The law students society at York University’s Osgoode Hall organized a panel discussion on the politics of “deradicalization” this Thursday and brought together some well-informed Muslim voices: Faisal Kutty (scholar, law), Kathy Bullock (scholar, politics and Islam), and Yasin Dwyer (chaplain).
Several important points were raised, but all were relatively critical of how the issue of radicalization is perceived and talked about these days (especially after the October shooting).
The “culturalist” tendency to fixate solely on the religion of radicalized individuals was critiqued thoroughly, as it doesn’t address the well-established fact that almost all those who engage in terrorism is motivated first-and-foremost by a political cause. Issues like poverty, mental illness, and social alienation also seem to play a role at some point, depending on the individuals’ circumstances. Having imams talking to troubled individuals simply about religion isn’t going to do the job in most of these cases. The culturalist approach suggests that the Islamic religion is intrinsically “designed” to lead its readers to violence. This is false. Yet, when it comes to recommendations of how “radical narratives” can be countered, the political nature of individual motivations are never fully addressed.
The more interesting and complicated point raised by the speakers had primarily to do with language and definitions. “Radicalization” has been defined by some law enforcement groups by “tell-tale” signs that look like nothing more than the behaviours exhibited by peaceful Muslims. For instance, if a person believes that a caliphate should be established, it doesn’t mean that s/he is “radicalizing” to the point of committing a crime. Believing in a caliphate, a very anachronistic/idealistic view (not common), sounds scary and dark, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the believer endorses terrorism or violence. The Ottoman empire was referred to as a caliphate by many Muslims until the end of WWI. Some believe that a similar entity should exist today to anchor the Muslim world (good luck with that one), but it doesn’t mean they support the utterly depraved ways of, say, ISIS, which also foolishly calls itself a caliphate. (Suffice it to say that they don’t really qualify.)
Other “tell-tale” signs may seem more sinister. A Muslim person may be expressing some very exclusivist views of Islam in a way that prompts many to label him/her as a “salafi/wahhabi.” This is like the kiss of death because, in common post-9/11 parlance, nothing good can possibly come from these religious/ideological orientations. They are, in our contemporary discourse, intrinsic vehicles for ignorance and violence. But ignorant as some of its adherents are, not all salafis or wahhabis take after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Not all are violent or advocate terrorism. For instance, the Saudi wahhabi state scholars were giving fatwa against suicide bombing long before 9/11. One may vehemently disagree with many of their literalist and exclusivist interpretations of Islamic scripture, but we have to be fair here.
Yes, the vast majority of those who join Al-Qaeda or ISIS self-identify as salafis, etc, but it’s important to note here that these people are a very tiny fraction of salafis–most of whom are much more obsessed with ritual and are politically disengaged/quiescent. The real problem is that since these ideological sects within Islam can very easily be used to judge/exclude Muslims who don’t conform to certain ritualistic strictures, it’s very easy for these sects to be enjoined with violent political ideologies/acts. Returning Western state terrorism with Muslim terrorism is a lot easier to justify if one can misappropriate salafism or wahhabism in a way that okays the killing of those who don’t conform to a specific type of “Muslim.” But it does not then follow that those who espouse such exclusivist “salafist” views automatically take up arms and want to exterminate people. Studies show that they need a political grievance (or more personal factors, like mental illness) to even be open to committing those kinds of violent crimes. Religious belief alone is not enough.
One can think “radical” thoughts and still be peaceful. Today, opposing Western occupation and encroachment alone can qualify a person as a “radical.” Since Western countries take freedom of speech and thought very seriously, then Muslims who think or say outrageously exclusivist things should also be protected under the speech laws. Unless they’re actively or specifically inciting violence (very rare), then their speech should be protected. There have been times in the US and Canada when white supremacists and (alleged, given the link used here) anti-Semites have been protected under free speech legislation. The few “salafis/wahhabis” who hold similar/equivalent view should be treated in the same vein.
Photo (from left): Kathy Bullock, Yasin Dwyer, Faisal Bahbha (moderator), Faisal Kutty
Photo Credit: Steven Zhou