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The Key to Defeating Islamic Extremism Is Tackling Its Ideology

By Claire Meadows


This year has seen a marked increase in the number of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the UK, and if the experts are correct then this may continue for generations.

The former head of MI5, Lord Evans, recently told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the threat of Isis could remain with us for another “20 to 30 years”.

His assessment that Islamic terrorism is a “generational problem” that has no quick solution but requires a long-term political will and perseverance to overcome contrasts sharply with the collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s forces in Mosul, Iraq, in June.

On the surface, it would seem the West’s adherence to military might as the primary solution to national threats is working, but Lord Evans makes a sobering point: namely, that Islamic terrorism cannot be defeated simply by killing the terrorists.

Lord Evans, who stepped down as the director general of the security service MI5 in 2013, notes that the challenge of Islamic terrorism has been with us in some form since the 1990s, and though the threat has risen and diminished periodically - such as with the eclipse of al-Qaeda and subsequent growth of ISIS - it has always been present.

So how can the British Government deal effectively with this danger before terrorist atrocities such as the despicable Manchester Arena bombing and London Bridge attack become a terrifying normality rather than exception?

There are no easy answers, but one of the main ways of defeating extremism has to be tackling the attraction of its ideology. Radicalisation, after all, is the reason that people take up arms in the name of Isis, whether to fight abroad or plot home-grown attacks.

It’s impossible to determine in advance who will respond to Isis’s propaganda but there does seem to be a bias towards young, vulnerable Muslims. This was recognised by former PM David Cameron in 2015, when at a speech in Birmingham he said that young Muslims are drawn to fundamentalist Islam in the same way that young Germans were attracted to fascism last century.

He said that “what we are fighting in Islamist extremism is an ideology”, and that the root cause of the threat is “the extremist ideology itself”.

This is a view shared by one of the world’s most prominent Islamic scholars, Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, who fears that there is an increasing ignorance among young Muslims concerning what their religion supports and opposes. It is his opinion that this is being fuelled by the substitution of scholars with the internet as the primary source of religious information for younger Muslims.

There is no question that Isis’s recruitment drive focuses heavily on online dissemination. Just this April, for example, the now deleted English-language YouTube channel ‘al Muhajirun’ was condemned by MPs for targeting children as young as 14 to become Jihadi fighters in Syria.

For Muslims who do not have a firm understanding of orthodox Islam, and lack the guidance of a cleric or scholar to teach them, the potent mix of promises, anger and guilt such online propaganda stirs up can, unfortunately, lead in some instances to radicalisation.

Shaykh Muhammad, who has been named as one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims for five years in succession by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre at Georgetown University in the USA, is one of a swelling number of Islamic scholars challenging this by fighting back directly against Isis’s ideology.

In his book, ‘Refuting Isis: A Rebuttal of Its Religious and Ideological Foundations’, he describes the ideology of Isis as being “based on a complex system of fallacies that sever the sacred texts from their context.” In other words, the terrorist group deliberately distorts the Quran and “thrives on a series of devious stratagems that make selective use of whatever elements of the Shariah (Islamic law) satisfy their twisted minds”.

I was fortunate to speak with Shaykh Muhammad, who is the founder of UK-based not-for-profit Islamic educational initiative, Sacred Knowledge, about how best to fight extremism’s ideological roots.

He says that while it is not realistic to expect young Muslims to gain the same deep understanding of sacred texts that comes from a lifetime devoted to their study, they can be educated to challenge and dismiss ISIS’s ideology as being “outside the fold of Islam”.

In his view, Muslim leaders in the UK are a vital cog in the anti-ideological drive and need to take a lead role in de-radicalisation efforts, something he sees as lacking at present.

This is not going to happen overnight. Like Lord Evans said, the UK needs to “persevere”, but if the Government wants to diffuse the threat of extremism then they must look first to supporting anti-ideological educational initiatives within Muslim communities.