What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? — Sam Harris, End of Faith, p. 129
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz takes a more nuanced view of what it takes to tip a person into a commitment to extremism. Wiktorowicz’s explanation might be worth noting as a counterbalance to Sam Harris’s fears since he is
- one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World,
- an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism,
- a developer of ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State,
- a holder of two senior positions at the White House as driver of efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad.
This post follows on from two earlier ones addressing Wiktorowicz’s findings:
- Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth
- How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views
Recall that W’s case study is the now-banned British group, al-Muhajiroun. From Wikipedia:
Al-Muhajiroun (Arabic: المهاجرون; The Emigrants) is a banned Salafi jihadi terrorist organisation that was based in Britain and which has been linked to international terrorism, homophobia and antisemitism. The group operated in the United Kingdom from 14 January 1986 until the British Government announced an intended ban in August 2005. The group became notorious for its September 2002 conference, “The Magnificent 19”, praising the September 11, 2001 attacks. The group mutates periodically so as to evade the law; it then operates under aliases. It was proscribed under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 on 14 January 2010 together with four other organisations including Islam4UK, and again in 2014 as “Need4Khalifah”.
While reading Wiktorowicz’s study I was often struck by the similarities between such a political-religious extremist movement and what I know of cults in the “Christian world” — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Wordwide Church of God, Moonies, and others. Of course there are many differences, too, but the patterns of what leads otherwise unsuspecting individuals to take an interest in “counter-cultural” groups and (seemingly bizarrely) leave the “normal” world to dedicate their lives to such “fanatics”.
In the previous post we saw what prompts persons to question their previously held beliefs and open themselves to radical alternatives, what factors lead some of those new inquirers take seriously and explore more deeply an extremist group and even to agree with its teachings.
We have also seen that people can take an interest in “fanatical” organisations, even sympathize with them and agree with their views, but never take the next step of actually joining them and living according to their dictates. That final step is taken by a still smaller subset. It means the person has decided to give up everything in “this life”, everything that most of us consider the fundamentals of a normal existence — possessions, family ties, perhaps even one’s own life.
“Religions may do more harm than good by telling people a life after death awaits them. In all probability, many terrorist attacks and other tragedies would not occur in the absence of that belief.” — HumanismByJoe.
However, serious research into the beliefs and lives of terrorist supporters reveals that common religious belief in an afterlife is far from sufficient to lead one to terrorist sympathies. Indeed, devout religiosity among Muslims correlates with rejection of terrorism. It is for most part the non-religious who are attracted to extremist movements. Their brand of religion is part of their “culturing” within the terrorist-sympathetic group.
What trips a person over that final line and into the extremist commitment?
Notice that Wiktorowicz finds that accepting beliefs or teachings of itself does not prompt people to give up “normal life” and be prepared to sacrifice all. Recall, further, that in the previous post Wiktorowicz even finds that Muslims in Britain who view themselves as quite devout are the least likely to be attracted to terrorist groups.
That final trip-wire is what Wiktorowicz labels “culturing”.
Even if religious seekers are exposed to al-Muhajiroun and accept Omar Bakri’s right to sacred authority, this alone is not enough to overcome the free rider dilemma. Seekers could attend lessons and learn about Islam without committing themselves to risky activism. In this manner, they could free-ride and reap the benefits of an Islamic education without incurring the costs and risks of commitment.
To understand why some individuals eventually commit themselves to the costs and risks outlined in chapter 1, we must understand movement “culturing,” or what activists term tarbiya (culturing in proper religious beliefs and behaviors). Al-Muhajiroun tries to draw seekers into religious lessons, where they can be cultured in the movement ideology. The ideology, in turn, emphasizes that the only way to achieve salvation and enter Paradise on Judgment Day is to follow the movement’s prescribed strategy, which includes high-risk activism.
Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 167). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
So what is this “culturing” process and how does it lead people to self-sacrificing activism?
Al-Muhajiroun activists seek to draw seekers or prospective members into attending classes or lessons where they can over time come to be socialised into the movement’s ideology. This ideology stresses that the only guarantee of salvation in the Day of Judgment, the only guarantee that they will enter Paradise, is to absolutely conform to the group’s ways, including its high-risk activism (risk of family and social rejection, risk of arrest and jail, risk of death).
Salvation is thus through strict adherence to the radical movement’s teachings.
Compare my cult experience (in the Worldwide Church of God):
The broader wisdom of Christianity was rejected as the godless “ways of men”. Only in the Church could salvation be found. Prospective members rarely joined the Church overnight. Generally there was a long period of “probation” or “enculturation” or “mind-conditioning” as one was gradually introduced to the “harder teachings”. These culminated in the realisation that one had to seriously follow the commands of Jesus and leave one’s family, and endure persecution, and give up all desires for worldly success, and be willing to sacrifice all — even one’s life — for the sake of obedience to the sect’s rules. Only by these means was salvation more or less ensured.
