Category Archives: Politics & Society


Is Religious Freedom Intolerable? (The Consequences of Sam Harris’s Arguments)

by Neil Godfrey

If beliefs determine what we do it follows that no society can allow people freedom of religion or conscience. If religious beliefs cause some people to perpetrate terrorist carnage then we have to say good-bye to the West’s short-lived experiment with secular Enlightenment ideals. That is the conclusion (and I think it is correct) of Marek Sullivan in The New (Anti-) Secularism: Belief Determinism and the Twilight of Religious Liberty.

According to Harris, ‘Belief is a lever that, once pulled, determines almost everything else in a person’s life’ (12). This is why he thinks religious profiling may be a good idea (see below), that the ‘war on terror’ is fundamentally a ‘war of ideas’ (152), and that ‘Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them’ (52-3). Since what people believe determines what they do, the battle against religious violence is fundamentally a matter of doctrine, not guns or bombs (though guns or bombs are handy if the belief is dangerous enough). Rather than struggle with a torrent of violence, it is more effective to challenge the spring of belief before it metastasises into action. [Page numbers refer to Harris’s The End of Faith.]

Harris does indeed acknowledge (sometimes at least) the implications of such views:

If belief really does determine behaviour as a lever triggers a mechanism, then absolute liberty of conscience makes no ethical sense. Second, anyone familiar with Harris’s writings will know he does not always talk about the necessity that freedom of speech and thought be safeguarded. In fact he often seems to be talking about the opposite, as, for example, when he claims ’the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss’ (2005: 15).

It follows that the principles of liberty of conscience and religious equality have to go.

And it’s less easy today to hide forbidden thoughts than it has ever been before. The internet is potentially storing all the things we have been thinking about whenever we have browsed the web or communicated online.

Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers once coined the term ‘extended mind’ (1998) to describe the way technologies of information production and circulation (paper, pen, books, computers, the internet) blur the boundaries between self and world by extending human consciousness into the external domain. For them, our cognitive dependency on these technologies (e.g. as problem solvers or memory supports) makes it hard to tell where humans end and technology begins; this technology becomes, quite literally, us.

What are the implications for human freedom of an extended subjectivity, grafted onto personhood through the prostheses of email accounts, internet histories, and Facebook, and accessible to state powers? Can liberty of conscience and the invulnerability of the private sphere survive a situation where not only is belief ‘not simply in the head’ (Clark and Chalmers 1998: 14), but the government can peer into the extended self at the click of button?

Why not take Islamist terrorists at their word?

Sullivan poses the question: read more »


Alternative view: What ISIS Is (Not) “Planning” for Europe

by Neil Godfrey

Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser have published an alternative view to the thoughts expressed by Scott Atran in my recent post, What ISIS Plans for Europe (and Beyond). Their article, Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West, is published in the Open Access journal Perspectives on Terrorism.

Of terrorist operations with links to a terrorist organisation like ISIS or Al Qaeda six types are identified:

  1. Training and top-level directives. The attacker trains in the organization’s heartland, is tasked by top leaders to attack in the West, and is supported materially by the organization in the planning and preparation process. The classic historical example is the 9/11 attack.
  2. Training and mid-level directives. The attacker trains in the organization’s heartland and is encouraged by mid-level cadres to carry out a more or less specified attack in the West, but has little or no interaction with the top leadership and receives little or no material support from the organization. Examples from al-Qaida’s history include the various plots by the Abu Doha network in the early 2000s or the Mohammed Merah attack in 2012.
  3. Training. The attacker trains in the organization’s heartland, but is not specifically instructed by anyone to attack in the West. Instead, he develops the motivation to attack in the West himself, in the belief that he is doing what the organization wants. A historical example is Mohammed Geele, who trained with al-Shabaab in Somalia, returned to Denmark, and tried to assassinate the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in 2010.
  4. Remote contact with directives. The attacker communicates remotely (typically by telephone, email, or social media) and bilaterally with cadres of the organization and receives personal instructions to attack in the West. A good example from al-Qaida history is Rajib Karim, who in 2010 was instructed by Anwar al-Awlaki via encrypted email to attack airline targets in the UK.
  5. Remote contact without directives. The attacker communicates remotely and bilaterally with members of the organization, but does not receive instructions to attack in the West. An example would be Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan, who exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki without discussing operations.
  6. Sympathy, no contact. The attacker expresses ideological support for the group through his propaganda consumption, written or spoken statements, or some other aspect of his behavior, but does not communicate bilaterally with anyone in the organization. One example is Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed a British MP in 2010, having been inspired by al-Awlaki’s online lectures.

