Last week the world has seen the cities of Brussels, Baghdad and Lahore rocked by a series of suicide bomb attacks that targeted the Belgian airport and metro station, an Iraqi football stadium and a Pakistani family park.
These attacks have so far taken the lives of more than 150 people with many more injured. These attacks in Belgium, Iraq and Pakistan come in a month that also saw two attacks in the Turkish cities of Ankara and Istanbul that saw more than 40 people killed. Various Islamic extremist groups, including Daesh (ISIS), have claimed responsibility for all these attacks.
There are many factors that contribute to such Islamist extremism. To suggest that Islamic theology is the main cause of extremism is in my opinion far too simplistic. There are many factors that contribute to the rise of extremist groups and I believe the only hope of defeating them is to address all these factors honestly.
There is first of all the political factor. European and US foreign policy in the Middle East has undoubtedly contributed to rise of Daesh. Daesh emerged from the insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq just as the Al Qaeda network traces its origins to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Robert Pape, founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, studied every suicide attack in the world since 1980, evaluating over 4,600 in all. Pape’s research argues 95% of all suicide attacks have one thing in common: it is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention.
He found that (in summary), 95% of attacks have a political motive. Politicians and policy makers have a responsibility to address the genuine grievances that contribute to people joining such militant organisations.
The second factor that contributes to Islamist extremism is the social factor. Social marginalisation contributes significantly to the radicalisation of young European Muslims and encourages them to join organisations such as Daesh. In research conducted for the journal Behavioral Science & Policy after the Paris attacks in November, hundreds of Muslims in Germany and the US were asked about their experiences as religious and cultural minorities, including their feelings of being excluded or discriminated against on the basis of their religion.
The research found that people who said they were torn between cultures also reported feeling ashamed, meaningless and hopeless. They expressed an overall lack of significance in their lives or a feeling that they didn’t really matter. The more people’s sense of self worth was threatened, the more they expressed support for radicalism.
Extremists know and exploit these vulnerabilities, targeting Muslims whose sense of significance is low or threatened. Radical religious groups give these culturally homeless Muslims a sense of certainty, purpose and structure. What is really needed is for Muslims and the wider society to reach out and actively engage with each other so that young Muslims are helped to see themselves as fully part of 21st-century Europe.
The third aspect that contributes to Islamist extremist is the theological aspect. While theology in most cases is not the motive behind terrorist attacks, it serves as a tool for recruitment and a potent means of getting people to overcome their fear of death.
Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh that commit such atrocities, do so with a false allegiance to Islam and its core tenets. The understanding of Islam that these extremist groups adhere to is intrinsically violent.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims (1.6 billion) do not understand their own religion in the same way as this extremist minority.
For over 1,000 years, Christian, Jewish and other communities have survived under Muslim rule. This was particularly noticeable in the Ottoman Empire and under the Moors in Spain.
Extremist groups such as Daesh have abandoned the 1400-year-old Islamic tradition of relying upon Muslim scholars and jurists for advice and guidance in relation to matters of religion and politics.
The overwhelming majority of the members of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have no formal training in Islamic theology. Neither have many of them served in positions of leadership and authority in relation to Muslim teaching.
Emmanuel Sivan writes in Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism Around the World, that the leadership of Islamist groups is composed for the most part of university students and modern professionals who are often self-taught in religious matters. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph, has absolutely no training as an Islamic Scholar.
Some people argue that most Muslims are too rigid in their adherence to old, literal interpretations of the Koran. They claim that all Muslims use religious texts in the same way and that Islam is a monolithic religion. It is certainly true that some Muslims have a narrow-minded interpretation of the Koran or Hadith. This is because they reject the 1,400-year-old traditional method of interpreting the Koran.
Understanding the verses of the Koran out of context always leads to misunderstanding and this applies to all scriptures.
The so-called Islamists promote a literal interpretation of the Koran, which leads to extremism and radicalisation. Most Muslims around the world understand that the Koran has to be read in context, just like the Bible and other sacred texts.
Studied and understood in context, the verses of the Koran encourage Muslims to respect and care for their non-Muslim neighbours. It is certainly not a source of violence.
Extremists often exploit the lack of knowledge of Muslims regarding their religious teachings and brainwash them with all kinds of false notions. One of the most common is that a suicide bombing will lead to receiving 72 virgins as a reward in paradise!
In the Koran we find the strongest condemnation with severe punishments for those who commit suicide, certainly not rewards of any kind. There is a somewhat doubtful hadith (tradition) about a reward of 72 wives for those who enter Paradise, but it is absolutely false to suggest that anyone who commits suicide will be rewarded in any way for such an act.
A new and very sad phenomenon is the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim majority countries, which has greatly increased since the rise of the extremist groups. This is clearly against the teaching of the Koran, which states that there should be no compulsion in religion. In January this year, hundreds of Islamic scholars met in Marrakesh to discuss how this persecution can be prevented.
Readers of The Irish Catholic no doubt can imagine how painful it is to see Islam, a religion of peace and generosity, subjected to the distortions and blasphemies of Daesh.
The Irish Muslim Peace & Integration Council recently organised a “Not in our Name” protest outside the GPO in Dublin and launched the Guidelines to Prevent Radicalisation within Muslims in Ireland to make very clear that Irish Muslims do not in any way support or condone the violent behavior of these extremists.
I invite readers of The Irish Catholic to get in touch with me with any suggestions they have regarding the issues I have discussed above.
*Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri is Chair of the Irish Muslim Peace & Integration Council; www.impic.ie