The term Muslim extremism started to increasingly appear since the inception of the 21st century in media and politics when violence is related to the religious conviction of the perpetrator, in this case Islam. The two words seems to have become grown into an inseparable concept, and yet, they’re just entirely separate words placed together to denote a specific form of nonconformist and violent behavior.
Extremism is in no way exclusive to being a Muslim and, through reverse analogy, no Muslim is exclusively extremist. Extremism indicates the human phenomenon of taking a position at the edge of something, as opposed to what is considered to be customary and normative behavior among others. You can be extremely thin, extremely good at football or extremely conservative within the political spectrum. The term is very complex, and its limitation in the current societal context blurs the susceptibility of human nature for extremism in all of its forms.
The word is in no way limited to religion, or even ideology in general. It rather describes the phenomenon that appears when agreed on borders are violated and one exceeds these boundaries. An extremely friendly neighbor can soon start to get under your skin, and mothers can at times call their children extremely annoying when they’re acting insufferable again. And yet today, when one utters the word “extremism”, it can hardly be denied that Islam or Muslims pop up in people’s minds. It’s the result of a long process of framing and meticulously selecting recurring and specific vocabulary to describe the same string of events.
Muslim extremism has of course much more to do with ideological radicalization than with annoying children or over-friendly neighbors. And yet, it’s necessary to nuance here as well. A Muslim extremist can best be described as a human being who takes an extreme position in his experience of being Muslim. Likewise, there exist people as well who take such position in being Buddhist, being nationalist, being Christian or being a football fan. There is no exclusivity here, and yet, the term is so intrinsically connected to human nature.
My preferred definition for extremism is the erroneous interpretation and false understanding of a collection of ideas and teachings that lead to a twisted implementation of the original message and a increased isolation. There is an enormous discrepancy between the original message of the Cross and the tragic genocide of the Native American peoples on the American continent by Christian settlers. Between the ideas and worldview of the ancient Germanic people and those that call for Germanic supremacy and superiority over all other races. Between the message of Buddha and the sectarian violence of Buddhist monks against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Muslims are susceptible to this phenomenon as well, and Islamic history had its fair share of extremist groups passing by. Historical groups like the Assassins, the Kharidjites or the Qarmatians all based their actions on their interpretation of Islam to terrorize the remainder of the Muslim population for decades.
Although the above-mentioned groups ceased to exist for a long time, they’re still referenced to in Islamic historiography to serve as a warning and example. Within the Islamic tradition, a proper word exists to denote religious or ideological fanaticism. This word is al-ghuluw. This Arabic word means that a person is doing more than he actually should, giving himself and others a hard time. A person that exceeds the norm and loses himself in excesses. This term doesn’t however refer solely to violent extremism, but to any exaggeration or fanatical obstinacy within one’s religious or ideological experience. As such, concepts like self-flagellation, declaring one’s fellow believer a disbeliever without solid proof or even fasting more than what is considered to be healthy are seen as acts of ghuluw.
The Islamic State is today seen by the vast majority of Muslim scholars, both conservative and progressive, as one of the groups to have al-ghuluw. Its members and supporters are considered to be an offshoot of the historical Kharidjites. Because this organization can be religiously defined and positioned so clearly within Islamic thought, it isn’t hard to quarantine and invalidate its teachings. Innumerable books, articles and messages have been created in the Islamic world to effectively strip IS’s mask off and show its real face.
This isn’t as easy in Belgium, the UK or other parts of the world with large Muslim immigrant communities, especially due to the absence of an extensive Islamic academic elite and the lack of thorough and appropriate translations of Arabic works. As a result of this vacuum, the Islamic State can count on a strong fifth column in Western Europe, especially on social media and among certain circles of the Muslim community. Following this evolution, the Flemish government decided in 2017 to spend half a million euro to fund projects aimed at dismantling and dislodging the ideology of IS through humor, art and emotion. The medium mentioned in this project to convey these messages are civil society organizations and educational institutions. They can effectively ask for subsidies to fight radicalization among Muslim youngsters from several different angles.
