Islam plays no significant role in extremist recruitment

Islam plays no significant role in extremist recruitment
Comment: It is poverty and a lust for revenge that drives people into the arms of armed movements, writes Usaid Saddiqui.
5 min read
23 May, 2016
Personal loss and trauma have driven some Syrian youth to join Muslim extremist groups [Getty]

new reportWhy Young Syrians Choose to Fight, sheds light on the tragic involvement of thousands of Syrian youth joining extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's local affiliate.

The report, produced by the NGO International Alert, asserts that lack of economic opportunities, experiences of violence, and deteriorating education facilities and infrastructure are significant reasons behind choosing a life of armed conflict.

On the flip side, as the report puts it, factors that help prevent young Syrians linking up with extremist groups include strong social networks, alternative sources of income, a decent livelihood "and avenues for exercising agency and non-violent activism".

The research confirms previous work done on the radicalisation phenomenon that social, material and political reasons are all more likely motivations for individuals, especially those in conflict zones, to commit to religious extremist groups - rather than fulfilling a religious duty.

Politics, not religion

"There was never really discussion about texts or - it was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion," said Didier Francois, a French journalist who was held hostage by IS for more than 10 months, about the spiritual convictions of his captors. "We didn't even have the Quran; they didn't want even to give us a Quran," he added.

Similar to Francois' observations, other journalists and scholars have also concluded that groups such as IS are more motivated by power and influence rather than their claims of fighting in the name of Islam. Many of their tactics and horrific acts have been denounced across the Muslim world repeatedly.

The Baath party was no friend of religious organisations

"Islamic State's acts of brutality, in the form of crucifixions, decapitations and burnings, are more a product of the group's Baathist past than any millenarian or religious ideology," said Nathan Gonzalez Mendelejis of the Truman National Security Project.

It is well known that the core IS leadership consists of mainly Baathists, former military officials who served under the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussain. The Baath party was no friend of religious organisations, and was in many ways similar to the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Since 2011, when non-violent protests against Bashar Al-Assad turned ugly - as the ruling regime responded to demonstrations with brutal force - many were forced to take sides leaving little room for peaceful action or demonstrations.

In his book Inside Syria, renowned journalist Reese Elrich notes that many towns formed local militias to defend their neighbourhoods from regime forces.

Elrich adds that, once the civil war had come into full force, foreign funding from other Middle East countries started trickling in. Many insurgent groups sought to gain access to the money by appealing to the "religious sensibilities" of donors.

While Elrich admits that there are some ultra-conservative individuals in the ranks, many in the Free Syrian Army, for example, appear religious to gain favour with their foreign funders.

The International Alert report's authors found that violence, personal loss and trauma were some of the factors behind many Syrian youths joining Muslim extremist groups; the regime onslaught and its consequences for many Syrian should not be "understated", the report states.

One interviewee in Aleppo told the researchers that "over 90 percent of Syrian youth seek revenge due to the death of their family members, and this is what prompts them to join [in the] violence".

Another Syrian interviewed by the researchers in Turkey added: "Many Syrians want to get revenge against the regime for destroying their families, houses, lives and everything else. [The Nusra Front] actually fights the regime and now offers the best chance to get that revenge."

The researchers note that in this shared antagonism towards the regime, alliances between secular and Islamist groups are not a rarity.

These responses, however, do not suggest that religion does not dictate some of the decisions in the lives of these youth or the thousands who choose to join IS or Nusra. Islam being the dominant religion in Syria, with approximately 90 percent of the population adherents - 70 percent of which are Sunni - it serves as a vehicle to articulate and make sense of the present situation in the country.

With a total breakdown of social and institutional networks, or a lack thereof due to decades of authoritarian rule, organising life goals and ideas using religious principles is not surprising.

As one Syrian youth indicated in the International Alert report: "Most Syrian youth started to become extremists after the regime sectarian practices. Because of the ongoing shelling, youth became more religious for fear of sudden death."

Another youth said that, before the uprising, his ambitions were to "establish a family, a job and live in stability". Since the war broke out, his objective, he says, has changed - as "martyrdom" and supporting his faith remain more important to him now.

Most recruits were convinced by families and friends, not radicalised at a mosques

Religious literacy

A 2008 report produced by British spy agency MI5 and revealed to The Guardian asserted that most of those who committed terrorist acts in Britain lacked any concrete knowledge of Islam, and could be termed "religious novices".

A study by professors from University of North Carolina (UNC) and Duke University conducted in 2010 found that offenders "in religiously inspired terrorism have little formal training in Islam and, in fact, are poorly educated about Islam".

Similar observations have been made about foreign recruits who are shown to possess little knowledge of the faith. Research has shown that most recruits were convinced by families and friends, not radicalised at a mosques where one would potentially seek religious knowledge. In fact, as Charles Kruzman of UNC argues, attending mosques has shown to have a positive impact on individuals, making them less inclined to have violent tendencies.

Hence access to education - both religious and secular - stable income avenues and ending wars will serve as better antidotes to reduce the nihilistic violence we have come to witness. Dwelling on faith or advocating its reform to find a solution is a futile exercise.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.