Three Arguments on Islam That Counterterrorism Scholars Need to Junk

Instead of discussing how discontented people from specific sects resort to Islamist terrorism, counterterrorism scholars should move on to study the nature of violence itself.

An ISIS militant flies the black flag in Raqqa, Iraq. Credit: Reuters/Files

An ISIS militant flies the black flag in Raqqa, Iraq. Credit: Reuters/Files

Since 9/11, there has been a tremendous growth in terrorism-related research and related activities, with vast output through publications in mainstream and academic media, and seminars and conferences. The aim has been to develop a discourse that tries to understand the problem and then solve it. However, as a scholar of terrorism and counterterrorism for almost four years, I have observed that certain fallacies continue to mire the discourse. Mine is not the sole voice of complaint. Scholars of terrorism and/or counterterrorism studies have critically introspected upon the nature of the study and have expressed their dissatisfaction at various points. Specifically, my problems arise from the manner in which some scholars (mostly Muslim) argue about the interplay between Islam and Islamist terrorism.

The Global Terrorism Index 2016 states that 74% of all terrorism-related deaths were caused by ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al Qaeda – all of which espouse the concept of religious extremism. Due to the religious dimension of contemporary terrorism, a vast amount of scholarship has been dedicated to understanding how Islamist terrorist organisations use religion to build narratives that attract susceptible individuals. Thus, scholars of religion, prominent religious figures and clerics have begun to play an integral role in the discipline. A recent conference at an Indian think tank brought together a large number of Muslim researchers and clerics, as well as scholars of Islam and counter-terrorism to discuss how to address the challenge posed by religious extremism. While the intentions behind such events are indeed commendable, most scholars at such places tend to be apologists (for Islamist terrorism?).

As most of these events are held under the Chatham House Rule, I will refrain from revealing identities. However, for the benefit of the reader, I must note that opinions expressed in the mainstream media also reflect the arguments that are often made behind the closed doors of think tanks. The most prominent example of this would be much debated article in The Atlantic that looks into ISIS’s religious roots. The author drew much of his argument from interviews with scholars like Peter Bergen (whose book on Osama Bin Laden sought to acknowledge the latter as a “creature of the modern secular world”) and Bernard Haykel (who told the author of the Atlantic piece that Muslims who deny ISIS’s religious roots are “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion”).

‘Not all Muslims’, a red herring

‘Not all Muslims’ is the first and most important problem. Just as with “not all men”, such an argument is extremely digressive and does not further the debate. While statistics prove that not all Muslims support extremist ideologies, scholars and observers of the field do not really need numbers to know that not all Muslims are terrorists. Any scholar who uses this argument is only attempting to distance himself/herself from the phenomenon, primarily owing to his/her own religious identity. The problem of Islamist terrorism is not concerned with people who are not terrorists. Therefore, instead of clarifying that not all Muslims support extremism, it’s better that scholars focus on the individuals who do support it. In a world where Islamophobia is rampant, defending oneself comes naturally. However, when it comes to developing a scholarly discourse on counter-radicalisation, being individualistic is of no benefit. While strong attempts have to be made to counter the increasing level of Islamophobia among the masses, the scholarly community has to understand that “not all Muslims” is now an established fact and move beyond it.

‘Blame it on the Wahhabis’

Many scholars and liberal Muslim observers and writers blame specific sects within Islam, namely Wahhabism and Salafism, for Islamist terrorism. For example, this opinion piece in Politico argues, “the Wahhabis have accelerated their brainwashing of East and West Asians with their madrassas”. Even some Indian liberal Muslims, hold the view that Salafism and Wahhabism are theologies that have created environments that enable regular massacres. The problem only worsens when senior government appointees jump into the fray with similar opinions. For instance, Yousaf Butt, a senior advisor to the British American Security Information Council and director of the Cultural Intelligence Institute has referred to Wahhabism as the “fountainhead of Islamist terrorism”.

Yes, Wahhabism and Salafism are perhaps the most conservative of Islam’s sects, and Wahhabism, in particular, has spread around the world because of the political and financial support the sect receives from some Arab countries. It is also a fact that terrorist groups, to justify their cause, often quote instances from the Wahhabi and Salafi histories in incorrect contexts. However, I fail to understand what scholars are trying to establish by repeatedly pointing to these sects as the sources of Islamist terrorism.

