Does Religion or Culture Drive Islamic Terrorism?
In the last article, Understanding Islamic Terrorism, we looked at how the Whabbists have been able to export extremism throughout the Sunni Muslim world. The reality is that Saudi funding alone did not put Islamic Terrorism at the top of the global terrorist heap. There were several underlying cultural-shortfalls that have made the extremist message appealing to the subset of Muslims whom support theses causes. On the positive side, the general support for violence and the use of extreme tactics by global Muslims is finally starting to decline.
If we look to the Pew report published in 2013, we see the attitudes Muslims expressed towards extremism as favorable and growing as we discussed just last year in Is ISIS the Future of Islam?. The key indicators available only two years ago were that nearly 50% of Muslims espoused some level of support for terrorists groups, and that 25% believed that violence and terror were an acceptable means of accomplishing their goals. This data was collected between 2010 and 2012, and it is a staggering number of the world’s second largest religion that expressed support for this type of violence.
When we look at the most recent Pew Polling (2014) we see a very significant shift. Granted, we have to cherry pick data to make this case, but the fact that these shifts are occurring is the key lacking component in the battle against Islamic terrorism. That key being a Muslim backlash against terrorism. Between 2004 and 2014 in Pakistan, there was a drop in support for suicide bombing from 41% in 2004 to only 3%. There are several other large drops in support for terrorism but the cause of that change is what matters. In the case of Pakistan, the driver of that shift in attitude was the Taliban’s occupation of the SWAT valley, which forced Pakistanis to live under extremist rule. The reality of living under extremist rule is far different than the romanticized version presented at the local Mosque…
While not as substantial, that trend can be seen in a variety of indicators across the larger proportion of the Global Muslim community. We see a decline across the Muslim populace for terrorist groups and extreme behavior in the 2014 polling data. Once again the question is, what changed? And the answer is ISIS. Publicized incidents like the mass murder of fellow Muslims, and more specifically the burning of Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Moath al-Kasasbeh, has created the backlash we previously did not see. The graphic public display of barbarity has casued a significant portion of Muslims to attempt to divorce Islam from ISIS. ISIS took center stage as the global mouthpiece of Islam, and we are finally starting to see Muslims express their dissent. That is not the future any sane human being wants for their children, and Muslims are no different in that regard.
Extremists are now, and have been, recruiting from the fringes of society. The occasional well-educated recruit is widely publicized, but they are very much the exception to the rule. The average ISIS recruit is a disenfranchised, young male who lacks the ability to compete in the society in which he was raised. He is attracted to the message ISIS sends – power, authority, access to women – things that this would-be jihadist undoubtedly lacks in his own society. Within that subset, a recruit has to be truly angry with society at large to accept the brutality espoused by ISIS – which even further limits the potential for recruiting to the significantly defunct individuals in society.
The Jihadi militant rhetoric is romanticized in Mosques and Islamic teachings about their higher struggle, their devotion to the principles of Islam, their sacrifice, etc. Despite their consistent cowardice and long history of catastrophic tactical failures in the face of even marginal soldiers – the Quran and Islamic teachings makes Jihaddis out to the be the “heroes” of their religion. There has been a significant lag in Muslim “religious scholars” dissent from what ISIS and Al-Qaeda is doing, and attempting to differentiate that behavior from the traditional interpretations and beliefs of Islam at large. That lag has been interpreted by the masses as support. We are finally seeing some indicators in the polling that attitude is changing.
Additionally, the barbaric video publication of what is really occurring is impossible to ignore. At its core, mass murder, torture, and trading women like cattle appeals only to a very small portion of the population (those young disenfranchised, socially inept males). The rest of the religion does not want that future for its children, and their attitudes are finally starting to show that disconnect.
One component of the Muslim culture that makes this shift in attitude challenging is the concept that Allah is directly responsible for all actions. Humans are simply doing his bidding – at all times. Americans especially have a difficult time with this concept. The best example of how deeply ingrained in the culture this belief is, is summed up in the very common phrase “In-Shah-Allah” or God willing. I have seen it used for preemptory excuses for not complying with agreements, for not getting things done, and even things as simple as taking the trash out of the compound. If Allah wants the trash gone, it will be gone, if not, it will sit here and rot and Allah must want me to sit here and smell it.