Hegghammer and Nesser examine ISIS related attacks against the West (Europe, North America, Australia) between January 2011 and June 2015. Their tabulated findings:


Those frequency numbers combine foiled plots as well as successful attacks. Compare the following:


So up till June 2015 there was no evidence of ISIS commitment to launch increasing numbers of attacks in the West. The threat has come, rather, from Western sympathizers who have had no contact with ISIS itself.

The title of this post can be misleading. While ISIS may not be actively planning specific attacks in the West, it is nonetheless clear that it does encourage free-lancers to act in sympathetic response to its propaganda videos, whether by joining them, donating to them, or doing whatever one can to attack “the Grey Zone”.

See the article for the detailed discussion.


Once more: “Obama and Trump both inadvertently helping the Islamic State through rhetoric”

by Neil Godfrey

The dust having only just settled on Barack Obama and Donald Trump are both wrong about Islam what do I wake up to read this morning . . . ?

One wouldn’t call them bedfellows, strange or otherwise, but President Obama and Donald Trump are both inadvertently helping the Islamic State through rhetoric that is either too cautious or too rash.

This time the critic is not Will McCants but another author whose book I have also posted about and highly recommend in Another study of ISIS. This time it’s Jessica Stern who co-authored ISIS: The State of Terror. The Washington Post report explains:

Obama, through his studious avoidance of explicitly calling terrorists or the Islamic State either Islamic or Muslim, is “silly,” perhaps “cowardly” and likely unproductive. And Trump, with his other-izing approach to problem solving — targeting adherents of Islam for special scrutiny — contributes to recruitment and radicalization by marginalizing Muslims.

he’ll “scream and pull [his] hair out” if he hears one more time that Islam is a religion of peace.

Stern wasn’t the only speaker in the news report. One has to grin at this scene:

Antepli was also critical of moderate Muslims who feel the need to defend Islam even in the wake of terrorist attacks. A jovial fellow whose students have nicknamed the “Turkish Delight Imam,” Antepli said he’ll “scream and pull my hair out” if he hears one more time that Islam is a religion of peace.

It is and it isn’t, depending on which text one uses for one’s purposes. Just as the abolitionists used scripture to end slavery, the Islamic State uses the Koran to resurrect slavery.

No religion, said Antepli, is one thing. Every religion, especially those that are centuries old, is many things. Understanding requires familiarity with what Antepli identified as the three main categories of all religions: history, people and, last, theology.

In other words, religion is only part of the terrorist equation, but denying it altogether is a mistake, both agreed. 

The article concludes with an interesting approach to deradicalising a youth wanting to join ISIS.

Child Soldiers

Also in this morning’s reading is DEPICTIONS OF CHILDREN AND YOUTH IN THE ISLAMIC STATE’S MARTYRDOM PROPAGANDA, 2015-2016 by authors I am not familiar with but is from the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. It’s an ugly read. ISIS has a distinctly untypical use of child-soldiers when compared with other military groups who recruit them. Concluding paragraphs:

When considered in the context of the child soldiers in other conflicts, this is somewhat counterintuitive. Historically, when militant organizations enlisted children, they did so surreptitiously, a pattern that emerged with the release of the Machel Report on children in armed conflict in 1996 and the UN resolutions against youth recruitment that followed.[6] The Islamic State bucks this trend brazenly by boasting about its young recruits, something that is indicative of the fact that it is using them differently than the child soldier norm. The data suggests that the Islamic State is not recruiting them to replace lost manpower— children and youth only constitute a small proportion of its battlefield losses overall—and they are not engaging in roles in which they have a comparative advantage over the adults. On the contrary, in most cases, children and youth are dying in the same circumstances as adults. Additionally, existing research argues that children and youth will be used more to attack civilian targets among whom they can blend in better. However, the data shows that Islamic State’s children and youth have been used to attack civilians in only 3 percent of the cases.[7]

It is clear that the Islamic State leadership has a long-term vision for youth in its jihadist efforts. While today’s child militants may well be tomorrow’s adult terrorists, in all likelihood, the moral and ethical issues raised by battlefield engagement with the Islamic State’s youth are likely to be at the forefront of the discourse on the international coalition’s war against the group in years to come. Furthermore, as small numbers of children either escape or defect from the Islamic State and as more accounts emerge of children’s experiences, there is an urgent need to plan and prepare for the rehabilitation and reintegration of former youth militants.