Let us, just for the sake of it, disregard the fact that there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that conservative Muslims support extremist ideologies, and agree that Wahhabis and Salafis are all either terrorists, or terrorists in the making, or sympathisers of extremist causes. So what next? How do we go about developing a counterterrorism policy after blaming specific sects? Should we now seek the extermination of these sects?

One answer that often comes up in such a situation is that we must promote peaceful sects, like Sufism, and reform so-called “extremist” ones. Yes, it is very easy to preach the need for reform from the comfort of a conference room, surrounded by pacifist and liberal Muslims. Imagine approaching the practitioners of these sects and telling them that their beliefs are dangerous and that they should change. It is easy to tag their faith as violent or even call it ‘archaic’ when there are no Wahhabi and Salafi clerics present in the room to say otherwise. In reality, such arguments are just other ways of denigrating Salafi and Wahhabi Muslims. Further, branding particular sects as peaceful and others as violent is harmful and divisive, especially when the vast majority of the allegedly violent sects are not even violent to begin with. These steps only serve to alienate the sections where radicalisation is the most prevalent.

‘The battle of verses’

Lastly, it’s a common practice amongst scholars to quote religious verses that promote peace to counter those that speak of violence. This practice hardly serves to negate the idea that notions (even corrupted ones) of violence are present in the religious texts. By simply picking religious verses that support one’s argument – whether it be verses that propound violence or those that seek peace – scholars are only engaging with the evidence that supports one side of the story. It does not, in any way, contribute towards either understanding or resolving the problem of Islamist terrorism. At this moment, let us understand that Islam, like other Abrahamic religions, is a religion of books. Hence, who reads the books, and how, becomes critical to the manner in which the religion will manifest itself in practice. Texts are nothing without readers, and instead of looking at the words, it would be worthwhile to look at the people who are reading these texts, not just to themselves but also to their followers.

The way out

It’s high time that the counterterrorism scholastic community unanimously agrees to treat religion as just another ideology – like nationalism or Marxism –  that is used to create a narrative in order to spur recruitment. Research by established scholars like Martha Crenshaw, Bruce Hoffman, Mark Sageman and John Horgan has empirically demonstrated the linkages between certain cultural, political and psychological forces and radicalisation. This research suggests that the real problem behind radicalisation is the underlying discontent that is prevalent in some societal sections. Terrorist groups just bring together the disgruntled and convince them to die and kill in the name of their ideology, offering this as a solution to their recruits problems. Religion only aids these groups in creating a convincing story to justify their violent acts. Any government that wants to develop a concrete counterterrorism policy should funnel resources towards understanding the complaints and injustices experienced by some citizens, which are exploited by terrorist groups to draw disaffected people towards violent ideologies. However, to do this a government would have to accept the hard reality that terrorism rises out of prevailing social, economic and political stratifications.

It is an established fact that terrorist organisations misrepresent religion to gain recruits. The scholarly community does not need to bicker among themselves on who is misinterpreting these texts incorrectly. Regardless of what scholars think of terrorist groups’ misinterpretations, the groups will continue to employ religion for their purposes.

Understanding how these belligerent versions of Islam are socially constructed should be a more important concern for the academic community. As David Wright-Neville, an Australian academic who specialises in international relations and terrorism, says, “Violent versions of religion are not sui generis; rather, they exist as categories of beliefs that are crafted from the artefacts of later modernity. In other words, rational individuals, in search of meaning systems that make sense of an increasingly confusing and alienating world consciously craft fundamentalism.” From the current bulk of scholarship, it feels as if scholars take it for granted that such misleading interpretations are available readily within the religion to be used by the disenfranchised. It is imperative for scholars to dissect this assumption and study how these violent versions develop.

In the current socio-political context, it is crucial to delink religion – and any other form of identity – from violence. This is often a challenge as a researcher’s come into play. The researcher’s judgment is often clouded by his/her own identities while studying identity-driven violence. This can best be avoided by not indulging in an actor-centric idea of terrorism. In other words, scholars should not look at terrorism as violent acts conducted by certain sects of society in response to feeling threatened. This often leads to arguments that justify the use of violence. Which in turn starts a cycle of thoughts that start with ‘every discontented person does not turn to violence’ and that prompts people to offer apologist responses. Instead of perpetuating this cycle, counterterrorism studies should focus on the nature of violence itself. If an act of political violence can generate fear among the masses, then it is terrorism, irrespective of the ‘who’ and ‘why’ behind it.

