The Lure of Radicalism Amongst Muslim Youth
Why is it that a few militant clerics are so popular among some American Muslims? I was asked by an academic at a recent luncheon.
After all, besides being so extreme in their message, don’t most of them lack the scholarly credentials of the many mainstream clerics who oppose their militancy?
The questioner was a highly educated person, someone who had a deep understanding of Islamic theology. He also understood quite well the existence of significant variations in the interpretation and understanding of religious texts. He was one of those who had no problem looking past the right-wing Islamophobic rhetoric of Fox News and Robert Spencer et al., yet was still confused as to why second-generation American and British Muslims would find a message of extremism and militancy so appealing.
He correctly pointed out that the clerics espousing militancy were not only in the minority, but were also not as well-trained in the classical sciences as were clerics belonging to the opposing camp. Why then, were their voices so influential?
This academic at the luncheon was not the only one struggling with the question. A recent congressional hearing also tackled this same issue. And of course, this was not the first time that I, myself, had to confront this very question. It was especially driven home after someone with whom I had only briefly interacted Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the now infamous “underwear bomber” turned radical and tried to blow up innocent men, women and children.
Umar’s transformation provides an excellent case-study that can and should be studied further to shed light on the question of radicalism, and this short essay makes a first, humble attempt at doing just that.
I remember Umar as a shy introvert who attended an intensive retreat, the IlmSummit sponsored by Al-Maghrib Institute in Houston, TX, in the summer of 2008. I was among ten instructors at that retreat.
Umar was in fact so quiet and shy that I almost felt obliged to engage him in small talk, asking him mundane questions about where he lived and what he was studying. And that was about the extent of my interaction with him. Never once did he raise his hand in class to ask a question, or seek any advice, or share any concerns, or confront me on any subject.
It appears that the lack of communication or socializing was not limited to the two of us. Rather, it seems that other students at the retreat had the same experience; they didn’t remember anything significant about him except his nonchalant, quiet presence.
In fact, my encounter with him had been so brief and dull, that when I saw his pictures being paraded on every website and news magazine cover in December of 2009, I didn’t even recognize him until someone alerted me via email that this was the same Umar who had been at the AlMaghrib retreat. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that someone as shy and socially introverted as Umar would have attempted to blow up a plane by stuffing his underwear with explosives!
So, what happened?
From news accounts and our own documentation, we know that the AlMaghrib retreat was his last AlMaghrib course or seminar. We also know that he left England for a Middle Eastern country (where he remained for a few months), and eventually made his way to Yemen, where he interacted with an American-born cleric whose vision of Islam was completely at odds with our own. It was this cleric who apparently inspired him to open a new chapter in his life, and who brainwashed this 19-year old introvert into believing that murdering two hundred innocent people, including many women and children (some of them even fellow Muslims), would somehow bring him closer to his Lord and earn him reward on Judgment Day.
Why did Umar AbdulMutallab, a college-educated young man with a bright future ahead of him, reject the authority and guidance of authentic orthodox Islam, and allow himself to be lured into performing such a destructive and naïve act in the process destroying his own life and possibly that of many others? After all, hadn’t he interacted with us (instructors and students of knowledge) and lived with us for two full weeks? Hadn’t he observed our level of scholarship, our academic grasp of the religion, and our emphatic opposition to irrational and counterproductive militancy?
Umar might have been a social introvert, but he was clearly not unintelligent. What was it in the message of this Yemeni-American that had caused him to ignore the message and methodology of the many teachers that he interacted with at the AlMaghrib retreat?
Some of what you are about to read might not be ground-breaking, but other points that I mention will raise a few eyebrows and perhaps even anger some. That is to be expected, and I do not expect everyone to agree with everything that I write. The point of this article (as is typically my main intention when writing such pieces) is to jump-start the discussion, and to allow for frank dialogue among all parties.
Let’s get to the answer then. It is not rocket science, nor does it require expertise in human psychology. Rather, it is quite simple. There is an external factor, and an internal factor, and when these two factors are coupled together, the result is fertile breeding ground for extremist ideas.
The external factor is an almost total absence of voices from within mainstream Islam (of all varieties: Sufis, Salafis, Deobandis, etc.) that speak to and address the concerns and issues that resonate with the Muslims most prone to extremism. When the only voices that address issues of concern are the voices of radical militant jihadis, it is only natural that young and impressionable minds will gravitate to these voices. From the perspective of these disaffected youth, since the mainstream clerics aren’t discussing relevant issues, or involved in the discourses that concern them, how then can they be turned to for guidance?
