Over the past several years, innocent people the world over have endured blow after blow: Islamist terrorist attacks from San Bernardino to Beirut, Paris, London and now Barcelona and more. Children have seen blood pour into the aisles of concert venues, colleagues have watched their peers slaughtered, and families have lost everything at the hands of ISIS, aka the Islamic State.
There is no denying that the ISIS monster is committed to destroying innocents in its path and taking as many lives as it can – and relishes every time its savagery and carnage dominate the headlines.
Sadly, this is the same tail we chase with the rise of each radical Islamist terror group in what has become a global whack-a-mole program. As we were on the verge of decimating al-Qaeda, the violent jihadist brand shifted to ISIS. Without treating the real root cause of theocratic Islamism, any chance of decimating ISIS will disappear as the global terror movement shifts to the latest “brand” of violent jihad.
ISIS didn’t begin as the multinational, heavily armed force for violent jihadist terror that it is today. It began as a cluster of radicals who, around 1999, were on the fringes of the jihadist movement. Many of them over time likely affiliated with the militant jihadist flavor of the month or year from al-Qaeda (in North Africa and the Middle East) to al-Shabaab (in Somalia) to Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban (Afghanistan, Pakistan and India).
Given the time to fester and indoctrinate vulnerable young men across the planet in particular, ISIS’ jihadism was expanding by 2003 as al-Qaeda, and wreaking havoc on the international stage as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq unfolded. Now more than a decade later, with the Arab Awakening’s opportunities to confront the despotism that fed these ideologies, and instead finding the growing vacuums of failed revolutions against the twin tyrannies of Arabism and Islamism, radical Islamists have capitalized on increasing chaos, and their recruitment only increases in the wake of carnage both online and in person.
There was no greater opportunity than the Arab Awakening to defeat jihadism by ending the regimes that fueled Islamist ideology in their open-air prisons, but at the same time the complete collapse of civil society has created vacuums that only benefit militants. So we must first, again, militarily usher in the decimation and end of ISIS before looking at more wholly treating the root cause.
Make no mistake: As soon as ISIS is decimated, the global jihadist movement will find other means to advance its ambition for an Islamic state and a caliphate. Like a virus, Islamist ideology in both its militant and non-violent forms will find vectors aplenty among the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Non-violent Islamism, the precursor for militant Islamism, encompasses major mass theo-political movements across the global Muslim consciousness.
So it is because these militant groups often begin with one or a few individuals, deeply empowered by malignant theocratic interpretations of religion, that we must talk about more than their bloodletting and violence. We must talk about the very root of the issue: the spark that is Islamism – a theo-political ideology devoted to the subjugation of any and all people who challenge the goal of an Islamic state.
We must uncover information about those so-called moderates who don’t seek to promote a peaceful, pluralistic interpretation of Islam, but who, like “celebrity imam” Siraj Wahhaj, claim to be peaceful while actually wishing for the Koran to replace the US constitution.
We must publicly discuss the fact that too many Muslims in the public eye are preaching hate, misogyny, intolerance, racism and bigotry both at the pulpit and in the streets, all while refusing to condemn the doctrine of armed jihad, frivolous lawfare against freedom of expression, and ideologies like anti-Semitism.
Young people from Connecticut to Chechnya are radicalized in their local communities and online, talking not just to ISIS sympathizers, but to jihadist groups and sympathizers in London, New York, and elsewhere. Youth whose parents and spiritual leaders fail to instill in them a sense of their own identity (be it American, French, or otherwise), and/or who don’t teach them the difference between personal piety and theocracy, or who shame them into archaic, malignant understandings of gender relations, which often leads to violence on a larger scale.
How radicalization works is at once complicated and simple.
On the complicated side of things, there are vast funding networks along with massive political machinery pumping hatred, victim-mindset thinking, revivalist thought and supremacist philosophy into the minds of Muslims and would-be Muslims. These systems will take a Herculean effort to dismantle.
On the simpler side, everyday Muslims and our neighbors are subjected to radicalizing materials, more subtle forms of Islamist thought and the “us versus them” mentality of the contemporary Muslim community. Many well-intentioned people, seeking to help Muslims during tense times, simply sign up to help the wrong groups, thinking the only filter should be condemnation of violence.
These things will not be easy to undo, but they are things regular people can challenge – they are things they must challenge. For example, if Muslims express concerns about a young, dynamic preacher who seems to be spouting radical rhetoric and gaining a following – they must be listened to.
Someone like Anwar al-Awlaki was not born as he died: He became that monster, and was allowed to – even empowered to, enjoying invitations to lead prayers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and offer lectures to audiences large and small. He became a lead global radicalizer after being radicalized himself by innumerable precursor ideologues.
In our local communities, gender disparities in mosques, unchecked censorship of freedom of expression, and the unsupervised use of social media by children and very young adults create a breeding ground for malignant interpretations of Islam to take hold. We must all confront and expose with the antiseptic of sunlight any and all ideas that conflict with modernity and the modern liberal democratic state.