Aersh Danish is a researcher of terrorism at the Centre for Air Power Studies, a security and strategy think tank in New Delhi.

  • Rohini

    The article started off well but petered off into the usual ‘societal issues so there is terrorism and extremism’ apologist stance. The REAL question is – WHY is it that only certain people who follow certain ideologies resort to violence. I am afraid imagined ‘social deprivation’ is not quite the answer – there are many disenfranchised groups in this world who do not resorting to such methods to fight for their due. These Islamist adherents are not specifically unique in being ‘poor’.
    But this reason collapses when one looks at the fact that many who join ISIS are educated, well off youth. Take the example of the diplomat’s son who was responsible for the bakery terror in Dacca a few months back – educated, rich, privileged, spoilt. What accounts for his radicalisation? Or haha, veen Osama bin Laden – a very rich billionaire. Or the UK youth who join up? Surely, they are NOT deprived, given that the UK is a well-off country that has a quasi-socialism in place – education free, healthcare free, what else could you want? Jobs? well, many others are also jobless, is that an excuse for terrorism?
    It is for such experts to identify the real cause of Islamic extremism, and remove it. It cannot be ‘social deprivation or disillusionment’ – when we accept this as the reason, we are doing an injustice to other people who use peaceful means to fight against disenfranchisement. We are guilty of justifying terrorism, for which there can be no room at all – no matter what the cause.
    I would like to ask this author – what ‘poverty’ can explain the bombing to smithereens of 43 coptic christians 4 days ago in Egypt, on Palm Sunday as they prayed in their church ? What ‘poverty’ can explain the death of those 100s of young children in the Peshawar school? what ‘poverty’ explains young Malala being shot?
    Stop fooling us.

    • Aersh Danish

      I think you got the essence of this piece slightly wrong… First, I am try to dispel the argument that religion and terrorism are interrelated the way most scholars do. The aim of this piece is not to understand the root causes of terrorism, but to critique how scholars understand terrorism.

      That the disenfranchised resort to militant methods, is just one school of thought. There are many that believe that psychological factors play a bigger role. I have cited the authors and hyperlinked their works. There is a pluralistic approach towards understanding who becomes a terrorist and why, and not a monolithic one. Hence, I most certainly do not argue that poverty leads to generation of terrorists. It is merely one face of the argument that I have cited.

      What is more important is that even in all these factors (poverty, illiteracy, whatever whatever), some scholars bring the role of religion (or any other identity for that matter, i just have limited myself to Islamist terrorism). I want to break this connection. Why am I doing so? Because it is irrelevant. Yes, we all know that not all who are unhappy/disenfranchised become terrorists. we know that. So why bother with that. It is an established fact.

      What is more relevant is to understand why the small proportion of people who do subscribe to such violence, actually do so in the first place. And this can only be done when scholars delink ideology from violence. It can only be done when we go beyond the ‘actor-centric” model (explained in the text). When we call the spade, a spade. That irrespective of rich/poor/religious/sacrilegious… whoever commits an act of terror, is a terrorist. Period.

      • Rohini

        Rest assured, I have NOT misunderstood your article. I have chosen to focus on the disenfranchisement aspect while commenting. As that is more and more gaining centrestage as an apology for terror.

  • Murali Krishnan

    That’s the way to blame others. There are many people who faced more but still they chose to fight peacefully and won their rights.

  • Rohini

    This is an apologists argument. Sorry, don’t agree. There is no justification for any kind of violence – it all descends into ‘oh, they did it first, so we retaliate’..that’s not quite going to get us peace. tackle each individually…

  • Rohini

    Thank you for the reference.

  • Rohini

    Yes, these cases are in court. The last I heard….now, the SC has also asked that Advani and co. stand a speedy, time-bound trial. So, what is the issue here? One cannot change the tortoise paced nature of Indian courts…but perhaps a law like the one for rape which asks for speedy trials for victims of such crimes would be a step forward?
    I think instead of hand wringing and posturing against Modi, some useful ideas that can help better the system must come up. I think a law similar to the rape law that speeds up such trials will help greatly. Also, a ‘hate-speech law. This will stop all the fatwas, the ‘kill the other’, the gau enthusiasts who call for blood, the ‘kill for cows’, the ‘Hindu gods are demons’ type of brigades.
    Would you agree?

  • Aersh Danish

    Thank you