I wonder if this is partly a sign of ISIS’s gradual losses of territory in Syria and Iraq, but on the other hand we have been reading about involving children closely in the participation of their gruesome activities for some time now.

Threats to UK

From the same source but this time from another author I have learned much, Raffaello PantucciTHE ISLAMIC STATE THREAT TO BRITAIN: EVIDENCE FROM RECENT TERROR TRIALS

While the nature of the threat in the United Kingdom is different than in France in certain respects —for example, there is easier access to heavy weaponry and ammunition on the European continent—the Islamic State itself has made clear that the United Kingdom is a priority target. Until now the public threat picture has been dominated by lone-actor plots. Going forward, however, with the Islamic State appearing to pivot toward international terrorism and around 1000 British extremists having traveled to Syria and Iraq, half of whom are still there,[49] there is a growing danger of Islamic State-directed plots against the British homeland.

One holds one’s breath to see which way ongoing losses of ISIS territory might play out in the U.K. and other Western countries.



On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare

by Neil Godfrey
quote_begin By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

— Sylvia Plath, quoted by Charles Camerson in So: How Does It Feel at World’s End?, an exploration into the eschatological lure of ISIS.

Charles Cameron is blogging about a book of his that is hopefully will be published soon: Jihad and the Passion of ISIS: Making Sense of Religious Violence. The first of these blog posts is On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 1: its sheer intensity.

Cameron builds on a number of works that I have posted about here on Vridar, so I am looking forward to his own contribution. He writes:

We now have, I believe, a strong understanding of the Islamic State and its origins in such books as Stern & Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke, The New Threat, Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, and Weiss & Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Delving directly into the key issue that interests me personally, the eschatology of the Islamic State, we have Will McCants‘ definitive The ISIS Apocalypse. My own contribution will hopefully supplement these riches, and McCants’ book in particular, with a comparative overview of religious violence across continents and centuries, and a particular focus on the passions engendered in both religious and secular movements when the definitive transformation of the world seems close at hand.

What follows is the first section of a four-part exploration of the horrors of apocalyptic war.

Cameron draws upon a dramatically colourful Winston Churchill account to convey the power of the Mahdi on the imaginations of followers in his day.

In his second post On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire he encapsulates the sense of apoclyptic fervour in a passage from another book on my “to-read list”, Richard Landes’  Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience:

For people who have entered apocalyptic time, everything quickens, enlivens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused — everything has meaning, patterns. The smallest incident can have immense importance and open the way to an entirely new vision of the world, one in which forces unseen by other mortals operate. If the warrior lives with death at his shoulder, then apocalyptic warriors live with cosmic salvation before them, just beyond their grasp.

I’m looking forward to the remainder of Charles Cameron’s series.





Why Westerners Are Joining ISIS — and the Caliphate stretching to Libya

by Neil Godfrey
Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer is a specialist in Islamist terrorism whose research I addressed in The Religious Thrill and Bond of the Islamic State. Hegghammer was interviewed  by in late 2014 and what he says is still relevant. The interview:

Why Have a Record Number of Westerners Joined the Islamic State?

Of particular interest:

his comparison of the Western volunteers and the local Syrian resistance (he says the Westerners are more ideological and hard-set against compromise than the local fighters)

his analysis of the threat ISIS terrorism poses the West (not as direct as many seem to think)

the difficulty of directly attacking ISIS (ISIS changes tactics to adapt to new threats — e.g. more merging with civilians and guerrilla war)

what might put Westerners at greater risk of ISIS inspired terrorist attacks (the recent Paris shootings and ISIS’s response appear to show ISIS read Hegghammer’s script)

the least-bad options for reducing the power of ISIS . . . .

