Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor, a researcher specialising in the study of religious community work and countering violent extremism at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)
One of the most discussed and controversial topics in the counter-terrorism and counter violent extremism (CVE) sphere is the topic of deradicalization. The ever-pressing issues such as what to do with returned foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), as well as what to do with the yet unrepatriated and often still-radical Western nationals from so-called Islamic State (ISIS), who are currently in Al-Hol or Al Roj camps, and with domestic threats from violent Islamist trends or “lone wolves”, is a headache for Western authorities. Much of the focus has been on government-instituted programs, such as the UK’s Healthy Identity Intervention Programme, which after the case of Usman Khan and the London Bridge attack in November 2019, came under much criticism, along with similar initiatives in other Western countries, such as in France. But how effective are such programs, really? Many previous researchers have concluded that government programs and statutory body initiatives rarely work, and this view is shared by this author. There simply is no trust in governmental authorities or those associated with Western states, who are seen as agents of a Western subversive agenda to reform Muslims and, ultimately, Islam itself, even if Muslim representatives are involved in the official deradicalization process.
Separating Jihadism and Islam
Always to be considered are the push-factors, the sometimes collective and sometimes highly individual factors that motivate people into extremism. As pointed out by many other researchers, purely religious motivations growing out of a zealous reading of sacred scripture are not the only main causes, even if they may appear so. Very personal experiences such as trauma, revenge over real or perceived injustices, and mental health issues—albeit all given religious expression—can be equally as important. Such cases are arguably more difficult to address as the varying “wounds” are more difficult to detect, let alone heal. If the individual settles on an ideology as the salve, it can be very difficult to convince them to leave because, as the cliché has it, nothing cannot beat something; it is not enough just to take away their old ideology, something credible (from the individual’s perspective) has to be offered as an alternative to replace it. Yet in liberal Western societies, there are no guarantees—neither for meaning and success, nor love and emotional satisfaction, nor for happiness. This makes leaving an ideology that provides those things extremely hard, especially once one takes into account all of the sacrifices made by the individual for the sake of that ideology or group and the potentially very high costs, socially, psychologically and spiritually, of exiting them.
Leaving aside government interventions, the (usually Muslim) communities threatened by jihadism have had to come up with independent methods of dealing with the issue, rooted in both religious tradition and civil society. These are the people who have to confront the problem most directly, first, and with the most lasting consequences—they are stuck with the fallout, unlike government bureaucrats who can come in with a “solution” and then leave without suffering the aftermath. Handling violent Islamism and Takfirism, the jihadist trend that makes a habit of excommunicating other Muslims, is a delicate matter.
One of the main complexities is that Muslim populations are very sensitive to issues that relate to central tenets of the faith itself, and the jihadists directly use these doctrines. An imam of the Purist Salafi tradition whom I spoke to numerous times during my research, and who had had the opportunity to sit and debate with many radicalized individuals, proposed a not-uncontroversial theory for why Muslim extremists in particular seem to be more zealous and have more hubris in their cause. He proposed that the arguments articulated by Islamic theology and philosophy to substantiate the Islamic creed as divine truth are experienced as so convincing and rational that it triggers a deep devotion to the faith that can easily transition into fanaticism if an individual encounters a violent interpretation, rather than being guided to moderation. The promises made by the Qur’an and hadith regarding rewards in the afterlife for believers become tangible reality, as opposed to a hopeful faith or vague long-term wishes, that an individual might want to struggle to attain—jihad literally means “struggle”, after all, and jihadism can seem to such individuals to be a logical and quick means to a very real end as promised by Islam.
The Zealotry of the Convert and “Do-it-Yourself” Islam
It is also closely related to the cognitive development of converts to Islam, as elaborated by both Roald and Baker, which speaks of cognitive stages which converts or those newly returned to the faith go through. Usually, the initial stage is one of strong idealism and overt zealousness. Roald speaks of the “love affair stage” and “emotional obsession” with the new faith among Muslim converts she researched, while Baker uses the term “Idealist/Overzealous stage”, both referring to the same post-conversion or post-reawakening period of faith and religious belief. This period/stage is characterised by overzealousness, strictness, rigidity in religious practices, and heightened sense of self-righteousness, with a concomitant desire to directly address or tackle the perceived ills of the world.
