Radicalization of Islam or Islamization of Radicalism?

Deterring domestic terrorists in West requires figuring out the true motivation

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Thousands turned out in Orlando, Florida for a candlelight vigil Monday for victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub. Photo: Roberto Gonzalez/Zuma Press

Making sense of the carnage unleashed in the name of Islamic State in the West, from Paris and Brussels to Orlando, boils down to a chicken-and-egg problem that bedevils governments and terrorism scholars.

The killers in all these atrocities were, by definition, radicals, and all of them had pledged allegiance to Islamic State. But is the main threat facing the West the radicalization of Islam—or the Islamization of radicalism?

Different responses dictate different policies. If the true problem is the shift of some Muslim communities, particularly in the West, to a more fundamentalist version of the faith that becomes violent over time, then the recipe is to increase policing and surveillance, and government intervention in the running of mosques, charities, and Islamic schools.

That is the approach often taken, with mixed results, by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East such as Egypt.

But what if the real issue is that nihilistic misfits and violent malcontents in the West turn to Islamic State simply because it is the most obvious foe of the system? What if Islamic State, with its “Call of Duty” style propaganda, merely harnesses the fury that it didn’t create—the kind of fury that sparked the 2011 massacre by a right-wing gunman in Norway and multiple mass shootings by non-Muslims in the U.S.?

In this case, the prescription would be far more complicated—focusing, above all, on the destruction of Islamic State’s allure, the aura of invincibility that allows it to motivate new “lone wolf” attacks and draw actual recruits.

The dilemma has already caused an acrimonious rift between the French scholars Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.

In reality, both trends exist.

“There are radicals who simply look for an ideology and only find one. But at the same time, all those who are radicalized share the same ideology, which is why we have to take its content and its sources seriously,” said Guido Steinberg, a former counterterrorism adviser to the German government and a scholar at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Yet, the emergence of Islamic State has significantly changed the nature of this threat. In the previous decades, a network of mosques, many of them funded by Saudi Arabia or Qatar, spread the ultraconservative Salafi brand of Islam which often produced a pathway from growing observance to militancy to involvement with Islamist groups such as Hamas or al Qaeda.

That happened often in the Middle East but also in the U.S. The best example is Anwar al-Awlaki , the charismatic, U.S.-born imam of mosques in San Diego and Falls Church, Va., who inspired an entire generation of radicals in the late 1990s and early 2000s and later became one of the leaders of al Qaeda in Yemen.

That older generation of extremists was much more traditional in its Islamic theology, and as a result enjoyed a broader level of tolerance, if not actual support, in some Muslim communities.

Islamic State, with its idea of an immediate caliphate and apocalyptic plans to precipitate the end of the world, has been widely rejected by even the most-radical, established scholars of Islam.

And while in Iraq and Syria Islamic State, also known as ISIS, draws on local Sunni grievances, in the West it attracts a very different crowd. Roughly one-quarter of its recruits in Europe are converts from non-Muslim backgrounds. Many of those born to Muslim parents don’t come from observant families.

The New York-born Orlando shooter fits this profile: People who knew him said he drank alcohol and he took a picture with his wife while her hair was uncovered in public—something that a conservative Muslim would never do.

Seddique Mateen, the father of the man authorities say killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, has taken several opportunities to try and explain to the media that he didn't understand the heinous actions of his otherwise "normal" son. Photo: Sky News

“ISIS is a new cult. It’s like a doomsday church. And whether they are Muslims or not Muslims, those who join it undergo a conversion,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po university in Paris and a former diplomatic adviser to the French prime minister. And, as befits a cult, Islamic State also excommunicates almost all Muslims who don't follow its particular brand of the faith.

In this logic, conventional ways of countering Islamic State—such as Western governments’ social-media campaigns that show it as wicked and ruthless against fellow Muslims—can actually backfire by making the group more alluring to sociopaths looking for a cause.

After all, the group’s very appeal, particularly to so-called “lone wolves,” lies in that it is widely perceived to be particularly “bad ass,” said Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Part of the reason ISIS is so successful is because it is so successful. Puncturing its image of success is going to be very important,” Mr. Byman said.

That puncturing is already under way. Two years since the U.S. began its military campaign against the group, Islamic State has receded from parts of Syria and Iraq, and recently lost ground in the Libyan port city of Sirte.

But, even if diminished somewhat, Islamic State’s appeal remains potent enough to inspire new attacks, cautioned Hassan Hassan, a fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and co-author of a book on the group.

“It may seem to you and me that they are shrinking. But the people who want to support Islamic State see that it is still there, and they still have the idea,” Mr. Hassan said. “It’s still not dead.”

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