As a healthy society, it’s important to curb any form of extremism, because different extremes can’t possible exist together within one institution, society in this case, effectively resulting in its inevitable demise. The part played by the Flemish government, however, is particularly unfortunate. Like a real Truman doctrine, the government invests in societal and public fora to counter the influence of IS, as I mentioned above. However, these investments and projects are a waste of time, since the policies of the Flemish government with regard to the Muslim community go straight against the intended goals, i.e. countering isolation and radicalization.
Because of a particularly stringent domestic policy, a limiting legislation and some provocative declarations by important politicians, isolation and radicalisation among members of the Muslim community are increasingly provoked. Therefore, the first and foremost battle by the Flemish government against extremism among Muslims should focus on altering its policy and stance towards the Muslim community. Only in an inclusive society in which there’s no place for political polarisation can any form of ideological or religious extremism be efficiently tackled by the local government.
The first goal of the fight against radicalization is pulling the person indulging in extremist ideas out of his or her isolation. There is no planet from where extremists depart to disembark on earth in an attempt to dislodge the world. These are people who increasingly grew accustomed and desensitized to their extremism, whereby their original norms and values become obscured through a heightened state of isolation.
Extremism can often initially be situated and understood rationally. Someone is angry as a result of the decade-long foreign military intervention in his homeland causing him to grow up with less opportunities. Someone fears the increase of foreigners settling in his village. Someone lost his father due to an aerial attack after a foreign army invaded his country. When this person then walks around with these frustrations for an extended period of time and secludes himself into a social environment in which the same frustrations are shared without any room for self-reflection or criticism, but also without any recognition from the outside world, there’s an increased chance at radicalization and extremism.
The first ones to remedy this issue in case of the Muslims isn’t the government, but the Muslim community itself. This is, however, a responsibility borne particularly badly. To describe it with the wise words of Flemish poet Alice Nahon: “‘Tis good to look into one’s own heart.” While mosques, youth clubs and families should make an effort at transparency and dialogue, they mostly choose to remain silent and to look the other way because of the apolitical character of the Muslim community in the West.
“Don’t upset anyone”
There’s a sociological reason for the above-mentioned aloofness. The first generations of Muslim immigrants, mainly from Moroccan or Turkish origin, were predominantly poorly educated workers who left the countryside of their homelands to find better working conditions in Belgium. Political or religious self-development formed no primary part of that life, and the first generation firmly believed that it wasn’t appropriate to upset the host country by talking about politics. Walking home from work and passing by the mosque is all you were supposed to do.
As a result of this mentality, mosques, in most cases still managed by that same first generation of elder Muslims, clam up when youngsters start asking “difficult” questions. Asking tough and difficult questions are a normal part of every teenager’s life. Waving aside these issues or even dismissing the teenagers will have the opposite effect of dialogue, namely isolation. The youngster in question will then go on the internet to look up his questions in a language he understands and to get his advice from anyone seemingly educated in the matter.
The anonymity and volatility of the internet unfortunately don’t always ensure these are the right people or the right answers. Muslims need to take up their responsibility within the community and open up the entire debate. Every question has its answer, and it’s important to explain and illustrate the views of Islam on these matters. When the seeker asks enough people the right question, he’ll be able to compare several answers and make up his mind. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The increased polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims as the result of political and societal trends. These are all frustrations many Muslims walk around with.
Rules of jihad
It’s important to be honest and clear at all times. The worst thing anyone could do is adapting his speech to what society wants to hear, risking to lose any credibility among his audience and supporters. Yes, Islam knows al-jihād, which is the effort and diligence of the believer and of which al-qitāl is a part, the armed struggle. This is part of the Islamic religion and has its roots in both the Qur’an and the narrations of the prophet Muḥammad. There are however, rules and conditions surrounding the concept of jihad, and this part of Islam knows a specialized religious jurisprudence.