And that last point segues sadly/depressingly into the next post recently highlighted on J.M. Berger’s IntelWire site:  read more »


A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?

by Neil Godfrey

Unlike his inspiration Barannikov, however, Mirsky was unable to contain himself: he told everyone who would listen that he was the attempted assassin. . . . Soon [the police arrested him].

Only a few weeks later, Mirsky was already betraying his comrades from People’s Will and writing humble petitions to the czar. His loyalty to the radical movement evaporated completely; there is even evidence he was recruited to serve as an informant for the prison authorities. . . . 

Barannikov sought the thrill of adventure; Mirsky status. The two kinds of motives are often linked in experience and can be linked in theory. Gang activity is a familiar setting where certain young men seek status. In an earlier post in a series addressing factors that attract persons to extremist radical groups, Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures, I did not discuss Mirsky. But this morning I caught up with a detailed investigation into another (ex)Islamist radical I have posted on a few times and am struck by some similarities.

The contemporary example of someone who was driven by a pursuit for social status in his involvement in an extremist Islamist group appears to be Maajid Nawaz.

Previous posts focusing on Nawaz:

harris-nawazIn at least one of those posts I did wonder why Maajid Nawaz appeared to approve of being a billed as an equal joint author (with Sam Harris) of a book in which some of Harris’s more extreme views went unchallenged and were even further promulgated through the advertising of a book whose arguments are opposed by Nawaz.

I had also heard reports that Nawaz had been responsible for falsely reporting peaceful Muslim groups to the British authorities as potential extremists. I was unable to find secure evidence in fairly quick searches to verify such claims. (Some have accused him of falsely presenting himself as a Moslem, but I have probably met more non-practising Moslems than devout ones when overseas, and see no reason to pronounce a spiritual judgement upon them and accuse them of not being Muslims at all. The identity cards of those who have them flatly state they are Muslims.)

This morning I read the following:

The Self-Invention of Maajid Nawaz: Fact and Fiction in the Life of the Counter-Terror Celebrity

The lengthy report is on Alternet; the authors are Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal. The byline reads:

Maajid Nawaz bases his credibility on a compelling personal story, but how much of it is true?

read more »


Violent Islamism: Many are Called, Few are “Chosen”, Fewer Defect

by Neil Godfrey

A new online article on the role of religious belief among Islamists supporting violence (an overlapping theme of these posts). The article by specialists in the field draws the some of the same comparisons I have been making between the appeal of religious cults and political extremist movements:

The Cult of Jihad: A Practical Theology Perspective on ISIS, a scholarly guest post by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann in Political Violence @ a Glance (Expert Analysis on Violence and Its Alternatives).

Of particular interest to me is another article cited in “The Cult of Jihad”, and that is “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue” by Lorne L. Dawson in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1, 2009. From the abstract:

This article examines:

(1) the obvious reasons for, and curious absence of, a dialogue between scholars studying new religious movements (NRMs), particularly those responsible for acts of mass violence, and those studying processes of radicalization in home-grown terrorist groups;

(2) the substantial parallels between established understandings of who joins NRMs, how, and why and recent findings about who joins terrorist groups in a Western context, how, and why; and

(3) the ways in which explanations of the causes of violent behaviour in NRMs are pertinent to securing a more systematic and complete grasp of the process of radicalization in terrorist cells.

The latter discussion focuses on the role of apocalyptic belief systems and charis- matic forms of authority, highlighting the behavioural consequences of this danger- ous combination and their possible strategic significance. . . . 

Another new article of related interest is What Does It Mean If An Attack Is ‘ISIS-Inspired’?

H/T (J. M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: the State of Terror)

We have seen the process by which some people are attracted to extremist groups and have reached the point of examining how a subset of those individuals are drawn to cross the line from intellectual sympathy to committing themselves to the high risks of active support for violence. (The argument that we have been presenting is from Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising. Wiktorowicz takes the now-banned jihadist group in Great Britain, al-Muhajiroun, as a case-study.)

