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

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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 http://intelwire.egoplex.com/ (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.

Wiktorowicz’s study was published in 2005 and spoke of extremists’ [in this case al-Muhajiroun’s] expectations of an Islamic State emerging on the scene.

Al-Muhajiroun reasons that today corresponds to the period just prior to the establishment of the first Islamic state, the point at which the Prophet shifted from educating his small group of followers in secret to a public campaign and intellectual struggle— the stage of interaction in which the Prophet and his companions directly challenged the unbelievers. Proselytizing thus moved from secretly approaching friends and family to openly calling all people to the faith. This was designed to sway public opinion in favor of Islam and swell Muslim ranks. During this open campaign, “The Messenger of Allah (SAW) waged an unrelenting and fierce ideological war against injustice, harshness and the slavery that dominated Makkah [sic], and he mocked and attacked their ill-fated concepts and practices.” His actions met fierce resistance from the Quraysh elite in Mecca; and Muslims were oppressed, tortured, and persecuted.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 176). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

The Islamist elites see themselves as the modern day small group of followers of their Prophet. That they are “fiercely resisted” by the rest of the world is interpreted as a badge of honour and assurance that they are “of the truth”.

Omar Bakri, leader of al-Muhajiroun, interpreted the Prophet’s activities at this time as a three-stage program to be emulated today:

First, like the Prophet, Muslims must engage in tarbiya (culturing society in proper Islamic belief and behavior) and da‘wa (propagation).

Different Islamist groups vary in details, but they generally support some form of violent jihad against any powers who have engaged in any military actions against Muslim territories. Such jihad is tied directly to the message of salvation for the believer. Failure in this area dooms one to punishment in the Day of Judgement. Not everyone can physically fight, but they can at least offer financial and other physical support for those who do.


The second divine duty is the command to promote virtue and prevent vice (al-amr bi‘l-ma-ruf wa’l-nahy ‘an al-munkar). This is the Prophet’s public campaign to challenge disbelief, and activism to fulfill this obligation is required to follow tawhid and remain a Muslim. The movement cites the following hadith:

“There is no prophet that Allah sent before me but he had supporters and companions who did what he said and obeyed his commands. After them there are many successors and they will say what they don’t do and do what Allah forbids. Whoever fights them with his hand is a believer, whoever fights them with his tongue is a believer, whoever fights them with his heart is a believer and if you do nothing you can’t claim you are a Muslim.”  

The punishment for those who fail to rise is hellfire. The true believers and activists will receive eternal reward. Al-Muhajiroun teaches students that engaging in contentious activism is a divine duty and a necessary condition for salvation.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 178). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

The third divine duty is to work for the reestablishment of the caliphate (Islamic state).

Again this duty is demanded under threat of hellfire for failure to make the sincere effort. Realistically members of al-Muhajiroun know the chances of establishing a Muslim caliphate in the U.K. are risible, but the teaching they embrace is that God judges the heart, and will be merciful for one making the serious effort even if there is no immediate success. Not that this particular group (al-Muhajiroun is now underground and surfacing from time to time in public awareness under a variety of names) encourages lone wolves. On the contrary, each person must work collectively with others in the group. The Prophet, they argue, acted with his group of followers when confronting society and Islamists today must do the same. Simply joining the group is not enough. Salvation comes from cooperative endeavours.

This path opens up such groups to the charge of “sectarianism” — something mainstream Muslims condemn. Omar Bakri replies that such a ruling does not apply to his group since it is a necessary collective to carry out divine commands.

Salvation depends upon . . . .

What is going on in the mind of the recruit? According to Wiktorowicz the members come to see their own salvation is at stake.

  • What is more important in the Final Judgement than a successful meeting or campaign is the effort the individual put into striving to fulfill the divine commands;
  • Experiencing hostility from society at large, and political oppression, is a sure sign that God favours their cause;


Students at lessons are also taught that suffering is part of a general test of certitude and commitment. One activist argued that “it is a test for everyone. And Allah even said that there will be a time when the majority of people will leave Islam or will neglect Islam, and that He will replace people with those who fulfill his command.” Others referred to an oft quoted hadith as evidence of the test of will:

“Hold all of you fast to the rope of Allah and do not separate yourselves.”

As a result, activists revel in their tales of confrontation with the police as proof of their own beliefs and eventual salvation. Suffering is affirmation, and movement participants see themselves as following in the Prophet’s shoes, living his experience in modern times. The fact that activists are condemned by the mainstream Muslim community furthers this conviction, since the Prophet and his companions were a minority in a sea of jahiliyya (disbelief). This produces a heady sense of purpose and certitude in a mission that is seen as providing activists with necessary strategies for the spiritual payoff.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 183). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

How such statements remind me of my time in the religious cult. Hostility from outsiders was an adrenaline rush that brought us closer together and all the more committed to our faith. We felt the thrill of sharing the same sufferings as the “people of God” of “Biblical” times. We steeled ourselves to be prepared for far worse.

Wiktorowicz’s argument is that such extremists are not acting irrationally. They are taken into an ideological framework where they come to believe their own personal interests are found in what the rest of us consider self-defeating anti-social and criminal behaviour.


How is it possible to escape from such a group?

