California, having already strong spiritual leanings in my young adulthood and an appreciation for critical thinking, it never dawned on me to interpret verses about fighting in the Qur’an as a prescription to wage war against non-Muslims. And as I learned about Muhammad’s life, I found no directive for me to join some sort of caliphate political structure.
What I did discover as I eventually interacted more with Muslim communities was that many others approached Islam with narrow-mindedness. I sensed this in proselytizing literature and Friday sermons which differed from the universality which drew me to the religion. Before I had ever heard the term Islamist, I remember thinking to myself as a recent convert that many were practicing some sort of “Islam-ism,” presenting the faith as a self-absorbed, particularistic sect.
For example, in college I started reading a popular English translation of the Qur’an given to me by a relative when I was in high school. From the translation, I got the sense that the Islamic identity as one in unison with the religion of the prophets preceding Muhammad. And I remember reading verses arguing that earlier religious peoples erred by becoming more attached to the particulars on their faith, drifting from universalism to sectarianism. It appeared to me that Islam instead provided a unifying, not divisive religious identity. But I soon began to notice many Muslims doing just what the Qur’an criticized – expressing themselves as a party simply “rejoicing in that which is with itself.”
In my early Qur’anic reading, I also found a constant call for the reader to use his or her intellect. To reflect. Throughout the Book I noticed passages of rhetorical questioning, a style that seemed to encourage the believer to come to faith through reasoning, not blind acceptance. This to me, showed an appreciation for critical thinking.
There was even a story about Abraham asking God to explain to him more clearly how the dead could be raised back to life. When, in response, God questioned Abraham as to whether he did not believe, Abraham responded that he did, but he just wanted to put his heart at ease; a clear example that it is ok to bring intellectual curiosity to God’s mysteries.
This all was intellectually stimulating. But though I gained these insights as a new explorer of Islam’s sacred text, it was apparent that this way of thinking about the faith was not predominant as I began to move more in Muslim circles. It seemed that many Muslims were not encouraged approach scripture intellectually or seek the meaning behind religious rituals.
One time after I had converted, I happened to be at a mosque open house where non-Muslims were invited to visit. I overheard one of the visitors ask the imam if there was any spiritual significance to the various postures in the Muslim prayer ritual. The imam responded curtly, saying that Muslims did not worry about the meaning behind the ritual, but do it because God commands it. I could only think that such a response would be quite the turnoff to a spiritual seeker.
The difference between Islam as I initially discovered it and the religion I saw many Muslims propagate was not scripture by itself, but the cultural lens through which I engaged it; a lens valuing intellectual freedom and spiritual depth.
Culture influences how Muslims engage and think about religion. It impacts how they extrapolate from Muhammad’s life history. The collective Muslim culture must be refined because it’s static and particularistic approach to scripture cultivates religious antagonism to a world which is increasingly dynamic and pluralistic. And in this pluralistic environment, when conflicts over political power and social grievances arise, this culture engenders religiously-framed violence as a logical conclusion. To push back this phenomenon, Muslim communities must approach religious texts with a cultural lens that respects the human intellect as a companion of faith, not its adversary.
However, cultural change is not brought about by policy speeches or (dare I say it) Op-eds. Culture comes from the attitudes and habits that parents pass on to children, ideas that teenagers circulate on social media, books that stimulate popular discussion, and of course, all types of entertainment and artistic expression. These things determine how people think and what they deem acceptable or unacceptable behavior.
In Muslim communities around the world today, Islamic scholars and imams probably are less influential on young people than art, entertainment, and social media. So, the question is not how to reform the Islamic religion, but how to cultivate a culture where Muslims derive enlightenment from religion and where shallow interpretations are unappealing; how to influence thinking and thus, behavior.
Some may think that this may be more possible in the West where religious tradition is less fixed than in Muslim-majority countries. That probably is true. But the broader culture of the U.S. and Europe has long influenced cultural attitudes in the rest of the world. It follows that Western Muslims who have reconciled their faith with pluralism should be well-positioned to engage the Muslim-majority cultures of Asia and Africa. Islam’s global demography today means that Muslims in the West might be the overlooked catalyst for cultural renewal for the Muslim ummah.
Muslim thought leaders in the West can take on this role by creating films, television programs, music, and other expressions that speak to this generation’s cultural appetites while drawing on central ideas of the Qur’an: the nobility of human nature, the importance of thinking and self-reflection, the long-term rewards of doing good in the world, and the hazards arising from abusing one’s human talents and mistreating others. God is key to all of these, but art done well need not overemphasize the obvious. Perhaps Islam’s great benefit to society today might be in offering audiences the option for good entertainment without disregarding universal moral principles.
Jihadists assume they have a monopoly on the idea of a grand and noble Islamic mission. But undoing the warped thinking about Islam that they have reinforced in the minds of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike may be the biggest Islamic cause of our age. If Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad’s mission was to be a benefactor for all aspects of human endeavor, informed by the light of revelation, we must assess how well we benefit the world; not in Friday sermons and dawa literature, but in advancing humanity through education, business, politics, and culture.
To give Islam the respect it deserves in the eyes of the world, the real global jihad has nothing to do with fighting the West, but everything to do with raising up the spiritual, mental, and material condition of people. This was Prophet Muhammad’s methodology. And it thusly propelled Muslims in the generations soon after him to advance in knowledge, science, and culture.
The true Islamic battlefield of the 21st century is in overcoming the influence of those who are blocking this potential mercy. Ironically, the people obstructing the beauty of Islam are not non-Muslims, secularists, or atheists, but rather those who cloak themselves in Islamic identity while trying to impose a most hollow understanding of our faith onto the world.
As Muslims concerned about our religion, we must be clear about the real threats facing our communities. And if we reflect on how the Qur’an speaks to the soul, it should be clear that the biggest challenge to our faith is not the enemy outside of us, but the enemy within.
Extremist narratives gain traction and go viral because they inspire. A new Muslim class of creatives should arise, learn from this, and produce art that connects to the hearts and minds which many mainstream religious leaders and scholars aren’t reaching. This cultural renewal, rooted in an enlightened understanding of scripture and Islamic history could inspire human excellence. And it may be the best way to wrestle control of religious interpretation from the hijackers.