To recap:

  • Many people at some time face a crisis that leads them to question their life-long assumptions and beliefs and opens them to a willingness to seriously consider radically new world-view perspectives. Crises can vary from death in a family to a feeling of not belonging in one’s “homeland”, a result of the combination of experiencing racial discrimination and alienation from the foreign culture of one’s migrant parents.
  • Seekers are more likely to respond to groups with the following factors:
    • the trained representatives of the group are able to discuss questions of interest to the seekers (not only political questions; literature of the group covers a wide range of topics);
    • the extremist group conveys a sense of credibility and spiritual authority by means of
      • the charismatic personality of the leader
      • its ability to convey a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of questions of interest to the seeker and of the alternative answers (Wiktorowicz’s notes that the more devout Muslims have a deeper knowledge of how their religion relates to such questions and are not attracted to the simplistic idiosyncratic interpretations of the extremists; those who are most often attracted have had very little prior religious interest.)
      • the rationality of its arguments
      • the tactic of giving the seeker a sense of being in control of his journey towards the extremist’s point of view (e.g. the seeker will be encouraged to investigate rival groups)
    • the extremist group hides its extremist views through front organisations and strategically planned discussions/messages

The relative few who are led to intellectual agreement with extremist views through this process are still a long way from turning their backs on society to the extent that they are potential suicidal mass murderers.

That’s where “culturing” enters the picture.

Through regular classes “seekers” are socialized into the movements ideology. We have seen how these classes and related activities increasingly consume so much of the individual’s time that there is little room left for serious arms-length reflection on the direction into which the path is leading. And it certainly helps when the seeker has had little or no serious religious engagement prior to encountering the new movement and against which they would otherwise be more capable of assessing the new teachings.

The Islamist extremist (and the member of other religious cults as well) sees him or herself as belonging to a pioneering vanguard of a new way of life that with the authority of Heaven is destined to replace all “human systems”. In the case of the Islamist (the term refers to one who believes in politically imposing Islamic law over society) that new way of life or ideology is destined to replace Capitalism and Democracy (the two go together in Islamist thinking). Democracy is interpreted as an anti-godly effort to replace God as the law-giver and ruler of society.

The mind-set that is inculcated as part of the “culturing” into the extremist movement’s revolves around its own sectarian interpretation of tawhid, or the “oneness of God”. Since God is the only lawgiver then anyone who supports democracy or even follows the wisdom of mainstream imams is said to be worshiping authorities other than God. We saw how some of this works out in detail in the previous post. — Recall that Islamic regimes in the Middle East are judged to be apostate because they countenance some form of democracy and enforce laws that are inconsistent with pure Sharia.

Other Muslims, moreover, argue that judging others as apostate is akin to murdering them since without the utmost stringent proofs only God can know the mind of another.

We look now at the ideology into which Islamist extremists are “cultured”. The ideology into which they are ever more deeply immersed through regular meetings, classes and activities, Wiktorowicz argues, is what leads them ever closer to the point of believing that their own personal salvation depends on a willingness to lose everything in this life and even to make others pay with their own lives, too.

We begin by looking at the source of the extremist’s ideology. The Quran is not enough for their ideological needs.

Preparations for an Islamic State

The Islamists look to the life of Muhammad (not found in the Quran) for guidance in or rationalisation of their program. There is a difficulty, not insurmountable, however. The Prophet’s life spanned many years through different environments — exile and conquest, for example. Islamist leaders therefore select what they believe to be the period in Mohammed’s life that is analogous to today’s situation for the radicals and make a judgement on how to apply the analogous act today. read more »


Does growing “dewy-eyed at the mere mention of Paradise” lead to suicidal terrorism?

by Neil Godfrey

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

Quintan Wiktorowicz

Quintan Wiktorowicz

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:

  1. Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth
  2. 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? read more »


How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRisingWhy do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?

In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.

At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?

Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:

So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of

  • Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
  • Credibility and Sacred Authority
  • Culturing and Commitment

Breaking those headings down a little . . . .

  • “Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
    • Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
  • “Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
    • What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
  • “Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.

Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?

I won’t address all of those in this post. Let’s focus on some of the wedges that prise “cognitive openings” for now. read more »


The Religious Thrill and Bond of the Islamic State

by Neil Godfrey
There is a serious and intense poetry associated with the jihad. There are captivating a cappella chants, and the serious sharing of night time dreams that characterise the culture of the Islamic State. A deep part of the human experience common to premodern cultures but increasingly absent from ours (and whose power and meaning the neo atheists and neo clausewitzians just don’t get) . . . .