The internal factor is a very warped understanding of Islamic texts and doctrines, and a romanticized view of Islamic history. It is only with such a skewed and idealistic vision that a Muslim can allow radical voices to bypass simple common sense and a pure Islamic heart, filtering all the way to his inner psyche.
Let us discuss both of these issues in more detail:
The External Factor
The issues and concerns that are fogging the minds of many Muslims (and all those who turn to radicalism) center around the present state of the Ummah, and in particular the political and social struggles that many Muslims around the world are facing. These struggles are significantly complicated (directly or indirectly) by policies put into place by our own American government (and, to a lesser extent, other Western countries). Before 9/11, most of the grievances were solely linked to the Palestinian question, and it was for this reason that radicalization and militant tendencies during that time-frame amongst Western Muslims were almost non-existent (it is not a coincidence that all those who planned and aided in the 9/11 attacks were foreigners).
Post 9/11, our government reacted in ways that has added infinitely more fuel to the fire of extremism (and hence, the rise in radicalism amongst our own Western youth). From the illegal invasion of Iraq to the foolish military endeavors in Afghanistan, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, from Aafia Siddiqui to Ali al-Timimi, from the ‘War on Terror‘ to the ‘Patriot Act’, it became easier to convince an impressionable mind into accepting the West versus Islam paradigm (as if these two entities can be surgically and neatly delineated, separated and defined).
And instead of such incidents abating with time, every few days a new headline in some newspaper conveys yet another story proving the false paradigm: an American drone missile strike kills a few dozen anonymous, faceless tribe-members in Pakistan, or ever-expanding Israeli settlements steal more land from Palestinians, or a new torture scandal involving Muslim prisoners is leaked, or another military scandal involving the killing of innocent Muslim civilians is exposed. These incidents are a direct or indirect result of either our own American military operations, or our tax-supported military aid, or our turning a blind eye to specific actions of our allies via the use of our veto power in the UN Security Council.
As if such misguided foreign action was not sufficient to enrage a proud young Muslim man, he must also face the constant media onslaught that seeks to portray him and his faith as inherently evil and dangerous. He hears of his friends and families or other Muslims being routinely harassed, humiliated and intimidated at airports and border-crossings, and “randomly” selected for additional screening and questioning. Of course, he too has his own first-hand discriminatory experiences.
His faith attacked on national airwaves, his religiosity treated with suspicion, his co-religionists around the world killed, and his activist brothers and sisters in Western lands jailed, it is no surprise that our young and impressionable Muslim teenager struggles to make sense of all of this.
He wants someone to defend his faith and speak up on behalf of the oppressed. He wishes to hear fiery and angry rhetoric, charging the “free and democratic”nations with hypocrisy, double standards, and the flouting of human rights. It is obvious to him that his government is primarily concerned with acquisition of oil and the control of natural resources, even if that results in the loss of Muslim blood. He clearly sees our politicians pandering more to the interests of corporate sponsors and special-interest donors than to the interests of their own fellow citizens. So, naturally, as a lay-Muslim, he looks to the scholars of his religion, seeking to find solace in angry tirades and verbal lashings against our politicians, leaders, media pundits, and law enforcement agencies who are, in his view, the root cause of all of this anger and terror in the first place.
Instead, all he hears at his local mosque, assuming he is fortunate enough to live in an area where the Imam speaks English, are khutbahs that have no political relevance whatsoever. Finding nothing of significance at a local level, he then looks to more influential scholars: famous national clerics and da`ees, staple invitees to any major Islamic conference. Alas, all he hears them do is to regularly criticize his side: the victims in his eyes. Those who stand up to defend the innocent and fight against the real terrorists “from his perspective” are described as “Muslim terrorists.” Instead of supporting the cause of the weak and oppressed, these clerics side with the oppressors, routinely dissociating themselves from their own, giving spectacle fatwas against violence even as they ignore state-sponsored terrorism and what he perceives as the “greater violence.”
