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What Does Violent Extremism Have to Do With Islam?

Words: Zuri Linetsky
Pictures: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

In his September 19, 2017 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump referred to Muslims and Islam on four separate occasions. Three of those were in relation to “Islamic extremism” and “Islamic terrorism.” The President’s use of language in this speech as well as in others suggests that he and his foreign policy entourage believe violent extremism and Islam are innately linked. Unfortunately, the links between religion, violent extremism and terrorism are not at all clear.

In 3,910 quantitative interviews I led in northeast Nigeria, people surveyed indicated that religion was not the factor driving young men to join Boko Haram; it was a lack of economic and professional opportunity. In fact, many young Nigerian men have actually been recruited into Boko Haram through business networks, wherein Boko Haram entices support by providing young men with loans or the promise of capital for entrepreneurial activities.

The reasons why the President might link Islam and terrorism, however, are not wholly unreasonable. Data from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) suggests that while the absolute number of conflicts in Muslim majority countries has not increased significantly over time, civil conflicts in Muslim majority countries make up a larger share of all civil wars globally because the number of conflicts in non-Muslim countries has declined in relative terms. Additionally, conflicts in majority Muslim states tend to be fought by groups mobilizing esoteric interpretations of the faith, which also seek to internationalize their conflicts. The information age has made it easier to internationalize conflicts through the articulation of transnational ideas, messaging via social media, and the relative accessibility of modern war zones. These facts might bias one’s perspective when discussing violent extremism in today’s world.

However, the factors driving people to fight in both Muslim-majority and non-Muslim majority countries are generally considered to be similar, they include but are not limited to: poverty, social inequality, social marginalization, joblessness and poor governance. While religion and ideology do play some role in extremist recruitment, when accounting for other factors like poverty, social inequality and corruption, the impact of religious ideas is often muted. In fact, open questions remain as to why groups espousing harshly dogmatic interpretations of Islam have proliferated, and how they are able to mobilize religious ideas despite the fact that most Muslims globally report high levels of disdain for groups like ISIS.

The role of religion in violent extremism is usefully discussed when analyzing the foreign fighter phenomenon. Foreign fighters are believed to be more ideologically committed to their religious dogmas and garner more attention for their spectacular acts of brutality when compared to local members of violent extremist organizations. But, even amongst foreign fighters religious ideas are bound up with issues of poverty, marginalization and joblessness.

Data from several ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East further complicates the proposed relationship between religion and violent extremism. While religion is often used as an instrumental language through which violent extremists can communicate with discrete communities, the appeal of violent groups is often economic and utilitarian in nature, not the result of deep-seeded ideological commitments.

In the West Bank, four working mothers, all of whom were practicing Muslims, categorically rejected the idea that they would support their child’s choice to join Hamas, Fatah or any other Palestinian militant organization.

In four interviews with security experts in Mogadishu conducted in April 2017, interviewees reported that religion was not a key factor in motivating Al Shabaab fighters. Instead, the security experts indicated that many fighters in south-central Somalia were nationalist Somalis fighting against foreign intervention in their country; religion was used instrumentally to build common language to work through clan divides. This view on religion is in line with recent academic research. Aisha Ahmad argues, the impact of religion and ethnic identity is likely overstated in terms of its impact on popular support for Al Shabaab. Indeed, Ahmad finds that the price of security offered by religiously inspired militants to the Somali business community was lower than the competing price offered by secular warlords. Support for Al Shabaab is directly related to its ability to provide security for business operations, and the relatively low remuneration they demand from the business community. Therefore, if a secular group could offer security to Somali business owners at a lower price than that offered by Islamists, the latter’s income as well as recruitment networks would rapidly contract, thereby undermining their power in Somalia.

In the West Bank, four working mothers, all of whom were practicing Muslims, categorically rejected the idea that they would support their child’s choice to join Hamas, Fatah or any other Palestinian militant organization. All interviewees said that they wanted their children to be educated and have professional opportunities beyond what was currently available to them. In an interview with a community member inside the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, Palestine, a respondent noted that community members were more concerned with maintaining the economic stability they had, rather than joining militant groups, regardless of the fact that weapons and ammunition are widely accessible.

Indeed, armed men unaffiliated with Palestinian security services were visible, openly walking through the camp. In Hamas-run Gaza Sara Roy recently reported that if Israel offered young Gazan’s the opportunity to work in the Strip, support for Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad Din al-Qassam Brigades would evaporate. The disproportionately well-educated and young population in Gaza prefers to earn a sustainable living rather than have their lives routinely upended as a result of a new round of conflict between Israel and Hamas. Indeed, existing analyses have noted the common security, economic and political benefits if Gaza were afforded more economic opportunity.

Furthermore, the United Nations Development Programme’s 2017 report, Journey to Extremism directly questions the notion that Islam and violent extremism are innately linked. In fact, while the study acknowledges that 51% of survey respondents believed that religious ideologies were the primary factor pushing people towards extremist groups, it also found that more years of religious schooling might actually be a factor mitigating recruitment into violent extremist organizations.

While the data above are from select conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, history suggests that the ties between violent extremism and religion are unsubstantiated. Several of the most sophisticated and violent militant organizations in the post World War II world had no ties to religion. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the organization that effectively pioneered the modern suicide bombing, and who, in conjunction with the government of Sri Lanka, were responsible for between 80 and 100 thousand deaths over a twenty-seven-year war, were Marxists. The National Liberation Front in Vietnam (derisively known as the Viet Cong), who were directly responsible for ending the American military commitment to South Vietnam, were Communists. Peru’s Shining Path was a Communist organization that was implicated in some 35,000 deaths during its conflict with the government. The list of violent militant organizations with non-religious ideologies is lengthy (over 200 cases 1808-2017), and in many cases these ideologies were only a small part of why violent militant groups multiplied. Indeed, in some cases their ideologies restrained the violence they engaged in.

There is little clear evidence tying religion, let alone Islam, to violent extremism and it is irresponsible for the President to connect the two. Doing so feeds into Islamophobia in the US and abroad. More importantly, it feeds into a narrative those who exploit Islam to recruit people into violence need to grow their networks: the United States is focused on waging war against the Muslim world and the American President unequivocally said that all Muslims are terrorists during his speech at the United Nations. This President need look only to his National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General HR McMaster for guidance when discussing violent extremism in the context of US foreign policy. General McMaster is a bastion of firsthand knowledge related to the value of nuance, community relationships and ignoring specious obvious ties between Islam and militancy. Indeed, local nuance and relationships between communities are essential to countering violent extremism and securing the American homeland from similar future threats.

Zuri Linetsky


Zuri Linetsky (@ZuriLinetsky) is a Truman Project National Security Fellow, and a nonresident fellow at the Global Policy Center at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.


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