Vanguards of the Ideological Struggle
Many fundamentalist groups describe their religion as a “way of life”. Notice that in the case of the extremist movement here this “way of life” is defined by the group’s idiosyncratic teachings that claim to derive from a literalist reading of selected passages in the sacred texts. These teachings require members to separate themselves from, and even actively oppose, “the world” politically, socially, culturally.
Compare the Worldwide Church of God that also deplored the idea of being considered “religious” and instead defined its beliefs as “a way of life”. This way of life was justified by an idiosyncratic literalist of selected passages in the Bible, such as the requirement to hate the world, even one’s family, to follow Christ.
In both groups we see the drawing of seekers “out of the world” and into a new social group where they become socialised or “cultured” into the new ideology that will require of them great sacrifices.
Al-Muhajiroun views Islam not so much as a “religion” (which refers primarily to rituals or believers’ relationships with their Creator) but as an “ideology or way of life”. The main competitors of this “ideology” are seen to be Communism and Capitalism. Communism is for most part considered as good as dead nowadays so the ills of Capitalism are more often the extremist movement’s focus.
Capitalism is an evil because it is said to be based on secularism, or the separation of religion from everyday life. Democracy is part and parcel of the Capitalism. If Capitalism means secularism then Democracy is said to mean the rule of mankind in place of God.
The economic and political freedoms of Capitalism and Democracy allow us to follow our own desires unrestrained — contrary to God’s desires.
Mankind is driven to satisfy his organic needs and his instincts, and without any form of criterion for right and wrong surely he will go astray. The annals of history are full of man’s oppression of man. Greed, selfishness, killing, monopoly, and vice are manifestations of man fulfilling his survival instinct. If man is prepared to go as far as killing others in satisfaction of his needs, then surely man is in need of control over his actions. Without a criterion for action the striving for satisfaction of mans needs will lead him to constant conflict with others. One man’s freedom is another’s slavery.
God has not left man to his own devices, man has never been free to undertake his life in whichever way he feels best. It is wholly consistent with our perception of man as being limited, dependant and imperfect, that for man to bring his own way, his own system, would be false, due to man’s limited understanding of life.
Man is always subject to bias, disparity, differences, contradictions and the influence of his current environment, hardly a basis for complete impartiality and absolute truth. Any man made system will suffer from these same bias, disparity, differences, contradictions and influence. The example of modern day politicians and their links with the business community serves as a reminder of how the supposedly impartial nature of the political function can be abused. — Mankind’s Greatest Question, p. 11 (my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)
The answer is Islam — God’s dictates over humankind. But more than Islam, in reality the answer is Islam as defined by the fringe society. Those expressing interest are gradually taught to reject the world and all their normal social foundations. The world Islamists are to leave behind and come to hate is the entire political, economic and social-cultural system that most of us take for granted.
Britain’s secular education system is targeted as the fundamental flaw. Children are brought up or socialised into non-religious values, into secularism, nationalism (thus “eroding” the child’s identity as a Muslim), and the capitalist way of life. They are brought up to believe in godless evolution and to “worship” science. They are taught to idolise pop entertainers and sports stars. They learn to conform to dress codes that in various ways “reveal” their nakedness. And Islam is taught as a religion just like any other religion.
The Islamist (not “Islamic”) movement condemns moderate Muslims for forsaking the true beliefs by approving of democracy and accepting the secular society in which they live as well as the British educational system.
The radical activists see themselves as the “true vanguard” engaged in a movement to restore “true Islam”.
(Compare the Worldwide Church of God that taught members they were the pioneers of a new civilisation soon to take over and rule the world.)
Given the emphasis on culturing and resocialization, lessons and other educational activities are the primary instruments of interaction. Once participants are convinced that Omar Bakri has sacred authority, the potential exposure to these lessons, and thus movement culturing, increases. In these socialization environments, students are taught a particular understanding of Islam that focuses on the necessity of risky activism for those who are concerned with Judgment Day and salvation.
What are these persons taught in this culturing or socialization process that draws them to being willing to give themselves over to “high-risk activism”?
(Compare the Worldwide Church of God where the “hard doctrines” tended to be held back from individuals until they were convinced that Herbert Armstrong was “God’s end-time Apostle”.)
The Centrality of Tawhid
Tawhid is the belief in the oneness of God.
Probably all major religions teach the absolute sovereignty of God over the universe but for Islamic fundamentalist movements this concept comes with distinctive elaborations.
The believer is forbidden from
distorting, altering, denying, or sharing God’s attributes.
