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Ten Propositions About Religious Extremism

In the grim light of recent events, I would like to put forward ten propositions about religious extremism. These are not for nailing to mosque, or indeed, church, doors but in pursuit of clarity and maybe constructive disagreement.

In the grim light of recent events, I would like to put forward ten propositions about religious extremism. These are not for nailing to mosque, or indeed, church, doors but in pursuit of clarity and maybe constructive disagreement. I will focus on the extremism that comes from a perversion of Islam because it today dominates security concerns. But much of the content of these propositions are applicable to other forms of religion, for example distortions of Buddhism. I hope to move from the obvious to, perhaps, the less obvious. But I have learnt that the obvious for one person may sometimes be a moment of insight for another.

1) It is vital to analyse religious extremism with an open mind, as much objectivity as is possible, and with a view to possible policy options. Most people come with baggage for or against religion, or with a dislike of a particular religion, and are defensive or aggressive. This requires overriding natural emotion, and exerting considerable effort and discipline.

2) Religious extremism almost never has a single cause i.e. is the product of a mono-causal relationship, one cause producing one effect. So the argument "is its cause socio-economic or political or religious?" is wrong headed. A more useful question is: "in this particular instance which factor is more important?" Not either-or but and-and.

3) In the mix of different causal components, psychology is often underrated. We do not know enough about the mind of the religious terrorist. Though we often know a lot about the religious ideology used to legitimate and motivate violence in the name of God. The balance between different factors will vary according to culture and context. For young people going off to Syria from the backstreets of UK mill towns and Minneapolis, it will be different from that of the predominantly Saudi 9/11 bombers or from raw recruits to Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

4) A generalization that can be made is that the mind of the extremist is one that has shut down into a binary opposition between them and us, the chosen and the damned who are to be rejected and cast out, takfir. "Them" are not just wrong, or misguided, but intentionally evil and so should be punished and eliminated. The world exists in this frame as a binary opposition between evil and God's plan which the extremist sees themselves as implementing at any cost. It is easy unwittingly to reinforce this opposition by expressions of outrage.

5) It is important to distinguish between Salafi/Wahabi practice, a variety of puritanism and withdrawal from the contamination of the "pagan world", and jihad linked to takfiri rejection in the terrorist mindset. These - with greater or lesser degrees of overlap - represent different forms of extremism with different outcomes.

6) The Salafi/Wahabi mindset at heart - not the doctrinal content - is not exclusive to Islam. It is shared by the Jewish Haredi and by the Christian Amish. It rests on a dominant identity based on withdrawal and separation (between them and us) to preserve, protect and to seek purity of religious practice in the face of an irreligious secular world. The immediate problem here is not national security. It is the impact of self-segregating communities on social cohesion and the reduced life chances for the youth of these communities. These young people are cut off from much mainstream local and national life with attendant consequences for their aspirations and employment opportunities.

7) The takfiri and jihadi mindset involves much more: often a disregard for the past and a sense of the immediacy of "the last times". Above all it implements an aggressive (fight not flight) approach to "them", creating a major security problem which is fuelled by martyrdom/suicide themes in jihadist ideology. Salafi/Wahabi ideology provides a seed bed for religious aggression and violence - though not an exclusive one. And seeds do not invariably flourish. Wahabi and Salafi thinkers do not necessarily become violent though the ideology can be one of several factors predisposing individuals to adopt a violent course of action. On the other hand, in terms of a challenging engagement with takfiri and jihadi practitioners and thinkers, the former are often invaluable interlocutors, effective in de-radicalisation.

8) Authoritarian teaching and rote learning, bad pedagogy notably in religious education, contributes to the creation of extremist mindsets. It does so by creating a mental frame, a cognitive lens in which there is only one right answer so that awareness of legitimate different perspectives are lost. Multiple identities shrink to a single identity. The absence of critical thinking and open-mindedness creates vulnerability to extremist themes. Bad religion relies on bad education. Education can thus be described as a security issue - which does not mean education should be securitised and instrumentalised for the purposes of national security. It means pedagogy for open-mindedness, for pluralism ideally. And it means safeguarded and protecting young people from religious extremism, making them secure through resilience to extremist narratives.

9) Extremist recruiting involves social media and skillfully designed propaganda websites; it has benefited from the technological revolution in communications but also involves small face-to-face networks of the like-minded. It is comparable in means and methods to grooming for sexual abuse. Young people are systematically cut out from social links with family and friends and, thus isolated in jihadist networks, Thus trapped, they have their former values undermined by romantic and idealistic portrayals of religious extremist behaviour.

10) The best counter-extremism is peer-to-peer education between young people. Authority figures and the older generation start off with a handicap. Gaps between generations can be communications gulfs. Presenting counter extremist narratives is essentially about building resilience, about protection and safeguarding, with criminalisation only as a last resort. Successful narratives need to engage with the idealism of youth with a vision of a better future.

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