People have flocked to the Islamic State for different reasons and one of these is the religious experience it offers. That religious experience runs much deeper than its apocalyptic hopes for “the end times”.

Atheism, not anti-theism

I am an atheist and deplore the immeasurable damage “religion”, both organised and personal, has wreaked upon so many lives. At the same time I cannot deny that many people find deep spiritual meaning for their lives in religion. (I use the word “spiritual” for convenience and sometimes use “religious” as a synonym. Normally I’d prefer to speak of the rich emotional life many find through the awe of existence and experiencing the universe, and as well as through companionship and the arts, music, and so forth.) It is for this reason I cannot bring myself to be an anti-theist. If it is true that “it takes religion to make a good person evil” it is also true that “it takes religion to turn bad person good”. I personally wish people could find some other idea or experience to make them good or in which they can find personal fulfilment, but that’s how people are.

Why are people like this? To help us with answers we have our own experiences to draw upon and works like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon (2006),  Scott Atran’s In gods we trust : the evolutionary landscape of religion (2002), Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause’s  Why God won’t go away : brain science and the biology of belief (2001) and especially Pascal Boyer’s  Religion explained : the evolutionary origins of religious thought (2001), along with dozens of others on fundamentalisms, new atheist critiques, and more.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy. That approach only advertises the barrenness of the author’s understanding of the psychology of religious belief. Perhaps some New Atheists who are the most savage of critics of religion would modify their approach if they paused to investigate what some of the literature has to say about the origins of religion and why it is so deeply embedded in the human experience.

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist in Islamist violence, wrote in an article in The New York Times (Dec 15, 2015)

When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction. (Soft Power of Militant Jihad)

In seeking to understand the world of jihadis Hegghammer made it his business to understand everything they do, delving into “autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defector’s accounts”, and what he found he overviews in his NYT article which he titled The Soft Power of Militant Jihad.

Weeping, music, poetry

read more »


Fearing to Understand Terrorism and ISIS

by Neil Godfrey

Several excellent articles have appeared recently on the nature of ISIS and terrorism, and some appalling ones have also been published. I normally prefer to share what I understand the experts themselves to be saying, but here I’m stepping back a minute to pause. Some (it sometimes seems like most) readers do not want to hear the experts, or they read into their words almost the very opposite of what they are attempting to convey. Discussions too often (not always but certainly very often) degenerate into exchanges where one or both sides are merely scanning for keywords from which to leap into their own polemic.

Jerry Coyne not so long ago wanted his readers to enjoy an article by Nick Cohen because, Coyne pointed out, Nick Cohen may be seen as an heir to George Orwell for his intellectual insights and honesty! So I read the article and had to rub my eyes into the third paragraph to grasp that Cohen set out with a complete distortion of John Kerry’s remarks about the factors underlying terrorism.

Cohen’s conclusion underscored his ability to see black where he had read white:

Every step you take explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.

“Explaining radical Islam away”?

“In your determination to see the other side’s point of view . . . you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries.”??

“As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable”???

Who on earth does all of these things?

I once studied the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 20s and 30s, and also the rise and history of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain. Never once did it cross my mind that understanding how a host of international policies, economic and social turmoil, the particular psychologies of key individuals and social psychology more generally, and the history of specific ideas, — never once did it cross my mind that acquiring such an understanding, of coming to see the point of view of those who followed Hitler, Mussolini (and Mosley) so well, was an act of “explaining fascism away” or “seeking excuses for the inexcusable”.  read more »


ISIS is a Revolution, born in terror (like all revolutions)

by Neil Godfrey

A long essay by Scott Atran comparing ISIS to past revolutions to find out what is new, and what likely can and cannot be done against it. . . .

ISIS is a revolution

World-altering revolutions are born in danger and death, brotherhood and joy. This one must be stopped

Excerpts follow —

Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history

The revolution:

What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.

This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.

The study:

To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.