That includes denying to any human the right to participate in law-making since God is the author of true laws. Democracy is seen as a denial of God’s sovereignty.
The believer is required to be
worshiping only God.
That means a refusal to follow the teachings of imams, priests, rabbis. Prayers cannot be offered to or through saints. Even the marking and praying at graves is forbidden.
The opposite of tawhid and the worst possible deviance from it is shirk —
ascribing partners in worshiping God.
One guilty of shirk, a mushrik, will suffer hellfire for eternity unless he or she repents before dying. Ignorance is no excuse.
Any government official administering man-made laws is a mushrik. Even Muslim leaders in places like Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt are guilty of arrogating to themselves the role of God in administering laws that are not part of Sharia law; the populations of those countries who participate in elections for rulers who go beyond Sharia law are also defying God.
This frame of mind is the socialization into which seekers are “indoctrinated”. The only way to salvation, to a guarantee of entering Paradise on Judgment Day, is to believe and practice Tawhid as defined above.
To facilitate this education, the movement offers an assortment of publications, audio materials, and events related to tawhid, including lessons about the pillars and conditions of tawhid, how one becomes a mushrik, and the apostasy of rulers in the Muslim world. One common lesson related to tawhid focuses on the issue of democracy. For al-Muhajiroun, major shirk includes participation in democracy and government in non-Muslim countries. Omar Bakri argues that,
At-Tawheed which means obeying, following, worshiping, and elevating Almighty Allah (SWT) exclusively, without associating with him or his attributes with anyone else, and that conversely associating with God or with any of his attributes is an act of Shirk which makes a person go outside the fold of Islam and this is why at-Tawheed is the fundamental pillar of Islam. One of Allah (SWT)’ s attributes is that he is the legislator and the commander and he has the absolute right and power to command and legislate, and no-one shares this absolute power with him.
Furthermore, the verdict for voting is that perpetrators are kafirs (unbelievers):
“Any Muslim who votes for a person knowing that the Parliament is a body of legislating law is an apostate.”
. . . .
More generally, students are taught that following any kind of human-made law is apostasy because it rejects the idea of sovereignty for God alone . . . . For al-Muhajiroun, any act is an act of worship. As a result, if the act does not conform to divine law, it is tantamount to worshiping other than God, or shirk. This includes not only support for democracy (a human-made system), but other actions that are not sanctioned by the shari‘a as well. Although there are interpretive differences over the precise content of the shari‘a, al-Muhajiroun claims its own interpretation as the only “correct” version. This means that any act that does not conform to movement interpretations of Islam is considered heretical. This includes a wide variety of behaviors (see table 4.1).
. . .
All of the leaders of the Muslim world are considered apostates because they obey international law and support the United Nations (a human-made institution), adopt non-Islamic legal codes, ridicule Islam by permitting what God forbids (such as uncovered women), form alliances with non-Muslims, and embrace democracy.
Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (pp. 173-174). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Reference was made above to table 4.1 (from page 174):
Table 4.1. Some Examples of Apostasy according to al-Muhajiroun
|1. Calling for secularism|
|2. Thinking that human made law is better or similar to Islam or that Islam is oldfashioned and not suitable for today|
|3. Thinking that Islam is just ritual and does not include an economic system, foreign policy, social system, etc.|
|4. Hating the religion|
|5. Fighting the religion|
|6. Mocking the religion|
|7. Rejecting God’s commands, including the duty to avoid free mixing of men and women or anything else that is “known by necessity”*|
|8. Denying the command to have a beard|
|9. Not understanding the meaning of the testimony of faith; a Muslim must know the meaning and act on this understanding|
|10. Turning away from Islam by not studying, acting, or caring about the religion|
|11. Leaving the prayer intentionally, even for one prayer|
|12. Refusing to call Jews or Christians unbelievers or doubting that they are unbelievers|
|13. Making alliances with non-Muslims or to love or accompany them against Muslims|
|14. Becoming a member of a non-Muslim political party|
|15. Any kind of shirk|
*Al-Muhajiroun lists 262 items that all Muslims must “know by necessity.”
I will in a future post show just how different such teachings are from those of most Muslims. (Suffice to say now that most Muslims believe or teach the danger of declaring anyone else an apostate because such an act is akin to murder, and only God knows the true heart of another and is able to judge.)
For now we are looking at the mentality of those who go on to embrace extremist views and active support for terrorism and direct assistance to terrorists. Although the case study of Wiktorowicz’s research is al-Muhjiroun the same sorts of socialisation and fundamentalist beliefs are common among similar Islamist groups. The differences among them are slight, but each group magnifies the importance of those differences in order to justify its claim to being the “only true” Islam.
In the next post in this series we will look at how they interpret the life of Muhammad and how this relates to their own “culturing” within their “sect” or movement.