The Struggle with the Role of Religion in Radicalization

by Lorne L. Dawson, Professor, Sociology and Legal Studies, University of Waterloo & Director, Canadian Network for Research On Terrorism, Security, and Society 

In seeking to explain instances of jihadist terrorism, like the horrendous attack on Westminster Bridge and the British Parliament on 22 March 2017, there is still a strong tendency to revert, at least implicitly, to one of three overly convenient scenarios, and each these explanatory scenarios tends to reduce, or even dismiss, the role of religion in the instigation of these terrorist acts. For many observers the perpetrator is simply crazy, and hence his religious views do not matter. For others he is engaged in a calculated act of political extremism, of protest against the political policies of the government, and hence his religious justifications are quite secondary. While for some others, the opposite is true: his actions, they assert, are the direct manifestation of the perverse teachings of Islam. The public, however, is largely unsympathetic to this view and tends to respond by denying that Islam, and religion in general, had anything to do with inspiring such acts. Islam is a religion of peace, and to say otherwise, is false. These quick reactions are not mutually exclusive, but they are by no means compatible either. Lay and scholarly accounts of what happened, often shift rather indiscriminately between these popular options.

There is a growing awareness, as the media begins to educate the public about the results of research, that most terrorists are far from crazy. In cases of “lone wolf” attackers, such as the man who drove his truck through the crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice in 2016, the data reveals that there is a slightly higher incidence of documented mental health issues. The difference, though, is marginal – barely exceeding the rates of mental illness in the general public. If we look at the jihadists working in groups, plotting attacks, and not the lone-wolves, there is little to distinguish the mental health of these terrorists from the rest of us. The vast majority are not crazy, and so there is little justification for dismissing their religious declarations as irrational ravings.

Alternatively, it is clear that terrorists justify their actions by citing various political grievances. These grievances, whether real or perceived, are not very helpful however in explaining why terrorism is happening. A great many people share these grievances; thousands are angry over the same issues. But only a few disgruntled individuals choose to revert to violence. Sociologists call this explanatory conundrum “the problem of social action.” Political motivations alone do not appear to be sufficient to account for this kind of action.

This same conundrum undermines the credibility of the last popular explanatory option. As so many armchair critics indefatigably assert in the comments posted online in response to various discussions of jihadi terrorism, the root of the problem is the violent teachings of Muhammad and his successors. We only need to open our eyes to truth by reading the right passages in the Quran. Yet the overwhelming majority of Muslims live peaceful and law-abiding lives, so once again the problem of social action looms large.

Most politicians, public officials, and scholars are extremely careful not to suggest that Islam is responsible in any way for the terror we are facing. They are justifiably concerned about the negative implications of such an association for the peaceful Islamic populations of their countries. The connection persists, however, if only because so many terrorists continue to provide religious justifications for their actions, especially in the context of one of the most perplexing and challenging forms of terrorism – suicide attacks. If we wish to understand what is happening, if only to prevent it better, we must come to grips with the consequent force of the religious claims of the assailants.

The issue is not so much Islam, or any other religion, since every tradition has its violent legacy and problematic scriptures. Rather, as citizens of a very secular society, one that is now intrinsically suspicious of strident professions of religious faith and displays of religious commitment, it is hard for most of us to countenance that our fellow citizens, often with good educations and relatively privileged backgrounds, could adopt the highly sectarian and apocalyptic beliefs espoused by groups like the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). The willingness of such seemingly ordinary Canadians as Andre Poulin from Timmins, John Maguire from Ottawa, Salman Ashrafi from Calgary, to embrace martyrdom “in the defence of Islam” is truly disconcerting. But there is little good reason to doubt the sincerity of their expressions of faith and the role of their religious convictions in prompting their actions.

In the modern West we are habituated to thinking that if people are religious it is because it serves some other, seemingly latent and not fully grasped, function in their lives. It is this latent need, whether social or psychological, that drives the turn to religion, and hence it is the true source of their motivations for violence. How much more true this must be when we are dealing with such radical and even repugnant views as those expressed by the jihadists. Consequently, it is commonly thought that the religious pronouncements of the terrorists are merely rhetoric, and of secondary importance. They are part of an ideology designed to conveniently justify their violent actions, in a post hoc manner, and nothing more.

Consequently, many are quick to dismiss the relevance of what the terrorists themselves say, especially when it is religious in nature. But statements of their other supposedly more are conjectural at best, and based on a fragmentary record of second hand reports of their lives, social circumstances, and behaviour. In this context I would argue that the single strongest record of evidence addressing why they are terrorists and what they hope to accomplish is provided by their own statements. Most of these statements, however, are saturated with religious language and ideas.

In “speaking,” by social media, with foreign fighters engaged in combat in Syria, my research team found three interrelated features stood out in the accounts collected: (1) the prominence of religious discourse and concerns, along with solidarity with their fellow Muslims; (2) a focus on the moral deficiencies of their past lives, and of Western societies in general, in explaining their turn to extremism; and (3) the tendency to think of their journey into extremism as a personal quest for self-fulfillment more than a form of political activism. The stress falls on engaging in actions mandated by God; actions that could easily demand the ultimate sacrifice. The praise they expressed so readily for their colleagues who had died as martyrs, accompanied by their palpable disappointment in not meeting a similar fate, seems entirely sincere. But that is our professional judgement and it is open to dispute. I argue, however, that we need to take the religious ways they frame their reality more seriously, if we ever wish to understand what is happening in the process of radicalization. We need to stretch our secularized imaginations in uncomfortable ways, and recognize how earnestly these young men and women are responding to a call to higher purpose and meaning in their lives, much as many of our very religious ancestors did only a few hundred years ago.

Recognizing that religion can be a primary motivator for terrorism need not lead to the unwarranted condemnation of Islam, as many fear. Such condemnation is neither logically nor empirically justified. What is at issue is “religiosity,” the degree or intensity of someone’s religious commitments, and not whether their views are religiously orthodox (i.e., doctrinally correct). Defenders of orthodox belief and practice can rightly criticize and dismiss the claims of the jihadists, but they cannot sensibly say that the jihadists are not truly religious. The seeming contradiction in beliefs between the jihadi terrorists and mainstream Islamic leaders is almost irrelevant, given the enormous range and plasticity of religious teachings in general, and most particularly in a decentralized religion like Islam. The flood of fatwas (religious rulings) supporting the activities of the jihadi terrorists demonstrate the overwhelming futility of using references to what is supposedly normative to cast aspersions on the primacy of religion as an instigator of violence. Faulty theology is not a reliable indicator of degree of religiosity or the primacy of religion in someone’s motivations. But many analysts fall prey to this illogical inference. The type of religiosity that is relevant in this context is present, to some degree, in every religious tradition: it is a religiosity driven by a stark and apocalyptic reading of the imminent fate of the world, and the dire need to sort the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, in preparation for the end.

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