While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world. . . . 

read more »


So why did militants turn to attack the West? — The Saudi Arabia driver

by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from The Origins of Islamic Militancy. This time I change pace and copy a small section from pages 92 to 94 of Jason Burke’s book, The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy (2015). I have a lot of time for Burke’s books on this topic. He is one of the few to get out into the field, sometimes at risk to his own life, to talk with terrorists and their associates. Formatting and bolding are mine.

So why did militants turn to attack the West? One important reason is to be found in Saudi Arabia.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud

Abdulaziz ibn Saud

As a state, Saudi Arabia owed its foundation to the alliance of the battle-hardened latter-day followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had preached an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula since the late eighteenth century, and an ambitious, capable tribal leader called Abdulaziz ibn Saud.

In 1979 came three events that shook the Saudi monarchy:

  • the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of local extremists,
  • the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets
  • and the Iranian revolution. 

Each involved a different enemy — violent local militants who branded their rulers apostates, atheist Communists and Shia Islamists — but each revealed a new and potentially deadly threat to the reign of the house of Saud.

One response of the kingdom’s rulers was to use a substantial amount of the vast wealth generated by their oil revenues to expand the proselytisation of the Wahhabi creed, one of the most rigorous, intolerant and conservative existing in Islam, throughout the Sunni Muslim world. This had been a policy for some time but now the effort was massively expanded in an updated though much more far-reaching version of the original strategy that had brought them to power sixty years before. The aim was to reinforce their own religious credentials at home while increasing their influence overseas, allowing them to reassert their claim to both religious and political leadership in the Islamic world.

Over the ensuing decades,

  • tens of thousands of religious schools, mosques, Islamic universities and religious centres were built worldwide. 
  • Hundreds of thousands of scholarships to Saudi universities were offered and stipends paid to preachers.
  • Tens of millions of copies of holy texts and, more importantly, deeply conservative interpretations of them, were published and distributed.

This strategic choice was to have a huge impact on the Muslim world, fundamentally altering faith, observance and religious identity for hundreds of millions of people. It also contributed, as intended, to a shift of cultural influence from Egypt, once the unchallenged intellectual centre of the Arab world, to Saudi Arabia, its religious centre.
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The Origins of Islamic Militancy

by Neil Godfrey

newthreatBased on my reading of the first chapter of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke. . . .


The earlier generation of terrorists before “Islamic terrorism”

The turning point was in October, 1981, argues Jason Burke. Prior to the 1980s the most well-known terrorists were Leila Khaled and Carlos the Jackal. Religious agendas were very rarely found in the mix of ethnic, nationalist, separatist and secular revolutionary agendas.

The terrorist act that changed all this was the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Cairo in October 1981. Sadat’s killers were very different from most of the terrorists of the decade before. (p. 24)

An ideological movement had taken root in the broader Muslim world — “a generalised rediscovery of religious observance and identity, coupled with a distrust of Western powers and culture.”

The historical matrix

History is necessary to enable us to understand. Burke points to the century between 1830 and 1930. These years saw the Russians, the Han Chinese and especially the Europeans invade and subjugate the Muslim regions from Morocco to Java, from the central Asian steppes to sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost all the invasions provoked a violent reaction among many local people. Resistance took many forms but, naturally enough in a deeply devout age, religion played a central role. Islam provided a rallying point for local communities more used to internecine struggle than campaigns against external enemies. (p. 25)

European armies and their local auxiliaries fought rebels whose motivations ranged widely but who all shared

a profound belief that they were acting in defence not only of their livelihoods, traditions and homes but of their faith. 

The superior technology of the foreign powers guaranteed the defeat of the rebels but these defeats were interpreted by the devout as evidence that they had neglected to please God and lost his favour.

Though by the twentieth century most movements had withered away a few remained active: British India’s North-West Frontier, Italian Libya, Palestine. The Afghans were not ruled by foreigners but in the 1920s they did throw out their king who had attempted to introduce foreign ways into his country.

Others chose withdrawal to open revolt, and to isolate themselves from the corrupting influences of alien cultures: e.g. the Deobandi school of India.