If the overzealous individual, who is usually as eager to learn everything about the faith, comes across politicized or violent interpretations, this is a very dangerous situation. This is often coupled with the problematic phenomenon of either “outsourcing” or “excavation” of religious rulings, common in some literalist movements.
“Outsourcing” entails applying or seeking religious rulings regarding social or cultural matters in Western lands from scholars based in the Middle East or elsewhere, who are not familiar with the conditions or sociocultural mores in those lands, and who in response may give rulings framed from within the scholars’ own sociocultural contexts, yet which are presented as universal laws of “what God obliges you” to do, this in spite of Islamic jurisprudence classically taking into account and considering local conditions and realities before formulating rulings with the explicit intention that they not clash with lived realities.
“Excavation” refers to the phenomena of unearthing and applying sometimes centuries-old rulings issued in a different context in a different part of the world for a different audience and insist that these rulings are still valid and mandatory upon the (often) Western audiences. With the passion and often zeal already there, this is set to create an interpretation of the faith which will both in practice and theory be incongruous with the surrounding secular societies and prepare the ground for both cognitive dissonance and real-life conflicts, which is also very often the case with the former issue of ‘outsourcing’. This is also related to the “do-it-yourself Islam” trend that became common among some groups that self-identified with Salafism, as well as the emerging Takfir trend in the late 20th century, where scholarly traditions and means of interpretation are dismissed in favour of personal interpretation and trying to implement the sacred texts on your own. This trend is often associated in academia, when it comes to self-identified Salafis, with the Jordanian-Albanian Salafi scholar Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani’s (1914–1999) approach. This has had some very problematic consequences with regards to Muslim life in the West and extremism in general.
Charismatic preachers and recruiters will often utilize tactical empathy, pointing to real or imagined grievances in the target audience’s lives—whether racism, discrimination, or alienation—to establish trust, and then offer their extremist doctrine as the “solution”, using the theological justifications outlined above. All immigrants face hardships and Muslims in Swedish society are no different; Islamists offer a way, simplistic and often ineffective, to answer these problems that seems like exactly the answer some have been waiting for.
Salafism: Bulwark Against, or Gateway to, Extremism?
At the height of ISIS’s “caliphate”, Salafis of the Purist tradition came to play a critical role in confronting the problem of the spread of Takfirism in the Nordic lands, Sweden in particular. This had its own controversial aspects, owing to the Salafis’ sometimes ultraconservative beliefs in the midst of some of the world’s most liberal and secular societies, but they turned out to be literally, as well as ideologically, well-placed to tackle the problem. Following a non-violent, apolitical interpretation of Islam, which teaches personal piety and preaches law and order and tolerance towards the surrounding non-Muslim societies, while still maintaining religious orthodoxy, Salafis could engage those who adhered to or sympathised with Takfirism on terms they could accept, and the Salafis were physically present in some of the national hotspots of Takfiri agitation. In all senses, then, the Salafis found themselves in the eye of the storm. As the “caliphate” was announced, activating previously dormant Takfiri leaders, it was the Salafis who were among the first to act to block the spread of Takfiri ideology among Muslim populations.
An important problem was that the Takfiris were able to build off politicized interpretations of the faith that had come to be influential among segments of the Muslim populations in the Nordic countries over the last thirty years because of proselytism by the Muslim Brotherhood and the followers of movements like the Sahwa, activist Salafis influenced by the Brotherhood who posed a challenge in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. These movements took advantage of the disorganization and lack of established religious authorities among the early Muslim community—which consisted mostly of migrant labourers and their families who had come to Scandinavia to earn a living and had not yet established religious institutions of their own—to fill that gap by building power structures and influence
As another informant stated to me: “Some groups [i.e. the Brotherhood and other political Islamists] have held sermons in the mosques for over twenty years, Friday after Friday, just speaking about politics, governance in the Muslim world, the need ‘to do something’ and so on. And [the results] could clearly be seen,” referring to the effects during “the ISIS years” that saw so many of those influenced in this way become attracted to and affected by Takfiri and jihadi ideology. The Brotherhood and others, through their continuous promotion of political interpretations of the faith across nearly three generations, popularized Islamist worldviews and concepts among ordinary Muslims. This turned out to have laid the groundwork for Takfiri and jihadi actors, who picked up the same rhetoric and terminology already familiar and credible to many Muslim laypeople. This factor caused Takfirism to spread faster than it arguably would have done in environments where quietest religious interpretations focusing on personal piety and faith are dominant. The Brotherhood and likeminded groups had created the polarization and the belief among Muslims that they should be acting; all ISIS had to do was offer them a way to do it.