Over time, as acts of violence and terror increase in Muslims lands, and as local scholars only increase in their denunciation of “Muslim extremism,” this young man becomes even more disillusioned with these clerics. In his eyes, these Western scholars, no matter how popular among the masses, are nothing more than sell-outs: government-appeasing servile acquiescing cowards who are more concerned about their own safety and popularity than the safety and comfort of their persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
“Enough of criticizing us! Who speaks up to defend them?” he demands. “Where is the condemnation of our own Western nations, our own policies and our own governments, when they engage in acts of violence, drone bombings, mass-killings, torture, secret renditions and sham trials? Why is such activity not described as terroris, is it not also targeting the innocent? Or is ‘terrorism’ only when a Muslim commits such acts?”
Alas, the token condemnation against foreign policy that does occasionally come from the mouths of these ‘mainstream’ clerics is too shallow for his liking, too weak to satiate his own anger, too lost in the convoluted language and footnotes of their larger message. He is always reminded of the words of Malcolm X and the distinction that Malcolm drew between the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’ and he cannot help but feel that these mainstream scholars are far too entrenched with the powers-that-be to stand up against them.
Not hearing anything from his local or national scholars in the physical world around him, he scours the virtual world instead, looking on the net for voices that will speak to his concerns and address his anger. And in this virtual world, he stumbles across chat-rooms and forums where, for the first time, he finds people who see the world his way. These people, aided by the anonymity of the internet and empowered by the false bravado that only a fake alias can give, finally make our young man feel home, and that he was right all along in his assessment.
It is on these forums that he finds people who list nothing but the political faults of the Western world. It is on these forums where little children pretend to be brave men who can take on the ‘big bad wolf.’ And it is on these forums that he is introduced to ‘clerics who speak the truth’ and ‘fear none amongst men’, of legendary giants that even America fears and will do anything to silence (even if that means sending squads of assassins to murder one of their own citizens without trial). Whereas previously he had trouble finding anyone who would voice his view of the world, here, all the voices on these forums seem to be echoing the same message, spoken from the mouths of militants and circulated online by their testosterone-filled teenage cheerleaders.
And in this worldview espoused by these militants, our young man finds great comfort and solace. According to the militants, every fault in the whole world emanates not from within, but from without. The Muslims are never to blame for anything. It is always the ‘West,’ and in particular ‘Amrika’.
Local persecution of scholars in Muslim lands? ‘Amrika,’ because they were the ones who propped up the kings, presidents and emirs in the Muslim world in the first place. Bombings that kill innocent Muslims in the streets of Baghdad, or the mosques of Karachi, or the shrines of Najaf? ‘Amrika,’ through the use of false-flag operations conducted by American agents, or as a result of the wider chaos originally caused by once again, ‘Amrik’. The awful state of the economy in Muslim lands? You guessed it, ‘Amrika’, via the use of loans that the American-controlled IMF gave out and the economic policies that America put in place.
It is a comforting vision, especially for a young teenager: a simple and self-serving view that reclaims the honor of his faith while laying blame on the feet of others. “It’s not our fault at all! We are always oppressed, always victimized, it’s all America’s fault,” he says to himself over and over again. And on the forums that he frequents, the constant interactions with twenty other kids from around the world, some writing secretly from their parent’s basement, some from their own ‘Star-Wars’ posters-lined bedrooms, this chatter begins to sound like the representative voice of the entire Muslim world.
This young ‘victim’ does not realize that the ‘victim-mentality’ is not a motif of the Quran, nor do we find it ever verbalized in the seerah of our beloved Prophet. It is not a dignified mentality, and even if there are elements of truth in some portions of it, such an attitude does not befit a believer who believes in an All-Mighty Being who Hears and Sees all. Our Prophet suffered more at the hands of his detractors than any Muslim in our time, yet he maintained a moral dignity and an internal courage that would put to shame the entire paradigm of victim-mentality that these radicals espouse.
The Internal Factors
With regards to the internal factors, it is not likely that a mind well-grounded in authentic texts and traditions will gravitate towards acts of terrorism. Thus, it is no coincidence that one will be hard-pressed to find senior clerics, of any theological persuasion, who justify flying planes into building or strapping bombs onto one’s body in order to blow up innocent civilians.
A radical’s mind could only have been exposed to cherry-picked religious texts along with their misinterpretations; typically verses from Surah al-Anfal and Surah al-Tawba (both of which were revealed in specific historic situations very different from our own). Such a mind is only versed in Prophetic traditions of a military nature, sheered of their context and shown in isolation from many other traditions that would help paint a more nuanced view.
