Understanding what makes a terrorist start terrorising is apparently useful in preventing terrorism.
Recently the blogger, Anonymous Mugwump, posted a piece entitled ‘Think Again: David Cameron, Conveyer [sic] Belts and Non-Violent Extremism’. Before I read it I noticed that several people, including Mehdi Hasan, had recommended it in glowing terms. Such a recommendation would be an alarm bell for me about any piece but having read so much of AM’s work, and pretty much always agreed with him, it seemed incongruous. I dare say it did to him too which no doubt caused him to produce this amusing chain for his new set of followers.
By way of background, AM specialises in producing analytical pieces, of high value and insight, based upon interrogating data from sources he is scrupulous about vetting. In particular his pieces on post-surge COIN operations are invaluable. He has also in the past said some extremely nice and unrepeatable things about what I write. This latter point seems to suggest that opposites attract as I scrupulously try to avoid data altogether, but we tend to come to similar conclusions from opposite directions. His latest piece finds me in a rare position of disagreement.
…there is no causality between Islamism and terrorism.
This is quite some claim and I could see instantly why Hasan would like it. Hasan is extremely protective about the reputation of his religion, he spoke against Cameron’s Birmingham speech and indeed speaks against any attempts to link Jihadism with Islam let alone Islamism with Islamist violence. AM directly challenges Cameron’s assumptions and highlights these parts of his speech in particular (AM’s underlinings):
…you don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish. Ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality.
[We must confront] groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative… We must demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism too.
In his conclusion AM said:
Cameron’s speech is littered with illiberal policies and every single one rests on this idea that extremism and terrorism are linked.
I believe Islamic extremism and terrorism are linked. AMs assessment goes against much of popular understanding on the subject and it is therefore important to examine how he made it and what it means. The examination is a useful basis on which to look at the wider discussion of radicalisation currently being had and of the logic behind some of the criticism of the Government and/or Quilliam.
The form for his objection is that from looking at studies of Islamist attitudes it can be shown that being an Islamist does not mean one is any more likely to be violent than a non-Islamist and that there is no process of transition from a non-violent to a violent one. These statements, if correct, apparently render Cameron and Quilliam’s approaches useless while also disproving the “conveyor-belt theory of terrorism”.
The studies he cites are certainly useful and interesting. However, I don’t think they go as far as to show what he suggests they do and they do not contradict a good faith interpretation of what Quilliam and David Cameron believe.
It may well be that it takes certain innate traits to become a terrorist and one can be an Islamist while abhorring terrorism. This does not mean per se that there is no causality between the non-violent Islamist and violence. In the wrong hands these arguments are used to help deny the link between Islam itself and terrorism, give more room for Islamists to operate and move the focus of prevention to where it will be ineffective. If there is causality, then this is a problem.
Stipultions, Definitions and Suchlike
Anonymous Mugwump said:
let’s start with definitions: an Islamist believes in the political application of Islam. A violent Islamist believes in the violent application of Islam. This is the dividing line between non-violent and violent extremism. Both are problems that should be tackled but the Quilliam view treats them as part of the same problem. Both are ideologies – which is why the idea that this isn’t an “ideological” problem is wrong, what matters is which ideology we’re talking about.
He discusses beliefs in the means to an end here and calls them ‘ideologies’ where surely an ideology refers only to the ends? It may be that an individual is a psychopath and just the brutality is the motivation and the rest used as cover. The same could be said for those needing an identity or self-importance and the dangerous or forbidden aspects of the lifestyle are attractive. But if the journey is leading to the same place, an ideal of the restoration of the Caliphate and/or theocracy, then this is merely a difference in tactics, not ideology. One is saying that they can use violence to achieve an end the other is saying they don’t wish to.
AM’s piece speaks of ‘terrorism’ and it speaks of ‘violence’ but these terms are not synonyms. The Islamist is not renouncing all violence. They are not renouncing violence from state actors, including armies of the state they wish to set up who would fight against enemies of it, within or without. They can well be supportive of military coups or violent punishments. The difference is merely in the application of non-state terror tactics to reach their goal. For that reason I will refer to them as ‘non-terrorist Islamists’.
A ‘non-terrorist’ Islamist could object to the non-state violence because he feels it is against his principles but he could as easily fear and denounce it because of its anarchic nature, because of his fear it could grow and be poorly controlled. That is to say it can be for entirely tactical rather than for moral reasons that they are not advocating terrorist violence and still appear as separate in the studies that AM cites.
AM includes studies from Muslim majority countries and uses the words ‘violence’ and ‘terrorism’ applied to groups and people internationally. Cameron’s speech was aimed at communities within Britain and the problems we face here, including those leaving to join ISIS. We should be aware of the potential for different factors being at play when discussing people acting within a Muslim majority country and/or countries in conflict and our situation in the UK or other Western European countries as it may be that concerns about assimilation or the need for an identity have a different bearing.
The Conveyor of Straw
Anonymous Mugwump said:
The basic idea is that non-violent Islamist ideology -> violent Islamist terrorism. It’s an idea referred to as the “conveyer-belt theory of terrorism” propounded by (mostly non-academic) bodies like the Quilliam Foundation.
The argument runs thus:
1. The measures and policies Cameron and Quilliam are advocating are to stop the linear journey from Muslim, to Islamist to Islamist Terrorist.
2. Studies show that this linear journey doesn’t really take place.
3. Therefore the measures and policies advocated are wrong.
I think this is a strawman.