Some, however, fully embraced Western ideas in a spirit of rivalry. They sought to out-do their invaders: e.g. the University of Aligarh.

ed-husainEd Husain (author of The Islamist and previously posted about here) recalled as a boy growing up in a mainstream Muslim household when and the context in which he first heard the name Maududi:

“I liked Grandpa. Most of all, I used to delight in watching him slowly tie his turban, wrapping his head with a long piece of cloth, as befitted a humble Muslim, though he also seemed like a Mogul monarch. (Muslim scholars and kings both wore the turban in veneration of the Prophet Mohammed.) Whenever Grandpa visited Britain to teach Muslims about spirituality, my father accompanied him to as many places as he was able. My father believed that spiritual seekers did not gain knowledge from books alone, but learnt from what he called suhbah, or companionship. True mastery of spirituality required being at the service, or at least in the presence, of a noble guide. Grandpa was one such guide. . . .

“He often read aloud in Urdu, and explained his points in intricate Bengali, engaging the minds of others while I looked on bewildered. As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was beyond me.” (The Islamist, p. 10, my bolding)


Abul Ala Maududi

What interests us, however, are those who took the middle road. The first was the work of Abd Ala’a Maududi [Abul Ala Maududi/Maudoodi/Mawdudi]:

In India, a political organisation called Jamaat Islami was founded in 1926. It sought religious and cultural renewal through non-violent social activism to mobilise the subcontinent’s Muslims to gain power. This approach involved embracing Western technology and selectively borrowing from Western political ideologies, while rejecting anything seen as inappropriate or immoral. (p. 26)


Hassan al-Banna

Hassan al-Banna

In Egypt, 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded a very similar group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like the South Asian Jamaat Islami, it combined a conservative, religious social vision with a contemporary political one. For its followers, the state was to be appropriated, not dismantled, in order to create a perfect Islamic society. This approach was later dubbed Islamism

There were others across the Muslim world who rejected the compromise and non-violence of Jamaat Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood as the means to achieving their common goals.

By the early 1960s European powers had for most part withdrawn from the Muslim world leaving behind new regimes that had adopted Western ways and ideas: witness the new states founded in varying degrees of secularism and socialism. And of course there was Israel:

The establishment of the state of Israel, now recognized by the international community after a bloody war and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from lands they had worked or owned for generations, acted as a new focus for diverse grievances among Arab and Muslim communities. Anti-Semitism had long existed in the Islamic world but, fused with anti-Zionism, gained a new and poisonous intensity. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 deepened a sense of hurt, loss and humiliation. (p. 27)

Something more important was happening within the newly independent nations themselves: “immense demographic change”.

  • Population explosions
  • Urban population mushroomed and rural populations relatively declined
  • Urban areas of poverty and unhealthy conditions proliferated — inadequate electricity, sanitation, education, health services, policing
  • Food in short supply and expensive
  • Previous decades had produced many university graduates whose future expectations were now dashed
  • Traditional communities were being shattered: new shanty towns and apartment blocks meant that extended families were broken up, village communities were vanishing, traditional leaders lost their authority
    • For the older people there was loss. For those young enough not to know anything of the former rural life, there was disorientation.
Cairo slums

Cairo slums

Egypt’s President Sadat represented to many the worst of these changes. Sadat was opening up Egypt to the new capitalism and foreign investment that accelerated the extremes of the rich-poor divide. Middle incomes declined dramatically.

Worse still, a growing economic gap between rich and poor was accompanied by a growing cultural gap. During the riots in Cairo in 1977, favourite targets for arson and vandalism were nightclubs — of which more than three hundred opened during the decade — and luxury US made cars — of which imports had gone up fourteen times. Both were symbols of the lifestyle of an elite that was enjoying greater connection with the rest of the world, and particularly the West, but which was increasingly detached from the majority of Egyptian population. By the end of the decade, more than 30 percent of prime-time television programming was from the US, with episodes of Dallas repeated ad infinitum. Inequality was combined with a sense of cultural invasion. It was an explosive mix. (p. 28 – my bolding in all quotations)

Amidst those swayed by Western influence nationalist and socialist commitments were those who turned to their religion in various ways, some withdrawing into mysticism, for example, others looking for wider change. Islamism was spreading through the universities and professional bodies.

Islamism promised to re-establish confidence and pride and to provide a solution to the many pressing challenges now faced by tens of millions of people. (p. 28)

Jason Burke identifies this moment for the birth of the militant Islam so prominent today: read more »