However, these are not the only verses and ahadith (the Prophetic traditions) pertaining to the topic of jihad. Many other verses, especially those that seem to conflict with their warped understanding of Surah al-Anfal and Tawba, are simply dismissed as belonging to the ‘Makkan’ phase of revelation. Many Prophetic traditions which would show that military action is not the only way to fight for the truth are simply bypassed or ignored. For every evidence that they quote, there is an almost surreal attempt to isolate that one verse or hadith from the entire corpus of Islamic texts and law. For these militants, it is as if each verse they cherry-pick was actually revealed for their immediate benefit. For them, it is as if every hadith that they quote was stated by the Prophet directly to them and in support of their world-view. Only a mind completely bereft from the necessary hermeneutical tools of usul al-fiqh (the procedure of deriving laws) and maqasid al-Shariah (understanding the goals of Islamic Law) can be so shallow.
With regards to doctrines, a simplistic, black-and-white understanding of wala wa-l-bara is propagated by the extremists; one that the intellectually-challenged (of the ilk of George W. Bush) would have absolutely no difficulty understanding. “You’re either with us or against us”, both Bush and Awlaki pontificate.
Yet, the real world that we live in is not as black and white as these Manichean camps would like it to be. A clear and simple argument can be made that on each and every issue, we should stand with the truth, regardless of which side that truth is on. And it is not uncommon that this truth is not on one side, but somewhere in between.
In the context of the very verses that many militants use to justify their black-and-white understandings of wala wa-l-bara, one verse (8:72) specifically mentions that even if Muslims under attack ask for help, and reach out to you based on religious loyalties, you are not obliged to help them if that help will compromise your political alliances. Extrapolating from this, one can state that while American Muslims are with the Palestinians, Iraqis and Kashmiris in wanting freedom, safety and security for them, at the same time we cannot help them militarily if that help will compromise our own safety and the safety of our families and communities, or if such help would contradict our political alliances. We can still help our suffering brethren in many other ways, for example, by educating our fellow countrymen regarding the dismal plight of these people and how our own government has been, many times, complicit in perpetuating or even causing such predicaments.
The point that I am stressing here is that a more nuanced and pragmatic reading of the Quran can also just as easily be done “ but it takes more wisdom, foresight and moral courage than many of these testosterone-filled youth are willing to undertake (and for the record, I firmly believe that one of the best ways to de-radicalize these young men is to help them get married early and encourage them to have kids, and I mean this in all seriousness).
Muslims need to understand that anyone who approaches the Quran and Sunnah with preconceived notions, wishing to find justification for certain theological or legal opinions, can almost always do so. If one wishes to speak to the texts rather than allow the texts to speak to him, then only his imagination will be a limit to the opinion that he seeks to derive.
With regards to our Islamic history and heritage, our overzealous youngster is told of a few romanticized legends of how a woman cried out for the Caliph Mutasim to come rescue her from the clutches of the enemy, or how Umar b. al-Khattab could not rest even if only one Muslim was in trouble, or how Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi almost single-handedly raised up an army to liberate Jerusalem from the clutches of the evil Crusaders.
But this youngster never actually reads a book of Muslim history himself. If he did, he would find a very different story, a very human one. Yes, there is no doubt that there were times in our past when noble men achieved gallant feats and ordinary people faced almost impossible challenges, yet came out as heroes in the end. But, as with any human history, these examples are more the exceptions than the rule.
Politically speaking, the Muslims suffered from as much intrigue, internal backstabbing, civil wars, bureaucratic inefficiencies, secret dealings, internecine warfare, bribery and corruption as just about any other culture and civilization. Were this youngster to read further, he would discover the almost constant insurrections that the Umayyads had to face from various Muslim insurgents, the political intrigues and the civil wars fought multiple times within the Abbasids, the alliances that the Taifa Rulers of Andalus regularly formed with Christian princes against fellow Muslims in order to retain power, the rivalries and fratricide of the Ottoman Sultans, and many, many, many more such sordid facts facts that are not taught in Islamic Sunday school.
