Any Effort to Counter Violent Extremism Must Deal with Religion

Academically, I agree with the thrust of the Obama administration’s efforts not to invoke religion and thereby lend legitimacy to thugs and criminals. The problem with such a stance is that it is not possible to ignore religion entirely and deal effectively with the threat. It is true that the underlying causes of extremism include societal and economic factors, such as a lack of jobs, poverty, illiteracy, corruption, and income disparities.  All contribute to the trend of rising extremism. To get at the problem of extremism, which tends to result in an alienation from modern society, those issues must be addressed. 

That said, most extremists don’t become terrorists. The ones who do have an added motivation to resort to violence – religious justification. Terrorists feel empowered to kill in the name of Allah. 

As Sun Tzu wisely noted, to know the enemy, one must get into his head, to know what he is thinking, feeling, and contemplating doing.  It is not possible to understand the mindset of the terrorist without studying and analyzing their religious beliefs. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to some reports, was a doctoral candidate in Islamic studies. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri is exceptionally well-read. His book “Exoneration” reflects the ideas of a man who has given deep thought to the Quran, whatever one may think of his analysis. Osama bin Laden gave up wealth and privilege because of his religious beliefs. Even ultra-violent ISIS forerunner Abu Musb al-Zarqawi, a former bouncer, was devoted to an extreme interpretation of Islam, which he credited for turning his life around. The theologians, mentors, and clerics that gave rise to terrorist ideology are central to the perpetuation of their power. 

The influx in recent times of disaffected European thugs and criminals does not change the fundamentally Islamic character of the terrorism problem faced by the west. From Bin Laden to Zarqawi to al-Baghdadi, the theology and ideology that propels the movement forward is religion-based. Continued success depends on religious consistency in terrorists’ thoughts, words, and deeds.  The center, the base of the terrorism support, comes from radical Islamists. They are waging a war between the sacred and the secular, as they see it. They are seeking to impose Sharia law, as they see it. It is a winner take all struggle for the future of the world.  Ultimate success- defeating the apostates and the infidels- is driven by religious motivations and goals. 

We ignore that reality at our own peril.

In terms of implementing a sound strategy to defeat ISIS, we will not be able to apply the proper pressure points to defeat the Islamists if we fail to see them for what they are; religious extremists who use terrorism as a tactic to achieve their ambitions. There are two crucial implications of making a distinction between the problems of countering extremism, and combatting terrorism.

As President Obama stressed, the west is not at war with Islam. This is a war within Islam itself, between competing visions for the future. It is a conflict that only Muslims can solve. More specifically, Arabs must join forces to go to the roots of Sunni terrorism. The governments of the Arab world must join forces to annihilate this aberration of their faith – by the right of the combined weight of their military might. Arab governments must commit to a long term strategy to satisfy the demands of their people, and discredit the bankrupt ideology of terrorist violence. For its part, the west should support the governmental and non-governmental forces of moderation in the Arab world. The west should continue to staunchly support the vast majority of Muslims who are nonviolent and who seek integration into the global family of nations.

Second, the west must recognize that for the militant Islamists, the Apocalypse has already begun. The single-minded purpose of ISIS is to to bring about the final battle of Armageddon. Establishing their so-called Caliphate requires drawing the US and the west into a protracted ground war that would help legitimize ISIS and define the US as the invader.

While the west defines terms and debates nuances of the threat, ISIS continues to perpetrate unspeakable horrors. Instead of arguing over the nature of the problem, the world should be acting decisively to halt terrorist crimes against humanity.  While the world deliberates over what to do, the threat is growing, spreading, deepening.

We are losing time.

 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.