To what extent can the oppressed take up arms against his oppressor? When is violence religiously justified? When does a struggle for freedom descent into terrorism? These are relevant questions, but the entire debate is being waved aside by the Muslim community, let alone civil society organizations and educational institutions. In the mind of radicalized persons one thing is clear, their isolation from the rest of the Muslim community and their unanswered frustrations to which they start formulating their own answers. When we, as a community, can answer these rational frustrations, a whole lot of youngsters can be kept away from dangerous influences. Whoever keeps to obstinately continue his radicalized ways, other tools and strategies are needed.
Dialogue with different kinds of partners
The Flemish government is correct to mention civil society organizations and educational institutions in its plans. Besides mosques and Islamic institutions, the dialogue should indeed be continued over there. People with an apt understanding of Islam and a established experience with teenagers can do miracles with an open-mind and an inclusive approach.
Anyone should be allowed to object to democracy. Should be allowed to feel uncomfortable with certain concepts like homosexuality or transgender identity. Should be allowed to feel indignant about the occupation of Palestine or the failure of policymakers to actually help the Syrian people against their vicious regime. It’s everyone’s right to have these opinions. And people could discuss and debate these matters in a respectful and constructive manner, as long as one group’s conviction doesn’t hinder the freedom of the other.
This seems self-evident to me, what with all the talk about the European freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And yet, it isn’t all that obvious, as modern societies keep clamming shut with indignity when its own convictions are being criticized or questioned by others. Indeed, the first goal of the Flemish government’s project is to tackle radicalization by avoiding polarization. And yet, the biggest source of polarization is that same Flemish government.
The opposite effect
Its policy of denying committed and motivated women to wear the headscarf when attending school or when looking for a professional occupation in a public office. Of creating lists and guidelines to track down and declare possible cases of radicalization, like youngsters growing their beard or wearing a long garment. This isn’t really conducive for a possible dialogue. Its legal battle against ritual slaughter, its increased sternness in recognizing new mosques, the heightened attempts to oppose Islamic orthodoxy, the ban on face-covering veils or covering swimsuits in public pools, the vague transparency on civilian casualties as the result of Western coalition bombing in Syria and Iraq. All counterproductive issues at best, extremism inducing at worst.
Therefore, I advocate avoiding the government altogether when working on deradicalization. Local efforts of civil society organizations and educational institutions in cooperation with the Muslim community without any link to the government will be much more effective, even if only to avoid being brushed aside as traitors or government agents when confronting radicalized persons.
To conclude that all peace pipes should be lit would be a fantasy and an illusion. There will always be extremists, with an inclusive societal policy as well as with an exclusive supremacist policy. There’s no place for extremists in any society, and not in a Islamic state either, like proven by Muslim history. However, the risk of radicalizing is much smaller and way easier to recognize with the former policy as opposed to the latter. Being convinced of one’s own truth causes blindness to the resistance of others, as well as to one’s own mistakes.
The Islamic State terror organization was born out of the ashes and ruins of Iraq left behind after the deposing of Ṣaddām Ḥusayn, a big mess with high waves of sectarian violence caused by the lawlessness after the U.S.-led invasion. For years, the Unites States remained blind for the disastrous consequences they helped to create, unable to recognize their own role in the extremism of IS. That mistake can’t be made again. In the fight against IS’s extremist ideology, a good and thought-out alternative should be offered, even when that alternative doesn’t fit the Western ideological narrative. An alternative upheld by people with knowledge and experience within that field.
During, let’s say, the nineties of the last century, there was no need to fight Muslim extremism the way we’re all familiar with today. The world was structured differently. The world looked at things in another way. Violence begets violence, that’s for sure.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim World. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, his professional work included translation, development and research regarding the region. He occasionally writes on historical and contemporary issues such as Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.