There is a similarity between the ‘Conveyor-Belt Theory’ and the notion of ‘Trickle-Down Economics’. Namely that almost the entire use of the phrase is by people trying to refute it rather than those trying to promote it. Amjad Khan wrote a piece objecting to exactly this use of the term and also called it a strawman fallacy. He said:
I would be happy to be proven wrong on this point but my research suggests such a theory was never put forward by anyone and the term ‘conveyor belt theory of radicalisation’ was concocted by those that are now critics of the theory. It is a grand straw man; the mother of all straw men if you like.
…no Quilliam spokesperson has ever referenced the conveyor belt theory.
AM being AM was of course able to rapidly find a usage of it from Quilliam. In this case from their 2008 launch publication.
However, despite proving that single assertion wrong, I still contend AM is being unfair in suggesting Quilliam propound it as a useful tool for understanding radicalisation as they explicitly deny it is one.
On Sunday 2nd August The Guardian published this execrable hit piece on Nawaz by David Shariatmadari. The following section is a perfect example of the mistake in using the term, and frankly, of rank stupidity:
That’s the impression I get when I challenge him on one of the central tenets of the Cameron speech: that non-violent extremism creates the “mood music” for violent jihad. This has been labelled the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation – and it’s the subject of a good deal of controversy in academic circles. Several recent studies have shown that support for Islamist politics does not predict support for terrorism. In 2010, a leaked government report stated: “It is sometimes argued that violent extremists have progressed to terrorism by way of a passing commitment to non-violent Islamist extremism, for example of a kind associated with al-Muhajiroun or Hizb-ut-Tahrir … We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence.” When I put this to Nawaz, he immediately says “No, no”, going on to describe the whole conveyor-belt theory as “a red herring”. But, confusingly, he then appears to restate it. “There is a link. What we cannot deny is that there’s an association between exclusion, segregation, non-violent extremist thinking and jihadism.”
The idea of the ‘mood music’ is NOT the same thing as the belief in a linear journey which a single individual goes through. Nor is it the same as when Cameron talks of terrorists first being ‘influenced’. It is, as I will demonstrate subsequently, possible for Islamism to have a causal relationship with terrorism without a single non-terrorist Islamist turning into a terrorist. When Shariatmadari suggests “confusingly, he then appears to restate it.”, Nawaz is in no way restating it. An ‘association’ is not necessarily a linear progression yet it can still be a causal factor.
This quoted section does however show that Maajid Nawaz, and the leaked government report, are flatly denying that the ‘conveyor-belt theory’ has value. They do not believe it is ‘accurate’. It is a ‘red-herring’. Quilliam’s work over recent times and Cameron’s speech do not suggest this simple linear relationship is apparent and so disproving it doesn’t get you anywhere. Like ‘Trickle-Down Economics’, it is a strawman and when you hear it, you will almost inevitably be hearing it from a critic rather than an advocate.
Opinions About the Causal Factors of Radicalisation are like Arseholes
Although there are many different factors in play within different people and to differing extents, the weight placed on different factors seems to have a great deal to do with an observer’s predilections and expertise. Atheist polemicists will focus on the religion, the causes are all there in the texts. Somebody protective of Islam will latch onto any reasons that point elsewhere, it could happen to any religion or even without religion. Psychologists search for recurring themes in character types or brain function or something meaningful to their craft. Those with an intrinsic dislike of any manifestation of Western power will blame grievances and the terrorist becomes the victim. Conservatives tend to go for arguments around identity, or indeed a lack of one. And I dare say somebody who holds great stock in the numbers will require ways to reduce the subject into terms that can be plotted on a graph.
The above is not a dismissal of any of these particular factors, there is some truth to all of them, it is merely to suggest I haven’t found the route to a wholly satisfactory explanation from any single one. Yet nor would I dream of resting on some sort of ‘you’re all equally right’ gooeyness.
My own predilections had left me waiting for a long time to hear something along the lines of Cameron’s speech.
Next, we have some studies which I don’t necessarily buy but mark the clear distinction between non-violent Islamists and violent Islamists. For example, Bartlett, Birdwell, and King……studied the biographies of 62 homegrown terrorists in Canada and Europe and compared young persons with similar political or religious convictions, of which one group was prepared to use violence whereas the other was not. What distinguished the violent from the nonviolent radicals was their longing for adventure, excitement, and a cool existence (quoted in Van San (2015)).
This makes a lot of sense to me. I do ‘buy it’. When younger, I felt the need for a cause and a struggle and ‘longed for adventure’. And, if I am completely honest, I wanted it to include violence. I knew with 100% certainty I was going to join an infantry regiment in the British Army and that to me was a ‘cool existence’. At that time (as now) I was also confident that any fight I may have had to be involved in wouldn’t be a terrible moral struggle to me. Fighting for Britain tends to mean you’re fighting some pretty nasty people.
But I grew up with a fairly easily found, yet strongly held, sense of identity, it was hard not to in my family. At the time these questions of radicalisation were first being asked it felt to me that revisionist history, relativist writers, Lefty teachers, TV comedians and a great number of my contemporaries were making it difficult to feel pride in the identity I was born with. It was certainly difficult to assert that this identity and its associations with the rule of law, justice, fairness (insert boilerplate description of British values here) was superior in any way to anything else or something that could be asserted without a cultural cringe. British identity was vanilla, boring, uncool and to assert it was boorish or ‘problematic’. This was the time when the chosen method of the nation celebrating the new millennium included stuffing a Dome with banal inoffensive nothingness such as little kids running around in plain purple tops. At the same time, post Braveheart, people seemed awfully keen to be Scottish, Welsh, or Irish as distinct from vanilla, anything that had some meaning.. Multiculturalism was the new norm for Britain and our core national identity was having no core national identity.