Most of the armies that were harnessed and prepared in our fourteen centuries of Islamic history were actually gathered to fight other Muslims for political or material gain, and not to fight the ‘inglorious infidel’. Muslim societies of classical and medieval times struggled with many of the same issues that their modern counterparts do (albeit to different levels), of societal corruption and moral decay and religious indifference. If there were even prostitutes in the holy city of Madinah during the Prophetic era (as our source books clearly mention), does one believe that later societies would somehow be better than our ‘pious predecessors’?
What a thorough reading of our history shows us is that our societies and people were not angels, but simply humans. Yes, there was much good as well, and there is no denying that having a Caliphate that ruled according to Islamic law led to a society of greater Islamic accomplishments than what can be obtained in our times. But by the same token, because we live in an age devoid of a Caliphate, the good that does occur in our era is of a different type, and the endeavors and struggles of our times will inevitably form its own legends and heroes for future generations.
It is immature and dangerous to over-glorify our past. By painting an imaginary and overly-romanticized picture of an Islamic epoch, it is easier for misguided clerics to convince energetic but naïve youngsters to reclaim and resuscitate such a fantasy, no matter what the cost might be.
I have no doubt that Umar AbdulMutallab saw a level of academic excellence at AlMaghrib that he would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the Western world. I also have no doubt that he was highly impressed with the scholastic content of our seminars. However, in the end, what was important to him was not what he saw, but what he didn’t see. And what he didn’t see was an exposition and condemnation of the role our own countries play in spreading terror around the world. What he didn’t see were explicit solutions being offered in light of the current situation of the Ummah.
In other words, what he didn’t hear was a discourse regarding the current political and social ills that he felt so passionately about, and a frank dialogue about the Islamic method for correcting such ills.
And in that vacuüm, where neither AlMaghrib nor other mainstream voices had anything substantive to offer, the voices of radical extremism proved to be the only bait dangling in front of his eyes. For him, there never was a competition between Orthodox Islam and militancy; there never was an ‘either-or‘ choice to be made because these two visions of Islam (from his perspective) were completely independent of one another. Each one discussed different topics and each was active in a different arena. So convinced was he by that message of radicalism that he was willing to give up his life for it, not realizing that living one’s life for the sake of God is far more difficult than committing suicide for His sake (as if the latter can ever truly be for the sake of God!).
By allowing radicals to speak on behalf of the voiceless, we who remained silent simply lost the battle for the hearts and minds of people such as Umar.
If we truly wish to fight radical ideas amongst our youth; if we wish to persuade them away from rash measures drawn from raw emotions, and to persuade them to act upon wisdom and perform real acts of courage,then the first step that we will have to take is to become more vocal about the grievances that drive young men to acts of desperation. We will need to be frank about the role that our governments play in ruining the freedoms and happiness that specific societies around the world deserve. And after discussing these woes, we will need to educate our youth about the proper way forward in solving them: away from foolish and un-Islamic militancy, and towards education, political activism and other positive channels.
Those who choose to take on this task will have much to worry about for themselves. They will have to brave the attention and subsequent fury of a fear-mongering media empire that loves to demonize any who dares disagree with its own romantic notion of a lost American utopia. These individuals will have to put their trust in Allah as they fight legal and political battles against their own governments and law enforcement agencies, as they themselves are wiretapped, monitored, harassed, baited and perhaps even jailed merely because they state the obvious: that it is our own country’s domestic and foreign policies that are the greatest source of the anger and resentment fueling radicalism.
It is an awkward position to be in; for some, it appears to be a hopeless battle. How can one simultaneously fight against a powerful government, a pervasive and sensationalist-prone media, and a group of overzealous rash youth who are already predisposed to reject your message because they view you as being a part of the establishment (while, ironically, the ‘establishment’ never ceases to view you as part of the radicals)?
But there really is no other alternative. We need to protect our religion for our children after us, and we need to preserve what we can of the freedoms this country still offers us. And while I am skeptical that America will ever revert to its innocent pre-9/11 state of affairs; still, despite all that has occurred to change this country, America remains far better than any European equivalent, and we need to appreciate and cherish this fact even as we struggle to balance our loyalties between the requirements of our faith and those that are increasingly being imposed upon us by our country.
The journey ahead of us is long and difficult, and the task is well beyond simply acknowledging the root cause of anger. Real and tangible solutions must be offered, and we must assess the pros and cons of any step that we undertake. This is but one step, and many more arduous miles lie ahead. But even the journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step.
To be continued.
Image courtesy artcornwall.org