Sociology and Salafis Challenge the Takfiris
Another important, and unique, factor was the high degree of segregation in housing along ethnic lines that plagues certain Swedish suburbs around the main cities. These socioeconomically vulnerable suburban areas are where the immigrant population, which is often Muslim, has ended up being concentrated, and where the physical environment itself would play a central role in the intra-Islamic confrontation.
It was here, in these suburbs, that the Salafis and Takfiris often found themselves living, if not side-by-side, then in the same vicinities as each other, creating a sense of tension and urgency on both sides, as they would regularly come across each other in local mosques, public facilities, restaurants, and even supermarkets. It was not uncommon for friendships—or even family networks—to cross over these dividing lines. But the two sides recognised each other as distinct, and their community leaderships did not look favourably on the other’s presence. The Takfiris went out to attempt to influence and recruit local Muslim youth, often in a similar manner to the local criminal groups, using a mix of religion, tactical empathy, social pressure, and offers of “rewards”. The Salafis tried to stop it and offer other, non-violent, and more constructive alternatives for the same target audience. This tense situation, now playing out against the backdrop of very acute geopolitical dramas, led to a raging battle for hearts and minds, with both sides believing they were in a race against time to achieve ultimate supremacy as the religious authorities of their area, and for the souls of the Muslim youth and of Islam itself.
Soon the Takfiris began confronting the Salafis, first locally and soon on a more national level, threatening them, appearing in their mosques or at their lectures to argue or fight, and warning people against listening to the Salafis. The Salafis, in response, openly and privately challenged the Takfiris to debate them: if the Takfiri arguments are as strong as claimed, said the Salafis, then present the case. The Salafis believed they could undermine the appeal of the Takfiris in the eyes of ordinary Muslims by refuting their ideas. Several Takfiri figures at various levels, from street recruiters to more senior representatives—many of them at the time feeling self-confident because of ISIS’s rapid conquests—accepted the challenge. Debates were arranged, often through “fixer” who had contact with both sides, and held in places like local small mosques after closure, in private homes, or other facilities made specially available.
The enmity between Salafis and Takfiri groups is due to differing interpretations of core Islamic texts, methodology, and issues of creed, as well as radically different outlooks on the world. When classifying the likes of ISIS, many pundits tend to categorize them as a Salafi-jihadi group due to their usage of classical texts to substantiate their methodology. This presents a quandary for Salafis because they adhere to these classical texts, yet see the Takfiris as their arch-enemies and attempt to cast the Takfiris as being theologically (and indeed in all other ways) very distant from them. The Takfiris invert this, and here is the quandary when it comes to the claim that Salafis act as a barrier against Takfirism: the Takfiris were quite effective in their recruitment because they use the same classical source texts as the Salafis, and those source texts had been legitimized among large numbers of Muslims by the Salafis and traditionalists; it made it easy for the Takfiris to disseminate a decontextualized interpretation of those texts influenced by Brotherhood figures like Sayyid Qutb and others to justify their violent worldview.
Salafis and Takfiris Debate Theology
As the debates and confrontations played out between the two groups, my research was able to identify patterns. The debates that occurred between the Salafis and Takfiri/jihadis during these years tended to stick to a number of themes, among them:
- How should the concept of jihad be understood? Offensive or defensive? Under which circumstances can it be declared? Who has the right to declare it; any group or only national leaders?
- How should politics, law, and governance in Islam be understood? Are revolutions or rebellions against governments encouraged or prohibited? When and how should (or should not) religiously-derived rulings be applied in a society as law?
- How should the concept of takfir be understood? Who declares takfir and what are the prerequisites to declaring takfir? Can anyone declare takfir or only scholarly authorities after an investigative process?
- How should the concept of “civilians” be understood within and outside of conflict? Who is a civilian and who is a combatant? Can civilians be held responsible for their nation’s actions and be targeted? In that sense, how should the concept of terrorism be understood?
- How should certain verses of the Qu’ran be interpreted, such as those dealing with conflict and peace?