This is to suggest I believed I understood why people were grasping for alternatives. For some young people the need for such an identity would remain while our society was failing to provide an attractive and confident one and in this situation it didn’t surprise me that people were choosing another one on offer. Especially one that insisted they were chosen, better, cleaner, yet also put upon, wronged and deserving of recognition. Who wishes to associate themselves with an identity hell-bent on apologising for its own expression? If Islamism thrives on conspiracy theories and victimhood what benefit is there in having a culture that tacitly agrees with them and helps propagate them about themselves? It is almost as if constant communal displays of masochism are inviting the production of sadists.
Those who don’t seem to need an identity or don’t wish to mix it with any assertiveness or pride will have no sense of something lacking without one. But some of us are quite tribal and will find one one way or another. This being the case it is better to have something for people to channel that energy into you can live with or they will go elsewhere for it and find something you can’t.
Having said I noticed how the weighting in analysis seems dependent on predilections and experiences, the above constitute mine. I suggest this sort of thinking somewhat chimes with what David Cameron spoke of in Birmingham and it is broadly why I was pleased he made it and why I regretted that it has taken 15 years to hear a Prime Minister express the points he did.
As much as I have blamed the Left in the above, elements of the Right were not helping either. When reading Maajid Nawaz’s excellent book ‘Radical‘ I was struck by the realisation that he is my age and at the same time as I was an army cadet just waiting to be old enough to progress he was being chased by racist, neo-Nazi gangs. And so when I was at the OTC at university and getting ready to go to Sandhurst he was being put into an Egyptian prison. Subsequently he has found a cause and a struggle and it has a proud identity. Pluralism, liberalism and solidarity with those fighting for it. I share it I hope. I suggest he has managed to fill a hole that existed and perhaps, having like me passed the age where the more kinetic adventure tends to hold such allure, it manages to satisfy. And for Nawaz it is certainly a fight, he is a lightning rod for obloquy via cheap shots, hatchet jobs and smears from many sides.
In short: The Left helped make a coherent national sense of identity unattractive and the Right was ensuring many were not welcome to share it.
You is or You Ain’t?
Is there a divide between the non-terrorist and the terrorist Islamist that is innate or existing before ‘radicalisation’? Perhaps, even probably. I suspect if we had enough data it would form clusters of likelihood towards violent acts in people which then corresponded with the following of different paths within Islamism.
Watching an ISIS snuff movie or two it is easy to assume that psychopaths are the first to answer the call to arms. And if this is true it is easy to assume that the blood-lust is the goal and the religious justification comes second, a retroactive excuse if you will. However, even the briefest glance at history tells us you don’t need to be a psychopath to commit unspeakable acts. You certainly don’t need to be a psychopath to take up arms for your people and your ideology. I think it is safe to assume that even if there are exceptions, people working towards the Islamist ideal, even through violence, first need to identify with the cause and if the cause does not exist those exceptions would need to look elsewhere for fulfillment.
The people who might follow the path that ends with terrorism would still be considered fairly ‘normal’ in society in terms of their characteristics and potential before they start on the path. The same person with a tendency towards that search for excitement and adventure might go to the Army after growing up with one identity and to Jihadist organisations if growing up with another. The variable is the alternative identity and its viability. So even if there is no movement between the two Islamist groupings (I suggest this is unlikely and that we do not have the studies yet to be conclusive either way), the non-terrorist Islamist is still assisting the development of the violent one by creating, propagating and articulating the grievance, the cause, the ideal and the identity. They are also assisting by working against the validity of the alternative identity, namely that of the country they live in.
Some will join through belief. Some will use the belief to justify actions they have an existing urge to undertake. Some will hold the belief and wish to further it through violence. All three require the belief however. By promoting the cause and its ideal Islamists who do not support terrorist groups are surely still constructing a causal relationship with those that do and which is significant enough to be relevant to prevention policy.
Root Causers are always keen to explain that the reasons for violent action can be found in the resultant anger from Western ‘crimes’ against Muslims. Let us assume this is at least partially true. It helps deflect blame from the religion and introduce an entirely political justification, one in which the perpetrator themselves is not to blame. But are these oil and water? Is the political grievance not affected by the religious? If something can be dismissed as merely political despite the contrary claims of the perpetrators, then surely we would see a larger number of similar actions in response to similar grievances which have no religious aspect. When examined properly the Islamic element crops up again as the very source of the anger to begin with. And the generation of this anger is massively aided by Islamists.
Within a few hours of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices Hasan tweeted this:
The piece he linked to stated the following which is seemingly Hasan’s point:
Cherif Kouachi reportedly told a court that he was inspired by detainee abuse by U.S. troops at Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison
This then is the recurring notion that a grievance about what some non-Muslims do to some Muslims is a non-religious motivation for action by other Muslims, often far away, who are unrelated to the situation other than by the term ‘Muslim’.
Is this then not religious causality for the anger itself? Or at least the level of it?
