The Toxic Confluence Online of Anti-Muslim Literature and Jihadist Messaging

An unusual and concerning detail emerged in a counterterrorism trial in the United Kingdom last month. A British Muslim, Mohiussunnath Chowdhury, was convicted in February of planning terror attacks. The contours of his case are not surprising: An isolated and angry young man, Chowdhury was befriended by undercover agents posing as fellow jihadists, to whom he divulged, over several months, various plans to attack tourist spots around London. He was eventually arrested and, on the strength of the agents’ recordings of his statements and online communications, convicted.

The trial focused on Chowdhury’s state of mind and motivation. He had previously been arrested and charged for attacking the guards outside Buckingham Palace with a sword in December 2017, but was acquitted after claiming he had been trying to commit suicide by police. While his defense in the new trial argued that he was merely seeking attention through idle talk, the prosecution presented him as obsessed with martyrdom and killing non-Muslims and actively trying to do so.

Chowdhury had been consuming jihadist sources and propaganda since his release from prison in late 2018, including speeches by ideologues Anwar al-Awlaki and Sheikh Abdallah al-Faisal; manuals for jihad; and ISIS videos, publications and social media posts.

However, as reported by Lizzie Dearden in the Independent, Chowdhury was also consuming a considerable degree of right-wing literature presenting Islam as inherently violent, from anti-immigrant activist Tommy Robinson, Robert Spencer’s website Jihad Watch, and the American anti-Islam preacher David Wood. Chowdhury relied on these sources, it was revealed during the trial, to reinforce in his mind the religious necessity of jihad.

Spencer has pushed back on the characterization that his writings helped inspire Chowdhury, arguing that a Muslim doesn’t need non-Muslim voices to justify jihadism. Fair enough — and questions of inspiration can be complicated. But evidence shows how seriously Chowdhury took these figures’ views. He saved numerous articles from Jihad Watch, including a list of Quranic passages extolling violence, and he shared Woods’ videos on jihadist attacks with the undercover agents, describing them as potential options.

Of particular importance was Robinson’s 2017 self-published book (co-authored with Peter McLoughlin), Mohammed’s Koran: Why Muslims Kill for Islam. The work argues that the true message of the Quran is one of violence and domination that all Muslims are required to follow. The bulk of the book is an English translation of the Quran from the early 20th century, but with the verses reorganized into reverse chronological order, which, the authors contend, proves that by the end of Muhammad’s lifetime Islam had turned “into a violent, predatory, politicized religion,” as later verses commanding violence had superseded any earlier, more peaceful message. (It should go without saying that this is not how Muslims themselves understand or approach the Quran.)

Besides the reordered translation, the authors include an introduction that argues that the truth of Islam has been obscured by both the text of the Quran itself — hence the reorganization — and the “grand lie” about the religion, which has been propagated by Muslims and Western media and politicians to hide its violent nature.

Chowdhury seems to have bought into this line of thinking. He told the undercover agents that the book has “decoded” the Quran (using the authors’ own phrasing), and he pushed away Muslim friends who didn’t share this view as religious hypocrites: “I am removing them one by one from myself if they do not accept Islam’s teaching about kuffar [non-Muslims],” he told agents in an online chat, referring to the supposed need to kill them. “These are Muslim friends that are telling me I should study with a scholar and that Islam means peace, that they really believe in the pacifism lol.”

That Islam requires violent jihad and that mainstream Muslims are deluded about their faith is a common refrain in anti-Islam circles; Spencer in particular likes to sarcastically invoke Islam as “the religion of peace.”

More broadly, there is a degree of overlap in the discourses at work here. Experts have long noted the interplay between Islamophobia and Islamic extremism, and the ways they reinforce each other, particularly online. This dynamic can serve to undermine mainstream Muslim voices, propagating the image of violent extremism as normatively Islamic.

Chowdhury, however, represents a unique example of a Muslim whose understanding of Islam has been substantively shaped by anti-Islam sources. He seems to have internalized the notion, supported by the authors he was reading, that violence is the true message of Islam and killing non-Muslims is necessary to be a good Muslim. In fact, Robinson and McLoughlin’s book makes this equation explicit on the very first page, where it states: “If you are a Muslim, please put this book down. We do not wish you to become a killer because this book leads you to understand the doctrines and history of Islam more thoroughly.” Chowdhury bragged about purchasing a signed collector’s edition.

Although Chowdhury’s unusual combination of jihadism and far-right literature may simply stem from his social isolation and questionable mental state, there are nevertheless important implications in his case for counter-extremism efforts. He very closely fits the model for European jihadists proposed by the French scholar Olivier Roy, namely young, second-generation immigrant men who feel cut off from their societies. While not previously particularly religious, these men — like Chowdhury — seek out religious learning as a result of their radicalization. In doing so, they shun the teachings of mainstream Islamic institutions, relying instead primarily on the internet and social media for knowledge about Islam. Discussions of the link between the religion and violence — from whatever source — are prevalent and readily accessible on these platforms, especially for those seeking justification and support for extremist views. It is possible that Chowdhury is unique only insofar as his trial brought his anti-Islam sources to light.

There is evidence of this dynamic at work in the other direction. For instance, an American neo-Nazi, Devon Arthurs, adopted strict fundamentalist Islam weeks before murdering two of his roommates (also neo-Nazis) in 2017 (for an overview of the Arthurs case, see here). After converting, Arthurs remained active on a far-right message board, describing his ideology as “Salafist National Socialism” while also praising ISIS. In the aftermath of the murders, another poster wrote, “He shouldn’t have done what he did but I’m not gonna shit on him for it. Islam openly commands to kill nonbelievers if they are at war with Islam and right now the U.S. is at war with Islam so when American Kuffar die it’s nothing I’ll get upset over.” (quoted here)

Arthurs is not an isolated case. A number of white supremacists from Europe and North America have followed a similar trajectory, seeking an outlet for violence and hatred toward society in far-right militancy, before gravitating toward extremist forms of Islam. “White sharia” has become a far-right rallying cry, even among those who don’t take the final step of converting.

Roy has described the “Islamization of radicalism” where violent rejection of society is channeled on the internet into an Islamic frame of reference provided by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Given the relationship between Islamophobia and Islamic extremism, this phenomenon is certainly reinforced by portrayals of Islam as single-mindedly focused on violent domination and antipathy toward the West.

The circulation and interaction of these discourses mean that they cannot be kept separate, particularly on social media. Whatever his motivations, Chowdhury found something in these anti-Islam sources that fit with his worldview — enough to share them with the undercover agents, who he believed to be like-minded extremists open to this message. Even if his case is more of an outlier than the start of a trend, jihadists making use of far-right and Islamophobic sources adds a new dimension to the toxic stew that drives extremism and further complicates efforts to stop it.

Image: People hold up placards during an anti-Islam protest on January 16, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Nathan Spannaus

Postdoctoral Researcher in Philosophy and Social Sciences at University of Jyväskylä, Finland, specializing in modern Islamic movements.