This is quite different then the Western view of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. Western religions’ cultural belief is rife with examples of Human influence on the course of events. While many may use the term “God’s will” to describe a tragedy they cannot understand or cope with, we do not use it as a reason to simply accept our lot in life. “Heaven helps those that help themselves” is a pretty good example of the contrast between Western religious views and how “God’s will” is interpreted by Muslims.
This culture of dependence is what the extremists have exploited. The statistical reality of Muslim nations is that they perform at or near the bottom of the global scale for education, productivity, etc. The list is long…what is not clear from the data is a causal effect. Islam does not make people ignorant, lazy, or poor, more likely it is simply highly attractive to this segment of global population. While there are exceptions, the governance in the Muslim world is severely lacking. In many places where extremist Islam has taken hold (Indonesia, Africa, etc.) we can see why the religion is spreading so fast. This is where the extremists flourish.
You have a large number of disenfranchised youth, unhappy with their lot in life being told A) it is God’s will, or B) come join the glorified holy warriors in Jihad. We should not be surprised at ISIS recruiting success in that environment. The problem with extremism is much deeper then Islam. The party line espoused by ISIS is very similar to what Hitler used to bolster the Germans after WWI and start WWII. 1 – We are the chosen people. 2 – We are being unfairly persecuted. 3 – “They” are responsible for your persecution. 4 – Go Forth and kill “Them” and your problems will be solved. This has been an effective way for recruiting disenfranchised communities throughout history to act out violently.
Contrast that with Ghandi’s non-violent approach. 1 – We are all (Indians and Englishmen) human beings. 2 – We (Indians) are being unfairly persecuted. 3 – We (Indians and Englishmen) are responsible for our lot in life. 4 – Go forth and show them a better way. That nuance of responsibility is what makes all the difference in the world. It is one of independence vs. dependence.
That dependent culture is what makes Islamic extremism attractive to the portion of Muslim society who simply does not want to accept the table scraps from their corrupt governments. They do not have a common cause around which to unite and mainstream Muslim rhetoric has been insufficient to stem the spread of extremism. American Muslims are, in general, quite different then their global counterparts and have been for decades. This is an example of a culture (American Independence) subverting the traditional nuances of the Muslim religion to a point where it is generally compatible with Western society.
While many blame the religion it is ultimately the culture and not necessarily the religion that seems to creates violent extremists; and despite Islams’ current position as the global leader in terrorism, it does not have an exclusive on the violence market…
Undermining the impact of the religion on the cultures it thrives on is probably the only long-term solution to the problem of violent extremists. That is something America has done quite well. It is the freedom and independence that Muslim Americans are exposed to that undermines a dogged adherence to the culturally incompatible elements of Islam. “In-Shah-Allah” is interpreted very differently in the West then in the rest of the Muslim world. In the case of Islam, when we blame the religion, we are attacking the symptom and ignoring the underlying cause, which is the socially defunct governance that is largely typical of the Muslim world.
Lastly, while Islamic terrorism is the largest global driver of terrorism, that does not necessarily translate to America or to Americans. The graph composed on the left is from Princeton Universities Loon Watch and attempts to make the above case using some rather flawed and selective source data. What is true is that if you are the victim of violence in America, there is approximately a 97% chance that it was at the hands of a non-Muslim. What makes us react so viscerally to Islamic Terrorism is 9-11. The current generation of Islamic extremists are desperate trying to pull off another 9-11 scale event. As the cultural support for extremism wanes, Islamic extremism will fade and be replaced by the new violent ideology of the century. Our generation is saddled with dealing with Islamic Terrorism, but I sincerely hope that in the process of eliminating it, we eliminate some of the underlying cultural issues with which that violence has always been associated.
The key things to understand about Muslim Terrorism is that although it is the dominant player in global terrorism, it has not been nearly as successful here in America or the Western world at large, as it has been at terrorizing their fellow Muslims. Islamic extremism is as much of a cultural deficiency as it is a religious problem. If you removed Islam from the equation, another dependence-based violent ideology would rapidly arise to take its place, quite likely under the banner of another existing religion. If we can subvert the culture of dependence, you largely nullify the religious problem.
Next month we will look at individual Islamic Terrorist Organizations. We’ll compare and contrast some key goals, and the means they choose to pursue them.