It’s not easy to reach a point of wanting to leave. Al-Muhajiroun’s leadership forbade any discussion among members of the administration of the group. The rationale given is that the focus of members must be on the ideas and ideology, not the movement as an organization. Indeed, even the banning of the group as an organization does not deter “members” from their vanguard way of life. Even membership numbers were not to be discussed, and recall the blurring of distinctions between inner members and “outside” supporters. A division like that made it easy for the leaders to issue plausible denials of responsibility if members/associates did engage in actions that brought the group into infamy, such as ill-conceived bombings.

(Similar rules applied in the Worldwide Church of God — the cult to which I belonged and to which I have been making comparisons in this series of posts. Members were to focus on prayer, paying tithes and offerings, fellowshipping, “doing the work”, and leave the business of organizational financial, doctrinal and personnel decisions to those entrusted to the tasks by God. There were also various levels of “membership”, ranging from outside co-workers who never attended church services and may in some cases not have even been aware there was a church behind the literature they received, to unbaptized attendees to baptized members, and then to various levels of ministerial hierarchy. One co-worker (Dennis Rohan) who set fire to the al Aqsa mosque in the 1960s was publicly denounced as a non-member by the Church.)

Ideological purity is stressed in both the political-Islamist and Christian cult organizations.

These specialized lessons delve into the details of the ideology and train members to reproduce the movement ideology; they also provide some training in rhetoric and debate. In one lesson, for example, Omar outlined how members should respond to particular points and counterpoints during exchanges with activists from other Islamic groups. During fieldwork, I found many of the leading members repeating some of Omar Bakri’s particular rhetorical devices and phrasing. Members giving lessons even use some of Omar Bakri’s intonations, cadences, and jokes.

Since members by this time have generally internalized the norms of the movement and are therefore self-motivated, there is far less focus on motivation and more on the seriousness of learning.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 195). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ditto the Worldwide Church of God. The very tastes in music, food and drink, of the leader would be adopted by many of the members. We learned to speak the same way in he presentation of our arguments.

But defections do occur — from both the Islamist and Christian cults.

First, cognitive openings are recurrent and can catalyze reconsiderations that might lead to defection. Introspection is most likely when the previously accepted ideology cannot resolve new issues or where exogenous conditions reveal inconsistency or limitations to the ideological template, thus prompting a participant to think about whether the ideology as a whole is “the truth.” These kinds of cognitive openings may lead individuals to continue religious seeking and draw them to experiment with or explore new ideologies. In other cases, frustration or disillusionment may prompt the individual to simply abandon the ideology and religious seeking altogether. Some such individuals remain religious but no longer engage in activism or participate in a movement. Others are turned off by religious conservatism and instead lead more secular lives. These kinds of processes can lead individuals to defect from a movement like al-Muhajiroun. If they no longer believe in the movement precepts or are not certain about its “truth,” continued high-risk activism becomes less likely. In most instances, fully cultured activists will use the movement ideology to resolve the issues that emerge as a result of the opening, but where the ideology provides an insufficient remedy, defection becomes more likely.

Second, movement consistency matters. Where a leader or a movement seems inconsistent or hypocritical, defections become more likely. Leaders may be seen as betraying the very cause they claim to represent. This could lead to disenchantment with the mission and ideological precepts of the movement. In addition, a sense that the movement is not really working toward its stated purpose (such as a real vision of how an Islamic state would actually function) could lead some to question the consistency between rhetoric and action.

And third, risks and costs can change over time, thereby influencing individual calculations about participation. Just as importantly, in the face of increased risks, activists may reevaluate their self-interest and priorities and decide that there are more important things to consider, such as family.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (pp. 198-199). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Amen — the same for those who left the Worldwide Church of God. The same factors are involved. In my own case the second point was the final straw that “outed” me. After the death of the founding leader, Herbert Armstrong, the new leader commenced to change the doctrines of the church and threw out beliefs and practices for which members had sacrificed all their livelihoods, opportunities in life, and even in some cases their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. I no longer saw the Church as run by God. It was run by a Politbureau: what one believed was not what counted; what counted was that you believed the right teachings at the right time — according to whoever was in charge at the time.

But as Wiktorowicz remarks, what is most remarkable is that there are so few defections.

We have seen instances of attempted defections from Islamic State in recent months. Most of these appear to be the result of disillusionment with their experiences after leaving their homes to join the group in Iraq and Syria.

One hope for countering the appeal of Islamic State is to highlight such first-hand narratives of experiences with hypocrisy, disillusionment, etc. Wiktorowicz’s model of how people are attracted to an extremist Islamist group hopefully opens up a useful grasp of an important dimension of the threat that is likely to remain with us for some years to come.



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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Violent Islamism: Many Are Called, Few Are “Chosen”, Fewer Defect”

  1. Scary stuff. Good article, Neil. I like the parallels between Christian and Muslim cults. Really any kind of ideological institution can become savage under the right/wrong conditions and vicious, mentally ill leaders.

    1. I’ll be posting more from the literature on these sorts of developments — the attraction of cults and why they turn violent — for some time yet, I think. Have been doing heaps of reading in this area lately. I think religion is not well understood by many atheists who have never been seriously immersed in its depths.

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