- How should the interpretations and rulings of historical scholars—such as Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in his conflict with the Ottomans, or the Abbasid caliphs, or Ibn Taymiyya dealing with the Mongols—be understood at the present time? Do those rulings stand now, regardless of the changed circumstances? Or should they contextualized in their applicability?
- How should certain things in the Prophetic biography (sirah) and Tradition be interpreted? Are the examples of war conduct and governance given by the incidents therein still applicable?
- And finally, how should Muslims position within non-Muslim Western host societies be understood? Should they obey the laws of the land, or actively strive to confront and undermine them? Should they fight against the states sheltering them?
Within each of these themes, there were arguments and counter-arguments—far too many for the scope of this article—but across the several debates, including two major ones where some of the then-top names in the Takfiri movement showed up in private homes, one could detect certain structural constants.
For instance, the Takfiris and their sympathisers, from Sweden to Finland, were able to argue at different levels, both for more scholarly and intellectually advanced audiences, and to more lay audiences. Notably: so could the Salafis. A repeated blow against the Takfiris was the Salafis making (often striking) comparisons between ISIS and the infamous Khawarij, rebels against Islam in the early phase who murdered Imam Ali and arguably the first terrorist group in Islamic history. In condemning ISIS as modern Kharijites, the Salafis were able to use both their actions, as well as statements from figures ranging from the Prophet himself to early Islamic imams and jurists, warning against these groups and describing their characteristics.
While the Takfiris could argue at a high level, it was notable that in general that was not the track they took. During the course of the debates, Salafis who attended told me, the Takfiri side relied a lot on emotion, and emotional arguments, coupled with their theological arguments, while the Salafi side focused on scholarly arguments and on tradition. But “sometimes you had to meet them on their terms,” as one Salafi imam told me in regards to the Takfiri side’s use of emotional rhetoric. In a different but related way, the Takfiris tried to influence a few of the debates in a non-scholarly way by bringing along followers, unannounced, presumably to show off and perhaps to intimidate.
The debates had impact. While the Takfiri leadership was difficult to reach by argument, their less entrenched followers began slowly defecting over to the Salafi side. Word also spread of this and it had a cumulative effect, shaking the convictions of other Takfiri followers. The public lectures of the Salafis became well-attended by local youth, who would then approach the lecturers and imams with their thoughts and doubts after having been exposed to Takfiri arguments.
As a separate, but no less important point, the Salafi presence and counter-activities seem to have acted as a distraction for the Takfiris. This need to deal with the threat the Salafis posed before other things meant the Takfiris spent less time and resources advancing down the path of terrorism.
The Salafis attribute their success in holding their credibility among Muslims against the Takfiri challenge to several factors. Among them is having studied and being well-versed in the same historical and contemporary theological canon as the Takfiris, albeit understanding it very differently, and having within their camp the most eminent scholars in Islam, ranging from those at the dawn of the faith through historical names such as Ibn Taymiyya, Al-Suyuti, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, to contemporaries like Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani and Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymeen.
In addition to scholarly qualifications, the Salafis attribute their success against the Takfiris to what one might call its opposite: they are familiar and local, living among the audience, and they fashion themselves as down-to-earth, appearing with their full beards and “street style” clothing, as well as robes. The Takfiri appeal to those who are “street smart” thus runs into an appeal that competes on their level, and nobody can accuse the Salafis of being affiliated with the government or acting from any motivation save sincerity towards the faith.
The notion of using religious actors or communities in the fight against terrorism has been heatedly debated in Western countries. Many observers and pundits on this topic see the state strengthening, even indirectly, the influence of religious conservatism in liberal societies as intolerable. Some argue that such a policy would lead to more extremism and terrorism, since the orthodox beliefs of the Salafis can easily be manipulated into jihadism, but even those who do not have that practical objection oppose it on principle, fearing that an erosion of secularism would degrade hard-won freedoms. This was the conclusion reached in the United Kingdom in 2011. when the Home Office took the decision to defund organisations connected to what they termed “non-violent extremism”. This is an understandable viewpoint. That said, purely legal and other punitive measures have had limited effect in curbing the spread of ideological and religious extremism. It is a difficult debate in which there are no clear answers, and therefore the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the debate is likely to continue. The issue of jihadism in the West is attached to a lot of foundational questions that have led to is a resurgence of the argument about the role of religion in now-secular societies that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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