One might indeed try to argue that it is a sense of injustice caused by something being unjust, which is a sense that can be universally felt. Though Atheist and Christian sympathisers of Palestine and Iraq don’t go and join ISIS, shoot up a cartoonist’s office or blow up airliners over the same apparent injustices. Are they merely incapable of generating the same level of anger without first being of the same religion as the ‘victims’, or is there a reason why these people manifest their reaction to the anger in different ways? Even if they are recent converts, why is the religious element required? I accept I would have to make the argument it is doctrinal and more prevalent in Islam or else this is simply an argument that it is sectarianism. So here goes:
Northern Ireland comes in handy when looking at religion vs sectarianism. The Troubles are a genuine case of the sectarian framed by the religious. The two sides are described as different primarily along a religious division but the tenets and dogma are broadly irrelevant beyond the historical, even if then. How much of the fight is due to religious sensibilities and devotion? Compare and contrast:
The methods of violence didn’t go back to religion, there is no biblical imperative to kneecap and execute with the bullet behind the ear. Nor were the targets religious, they didn’t hit churches first and the Bible wasn’t cited as justification. The terrorists weren’t quoting scripture or screaming of the greatness of God.
If there was in-group solidarity the group was restricted to being of the religion AND Irish. The odd adventure-seeking Irish American made it over, sent arms or put money in the tin, but a Mexican Catholic in Mexico was never likely to fly to Ulster to join the struggle. Again, it is sectarianism beyond religious solidarity or imperative.
Was a Catholic, Irish-American ever likely to blow themself up in an American city due to anger with their government’s support for their ally, Great Britain? That would have been truly bizarre and yet some seem to suggest that a lad from Leeds of Pakistani origin strapping explosives to himself and detonating on a tube train in London is predominantly explained by the actions of the UK in Iraq, a country he has never been to. In recent times, some Muslims in Egypt have been killing Christians for being Christian and Chinese Christians are not forming groups to avenge them because they too are Christians.
From Hasan’s article in response to Graeme Wood:
“You attribute other people’s behaviour to internal motivations but your own to circumstances. ‘They’re attacking us and therefore we have to attack them.’” Yet, he tells me, we rarely do the reverse.
Yes, but the circumstances don’t affect all in the same way, so we require a serious understanding of internal behaviour to explain their unique reactions. The setting up of these external motivations falls short when it appears there are so few non-Islamic examples to closely match them.
It is true that increasing numbers of people unrelated to the Kurds are joining them to fight ISIS, seeming mainly to be ex-soldiers from Britain, or America. These too might be thrill seekers, although the alienation and hopelessness argument seems less valid here. Those people who join ISIS could have joined the other side if a solution to their existential boredom was the only purpose. Those helping the Kurds are not expected to convert, nor do they tend to be quoting scripture or acting in religiously mandated ways. Furthermore the desire to stick up for that side in the argument is entirely in keeping with the morality of their upbringing and their home society. Greater explanation is required for a person to leave Leeds and fight for ISIS than to fight for the Kurds. And I cannot see that explanation not featuring the promotion of Islamist ideas.
Hasan derides the two saps who bought ‘Islam for Dummies’ before heading out to Syria as this proves they are not serious religious scholars or had an in depth knowledge before deciding to go. However, it is important that it is still considered necessary as it shows this is a religious call they are answering. Even if the knowledge of scripture was a ‘retrospective’ action the anger and sense of solidarity wasn’t and I think it religious.
To hear talk of the Umma is common place, often alongside talk of Muslim ‘brothers and sisters’. It can mean several things but often it is used to provide the sense that Muslims are one family and an attack on one is an attack on the whole. Something Islamists of all stripes like to push and it explicitly overrides national borders and identities.
This sort of talk is a logical step from any member of a group seeking to arouse responses to attacks against them but it does appear to have particular traction in Islam. The old word ‘Christendom’ is no longer used and I don’t think other religions have quite the same concept used to the same extent.
In the Oxford Union debate on the motion ‘Is Islam a religion of peace?’, Hasan said:
Go and listen to Sheikh Tahir-ul-Qadri, one of Pakistan’s most famous Islamic scholars who published a 600 page fatwa condemning the killing of all innocents and all suicide bombings unconditionally without any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.
In the preface to that Fatwa, pages 15/16, he wrote
The intention to protect Islam, defend it against foreign aggression and avenge the wrongs and excesses inflicted upon the Muslim Umma is one thing, but the brutal mass murder of peaceful citizens…. is altogether different.
So even in a fatwa against terrorist violence he is still demonstrating the concept which I suggest is important in understanding the nature of the anger others suggest drives terrorism. The terrorist method is being disavowed but the religious root of the anger is being confirmed as part of the tradition. This concept is used often and explicitly in calls for jihad and by nominally non-terrorist Islamists.
Osama Bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War against the United States wallows in the tropes of Muslim victimhood and conspiracism and I think it is somewhat relevant to the mindset of modern jihadists. The most fundamental grievance expressed in it is the presence of US troops in ‘Holy Lands’. The troops had arrived to help protect Saudi Arabia from Saddam’s forces. This grievance is explicitly religious, it is a claim that infidels are present in somewhere religiously important and they should not be. But he also insists that it is a religious duty for ALL Muslims to counter it. This is important and I think it demonstrates that the concept of a Muslim bloc, the victimhood of that block and the requirement to act upon it are all bound up within the Islamist interpretation of the religion, if not a more general one. It is the Umma against the Infidel.
Here are some examples from Bin Laden (my underlining):
This last aggression was the worst catastrophe that was inflicted upon the Moslems since the death of the Prophet. That is, the occupation of the land of the two holiest sites, Islam’s own grounds, the cradle of Islam, source of the Prophet’s mission, site of the Ka’bah was launched by the Christian army of the Americans and their allies.
God is Most Great. Today, from the same shelters in Afghanistan, we are working to lift off the injustice that was inflicted upon the nation by the Jewish-Crusaders alliance, especially after their occupation of the Prophet’s land, praise and peace be upon him, and their desecration of land of the two holiest sites. We ask Allah to grant us victory. He is the defender and the almighty.
The right thing to do in this prevailing situation is what the scholars decided, like what sheikh [Ibn Tamimah] may Allah bless his soul; said: “all Muslims should join forces to drive back the infidelity, which controls the Islamic world”. Putting up with minimum harm for the sake of driving back the biggest harm, which is the great infidelity. Driving back the American occupier enemy is the most essential duty after faith.
Clearly after Belief there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the Holy land…If it is not possible to push back the enemy except by a collective movement of the Muslim people, then there it is a duty of the Muslims to ignore the minor differences among themselves. The ill effect of ignoring these differences, at a given period of time, is much less than the ill effect of the occupation of the Muslims’ land by the main infidels.
(AlAqsa Mosque) was handed over to the Jews. The nation’s wounds still bleed there since that time.
I say: the sons of the land of the two holiest sites had come out to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan, the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and today they are fighting in Chechnya… I say, “If sons of the two holiest sites are aware of and have faith in the necessity of jihad against the infidels everywhere, then they are stronger, more zealous and more enthusiastic to defend their country where they were born, and defend its greatest shrine, the Ka’bah. They also know that Muslims around the world will come to their aid and help them in their cause. The duty and cause of all Muslims is liberating their sacred places”.
So according to Bin Laden, a slight against Muslims is an affront to the religion and it is a high religious duty to join together, ignore internal differences and fight infidels in response to the slight. It is the religious dictating the political and indeed the religious form a single nation.
There is a similarity between what Bin Laden wrote here and a more general attitude to which Hasan has previously alluded.
In a piece by Hasan describing Muslim attitudes to the Holocaust he wrote:
We British Muslims prefer to wallow in vicarious victimhood. Only “our” tragedies matter: Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya roll off our tongues.
They roll off Bin Laden’s tongue too:
The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon are still fresh in our memory. Massacres took place in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, Philippine, Fattani, Ugadin, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Massacring Muslims that sent shivers in the body and shook the conscience… Muslims became aware that they were the main targets of the Jewish-Crusader alliance of aggression. The false propaganda regarding human rights have vanished under the tribulations and massacres that were committed against Muslims everywhere.
This form of group-based victimology is common in British Muslims according to Hasan and is vicarious. It is also common to hear it when listening to Islamists and it is continuously heard in justifications of terrorist actions including by the terrorists themselves.
The sense of an Umma and religious duty is important in explaining those that travel round the world to do horrific things for people they haven’t met in countries they haven’t visited. Saddam killed, at the very least, 1000 people at Abu Grahib and probably many times more, perhaps up to 30,000, but these same people were not travelling to fight him. Yet what the US did in a prison in Iraq for a short while, including 1 death, is considered a notable moment in the chain of causality that led to men in France, of Algerian descent, becoming ‘radicalised’ enough to shoot cartoonists in Paris for blasphemy. It was apparently notable enough for Hasan to instantly tweet it.
How can the Islamist’s interpretation of the religion be separated from such a bizarre chain of causality? Is such a chain imaginable, not just without religion but with another religion? Without the tradition of the Umma and without the victim mentality so familiar in Islam, without its Islamist representatives claiming a slight against one as a slight against all, how could this have occurred? It couldn’t. It is illogical and it only happens in this way when people seem to identify with Islam, and identify with it as a pan-national, primary identity.
So the very reason given for these violent acts being contrary to an Islamic tradition is itself clearly part of an Islamic, and especially Islamist, tradition.
The need for an identity might be universal, and seeing your religion as intrinsic to it can be true in many religions, but there is a tradition in Islam, in the language and outlook that makes the universal identity so strong. It adopts the language of honour and shame, it mixes it with pride and attempts to make all Muslims one. It annexes geography as belonging to that one group. ‘The Muslims vs the non-Muslims’, this is a feature of the faith espoused by Islamists, violent or otherwise, and it is a feature in the causal chain which apparently explains much radical jihadi action.
Islamic Violence Requires Islam
Regardless of the source of anger, the specific manifestations of the violence are indicative of a relationship between the beliefs held and the possible requirement to fulfill urges of adventure and danger. These manifestations are Islamic in nature as is the expressed motivation.
I almost feel mean bringing up this example. Askgar Bukhari of ‘Mossad Shoe Theft‘ fame is an Islamist. This clip of him is worth watching to see how brazenly one can assert something as broad as anger at ‘foreign policy’ as a reason for emotional point ‘A’ yet be entirely unable to explain a logical transition to action ‘B’, Mohammed Emwazi murdering a hostage. The question James O’Brien is asking in this clip is key and it is is one that needs to be asked more often. Namely: How do you get from anger about Muslim lands and massacres etc. to hacking the head off an aid worker with a knife? Something else is required.
For Hasan, the religious aspect of Jihadi actions is to be minimalised at every turn. He suggests we look elsewhere. From his TV debate with Graeme Wood:
…and when you have the religious discussion you’ve got to understand where religious ideology comes in, it’s not the motivator it’s the retrospective justification, it’s the vehicle that lots of angry or disillusioned or hopeless young men, they jump on to. Maybe thirty years ago it would have been communism or Marxism or 100 years ago it may have been anarchism, today it is this violent, perverted, politicised form of Islam but to put that centre stage is a big mistake and it’s self-defeating
I think this is a very difficult case to make, especially in such absolute terms. If it is suggesting that people started with their psychological and circumstantial problems and then went to Marxism and Communism because it happened to be the radical idea floating nearest, the existence of Marxism and the voices supporting it are still required for the ‘hopeless’ and ‘angry’ to go killing for it. And if it isn’t their stated cause that should be tackled and discredited, what is the solution? To end hopelessness? I wish Hasan would deign to tell us how.
If we are saying they use Islamism to get to terrorism, will they still get to terrorism without Islamism? If so how?
If it is anger, disillusionment and hopelessness and people are using the religion afterwards, surely the number of converts among the ranks should be far higher than it is. A greater tendency towards violence in converts might suggest there is some element of truth to the claim, granted, but there are simply not enough of them in the numbers to mean this is the whole story or even close. If it is simply a certain personality type consistent through society latching onto any idea for justification, the rates of atrocities should remain broadly constant through time from before the rise of Islamism.
We know that Communism killed a great many people, but was the Communist Manifesto cited as the specific origin of the violence, let alone the method of violence? ISIS behead captives because that is what Mohammed did and ‘smiting at the necks’ of the unbelievers is not a modern notion superimposed on the religion, they chop off the hands of thieves because it is specifically mandated, this is different from the violence of the Gulags where the ideals of Marx might be used as a justification but not as the source of specifically mandated action. The role of suicide bombings struggles to be explained without the Islamist’s interpretations of Islam. Hasan seems to be suggesting that the specifically and textually approved violence committed by ISIS and others is justified only retrospectively by the very texts they originated from. This not a ‘chicken and egg’ argument as much as it is ‘chicken and chicken’.
Yes, some that have converted or been ‘radicalised’ have been ‘hopeless’ or ‘disillusioned’, many haven’t. Some have been without economic opportunity, many haven’t. But the acts chosen by them are means to the same ends as the ideology they come from. And that ideology is Islamic in origin. Hopelessness can occur anywhere but to get to wanting to build a Caliphate you need Islam, the hopelessness is perhaps a bonus. Therefore, unlike what Hasan insists, the religious element should be centre stage. Yet again though, specifically the non-terrorist Islamist and his ‘mood music’ is important here as I suggest the rhetoric, the forms of argument Maajid Nawaz perfected making while in Hizb ut-Tahrir, massively assist in generating the requisite levels of anger and disillusionment in the first place.
ISIS throw suspected homosexual men from buildings and stone them if the fall doesn’t kill them. In several Islamic countries homosexual acts carry the death penalty.
Is ISIS’s treatment of homosexuals merely part of using religion as a retrospective justification for acts carried out due to their disillusionment and hopelessness or an already existing tendency towards violence? Would homosexuals be murdered without the religious element? To pilfer from Sam Harris, imagine if those verses in the Koran treating homosexuality as a sin had never existed and instead each page of the Koran had written in the margin “be nice to homosexuals”, do we honestly think that the treatment of gays by ISIS or indeed the opinions towards gays held by Muslims around the world wouldn’t be considerably improved? Of course it would. The texts matter and so do their interpretation. Therefore when acts are committed in the name of these texts, the texts and the regard in which they are held share some of the responsibility too. More to the point, those Islamists who choose not to shove gays off buildings, at least not until they have their formal and official Caliphate up and running, are certainty making it easier for those that do want to get to shoving to have a reason to travel to Syria and shove. Even if they don’t want to kill gays but just get stuck into the fighting, the Islamist rhetoric about homosexuality will mean such actions are less likely to make the thrill seeker look elsewhere for his kicks.
Without the need of a non-violent Islamist to turn into a terrorist, the former is helping the latter find the outlet for some urges already within them, and that outlet is of the most regressive and brutal type.
Unlocking the CAGE
CAGE are an Islamist pressure group. They are nominally ‘non-violent’ and have enjoyed the support of such organisations as Amnesty International or the National Union of Students. They as a group, and their members individually, serve as the epitome of Islamists under the guise and language of human rights campaigners. What is their relationship with terrorism and jihad?
Moazzam Begg is perhaps the loudest voice at CAGE. His time in Guantanamo has meant he has long been the darling of those seeking a stick with which to beat America. Read his CV as collated by Jamie Palmer.
Here’s the rub: Where would Begg fit into the studies Anonymous Mugwump cited in his piece? I would suggest he pops up in the ‘non-violent Islamist’ columns. Now, who wishes to claim that man has no causal relationship with terrorism? Where violent Islamists are using violence, he has also been, carrying water for them at the least.
If CAGE have their way, convicted and dedicated terrorists would be at large. Again Jamie Palmer is the best to go to for an explanation why. Shy of handing the newly released a suicide belt at the prison gates I can scarcely imagine actions with a more direct causality. Fighting for the release of actual terrorists convicted with due process of law surely must qualify as making a group’s views worthy of examination, and indeed discrediting, by those seeking to prevent terrorism?
Unlocking the door to the cage in which a terrorist sits is certainly causal. However, it could be correctly argued that they are only petitioning for legitimate forces to turn the keys. This then is merely advocacy. But this advocacy, when supported by larger voices with reputations, such as Amenesty International, has served to legitimise and provide a platform for voices that say more than just this.
Take another CAGE wallah, Asim Qureshi, at a 2006 Hizb ut-Tahrir rally outside the US embassy in London he said:
When we see the example of our brothers and sisters fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan then we know where the example lies. When we see Hezbollah defeating the armies of Israel, we know what the solution is and where the victory lies. We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West.
This comment would have fitted in nicely with the Ummah section. It also doesn’t take much effort to explain how this might well have a causality with terrorism. All one needs to do is follow his advice and hey presto, you’re a terrorist. What method of fighting does one have in most of those places without becoming one?
When discussing Mohammed Emwazi, Qureshi blamed his actions on the UK intelligence services. This is part of their attempt to bring pressure in order to hamper and restrict our security services from doing what they consider to be right. Again, it can be completely legitimate advocacy to ask for restriction of the actions of our security services. However it is also true to suggest when this is done for the wrong reasons and to an unreasonable extent it is making the world a better place for terrorists. I suggest the case of Emwazi’s ‘radicalisation’ qualifies as unreasonable and for the wrong reasons.
In a now infamous interview with Andrew Neil, Qureshi’s inability to condemn stoning for adultery under appropriate Sharia conditions smacks of acceptance of it. Are we to believe somebody with a prominent voice who accepts stoning a woman for adultery, when the Sharia conditions are met, has no potential causality for somebody who then leaves for Syria and stones a woman when the conditions are met to their own satisfaction? This may not qualify as ‘terrorism’ per se but it is still a problem to be fought and the studies cited don’t contradict the assertion of causality here.
As Alan Johnson says in that same BBC section “this is what we are up against in terms of the ‘moderate front’.
Cameron, in a section AM quoted:
When you look in detail at the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.
The idea of being first influenced and then becoming a terrorist is not disproved by any of studies AM quotes. I can’t find the Jihadist who doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories and the victimhood, they will often directly claim these are their motivations. The nominally non-violent Islamists at CAGE are actively seeking to propagate them. How are they not part of the same problem?
Illiberal Liberalism and the ‘Market Place of Ideas’
Anonymous Mugwum said:
Cameron’s speech is littered with illiberal policies and every single one rests on this idea that extremism and terrorism are linked. He could conceivably make the argument that extremism is bad per se and hence we should give Ofcom power to stop extremist channels. But he didn’t. He made an issue that should be dealt with in the market place of ideas and organic integration…
I do not share the opinion that it was ‘littered with illiberal policies’ or that they were all linked to that idea. I am satisfied that the above sections demonstrate both a relationship between Islamism and terror and the reasons why governments are compelled to take the threat from Islamism seriously. The policies themselves will have to be outlined to me and I will argue them case by case.
Having stated that I think Islamism, in all its forms, needs to be confronted I am certainly not suggesting the same methods should be used. I can advocate using Hellfire missiles against Mohammed Emwazi while advocating something else altogether for his big-hearted empathiser, Asim Qureshi. I agree that people should and can be defeated in the ‘marketplace of ideas.’
The first part of winning in the marketplace of ideas is to demonstrate the negative outcomes of the opposing view. In this case there are many but violence is certainly one of them.
A second part is to stop providing support, be it financial, platforms, approval and aggrandisement, to those we are doing battle with. Part of the shift that Quilliam has been working so hard to make happen has been to end the willingness of previous governments to support groups who share the ends of the terrorists while claiming disagreement about the means. This has meant abandoning the apparent idea that merely saying you condemn terrorism makes you an ally. I have tried in the sections above to show why it doesn’t.
As well as a great deal of exaggeration regarding what Cameron is actually proposing, there does seem to be a ‘slippery slope’ argument, ‘first they came for the non-violent Islamists etc.’.
Giles Fraser’s recent article in the Guardian is both a good example of this and of accidental comedy. In it he characterises the views of Islamists as just another in a tradition of noble rebellion against the status quo. He says:
But had the Levellers of the 17th century not been radical or extreme, they would not have introduced England to democracy in the first place (something for which they were eventually rounded up and shot).
And do we really want to spy on universities for the presence of dangerous potentially world-changing radical ideas – like Plato or Marx or Jesus or Muhammad?
Let me be clear. I condemn absolutely any theology that calls for or encourages violence. If people are doing that, arrest them.But “non-violent extremism” is, by definition, neither of those things. And attacking it is simply an attack on thinking big, thinking differently and arguing passionately.
This is not yet a free speech argument. Nobody is suggesting the proscription of radical ideas. But Fraser is making a category error. He is saying, hate one idea you describe as ‘radical’ it means you must hate them all. That by that link of being ‘radical’ they are the same. A surgical cut en route to removing an appendix is quite different in intent and outcome to stabbing somebody in the stomach. Are we not capable as a society of making this judgement of difference? Of course we need a nation of laws rather than a nation of men but can we have no discernment in even expressing disapproval? Even up unto the point where this disapproval manifests in schools being watchful of individuals at risk of becoming an Islamist? I have not heard anything whatsoever to provide me with the suspicion that ‘radical’ ideas per se are no longer to be permitted in Britain.
Islamists are not pushing ‘big’ ideas. They are pushing squalid little ones. It isn’t that they are ‘thinking differently’, it is that they are ‘arguing passionately’ for the regression of our society to medieval times and are providing ‘mood music’ to terrorists.
Fraser ends with a nice bit of self-aggrandisement. He says
…that’s not Jesus. And like him, I believe in pulling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
But Islamists are explicitly calling for somebody to be placed on a throne and when there, for them to have the powers to ensure the likes of Fraser won’t be able to pull anything except his wallet out to pay the Jizya.
Is asking internet companies to use their abilities to detect those at risk such an affront to liberty? Surely this depends far more on what is to be done with that information. Benjamin Franklin apparently said:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
This is constantly misquoted with the removal of the word ‘essential’. I have argued what I believe is essential about freedom of speech here and do not believe anything I have approved of by Quilliam or David Cameron contradicts that. Granted, all manner of sins might be covered by subjective interpretations of ‘essential’ but let us have that argument case by case.
When we faced an existential threat from Communism you were still allowed to be Communist in Great Britain. That did not however make our security services wrong to keep checks on people and flag up those with the potential to cause us problems. There is an element of self-preservation here and we must guard against advocating disarming ourselves of the best weapons at our disposal. It is a sort of high-mindedness that has the potential to cost us far more liberty than it gains us in the long-term.
Even if, which I do not believe, there is no link between Islamism and Islamist terrorism, the Islamists are worth fighting anyway. Maajid Nawaz has previously put this rather well:
…whether or not non-violent extremism empirically leads to violence, misses the point entirely. Like racism, non-violent extremist ideas (e.g: that in an ideal Islamic state apostates must be ‘killed in their millions’) are bad for social cohesion, regardless of whether they lead to immediate violence.
…but what we can certainly do – as we do with homophobia and racism – is to challenge non-violent extremist ideas in civil society in order to make them a taboo. I mentioned that I call this doctrine one of legal tolerance coupled with civic intolerance. I then went to state that despite the absence of empirical evidence either way, what cannot be denied is that there is a relationship, a link, to whatever extent, between believing that it is okay to kill apostates, and actually killing them. It is silly to deny that a pre-requisite for the act of killing apostates, is the belief that it is okay to kill them.
Much of the complaint about Cameron’s approach is based on the affront of non-Muslims telling Muslims what they should think about their own religion. This I think is misplaced. Cameron is asking for reformers to get more of a platform. He is seeking to make it as easy as possible for Muslims to be free to find new orthodoxies. This is precisely what winning in the ‘market place of ideas’ requires.
As previously stated, the existence of causality between Islamism and terrorism does not require the transition of a non-terrorist Islamist to become a terrorist. If it can be shown that in any way the actions of non-terrorist Islamists are enabling or facilitating terrorists, aiding the recruitment of them, bringing the ideals and justifications they use to the attention of people that otherwise wouldn’t become them, then we have established causality. And in so doing have established a reason why it is an imperative to combat Islamism. Terroristic or otherwise.
Once having established why causality is not dependent on the ‘conveyor-belt theory’ I don’t understand how the studies cited mean there is no causality. Mugwump finished his piece by saying:
I don’t really mind about the result you might reach as long as you’re using the right method. Evidently, I’m talking to 2011 me here as well. Here’s a good starting point: if there is so much as a whiff of an empirical claim and your post doesn’t contain a study, you probably shouldn’t be blogging.
I may well be susceptible to this criticism here but I contend the argument is about how these studies are used and I am suggesting so far their use does not contradict what Quilliam, Cameron, or dare I say it, I, are saying.
One must beware of faulty syllogism. The terrorists might all believe in certain tropes, but not all those that believe those tropes are terrorists. But this does not mean fighting those tropes isn’t valuable in its own right but more relevant to this discussion is that it also doesn’t mean that it won’t help reduce terrorism.
Perhaps all terrorist are those that might have an urge to find adventure and fight but those urges are not leaving the male population any time soon. This is not the variable worthy of our time and efforts and nor frankly are the vague notions of ‘hopelessness’ etc.
Anyone who has lived in Britain knows it is possible and indeed commonplace for a Muslim to still be a Muslim, as far as they are concerned, and fully contribute to, and comply with, the broad norms and expectations of British society in the same way a Catholic or Jew might. The problem, so much as there is one, is that the letting go of certain ideas: the literalism and rigidity, the sense of an identity that sits above the culturally geographic or national, has been proved difficult for some. The inability to do that is a causal factor in Islamic terrorism. The terrorists share those traits and seemingly wouldn’t be doing what they do without them. This difficulty is assisted by those Islamists who actively seek to maintain and promote these ideas. And they are in turn enabled by those so protective of their religion they hamper any type of criticism, reform and reinterpretation.
Some religions have been better at adapting to modern life (secular democracy) than others. Those that have been less able need reform.
We have some backwards ideas around us that need to be cast aside. This is not complicated. If the arguments were shorn of the distractions such as the fact many adherents are of an ethnic minority, the resultant racism of low expectations and condescension that comes with that, and the preening Western-guilt, this would be a lot simpler. Islamists are playing to these distractions, they are stoking them, and apologists let them. Those prone to joining and fighting do so under the cover of, and in the name of, these backward ideas. And the people that suffer most are Muslims.
The promotion and validation of an extreme view of the religion is surely a potential causal factor for those acting upon it. At best, Islamists are making the ‘mood music’ while Islamist terrorists dance to it. At worst, those Islamists not advocating or engaging in terrorism are merely waiting for more propitious circumstances to get down and boogie. David Cameron merely outlined his way to stop the music.
7 thoughts on “Charlie and the Jihadi Factory”
A wonderful essay. Thank you. Please pass it on to Mehdi Hasan.
David, a very well argued case. I think you’re partly right and partly wrong. It’s about stopping suicide-belts not conveyor-belts, as I write here: http://anthonycooper.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/conveyor-belts-and-suicide-belts.html
Thanks for the response. Just read it.
The bit where you think I am right, you are right. The bit where you think I am wrong you are wrong. 😉
I will reply properly to this tomorrow.
Speculative twaddle. This is all based on ‘what you reckon’ rather than any research or investigation. About as lazy as it gets.
Of course if you have an actual counter argument feel free to share it.