Chasing the Ghosts of Violent Extremism in the Middle East
Charles Kurzman, “Chasing the Ghosts of Violent Extremism in the Middle East,” May 1, 2018. Briefing for Samuel Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
What are the primary sources of violent extremist ideologies in the Middle East today?
The primary sources of violent extremist ideologies in the Middle East today are … ghosts.
They are dead but still with us. They float through borders and walls, disembodied, on the internet and social media. They haunt us with threats of revenge:
Anwar al-Awlaki, the most influential authority on revolutionary violence among English-speaking Muslims, who was killed by an American drone strike in 2011, but still recruits operatives with his videos.
Osama Bin Laden, the visionary poet of Islamist revolution, who was killed by Navy Seals seven years ago tomorrow, but still appears in the dreams of would-be martyrs.
Sayyid Qutb, the revolutionary intellectual, who was executed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, but is still a best-seller among Islamists.
Ibn Taymiyya, the classic scholar of Islamic purity and rebellion, who died in prison seven centuries ago, but returned from the grave as the most widely cited authority among Islamist revolutionaries of the 21st century.
The message these ghosts deliver is that Islam must be saved from annihilation. In Ibn Taymiyya’s time, the threat was Mongol invasion. Later the threat was European imperialism, then atheistic socialism. In recent decades, the threat is military intervention and cultural onslaught by the United States and its allies.
These allies include Muslims who adopt Western ways, who make money with Western business partners, and who cooperate with Western security forces to lock up or kill anyone who objects.
The revolutionaries insist that with Islam in existential danger, the message of God requires Muslims to take extraordinary measures:
In times like these, revolutionaries view the sacred verses on slaying the enemy, wherever they may be hiding, as outweighing the sacred verses on peaceful coexistence.
They say that in times like these, sacred verses on enforcing virtue outweigh sacred verses on obedience to authority.
They say that in times like these, sacred verses on defense of faith outweigh sacred verses that forbid suicide.
They say that in times like these, Muslims who disagree with them are not really Muslims, but traitors to the faith – despite sacred verses reserving judgment for God alone.
These are fringe positions in Islam. How fringe? Well, in the days after 9/11, virtually every Muslim leader in the world, clerical and secular, denounced the attacks and rejected the religious reasoning behind them. Again in 2014, when the “Islamic State” was proclaimed, virtually every Muslim leader in the world, clerical and secular, denounced it. Out of a billion and a half Muslims, the revolutionaries have never been able to recruit more than a hundredth of one percent for their cause.
Still, that one hundredth of one percent adds up to a fair bit of mayhem: tens of thousands of young Muslims have been inspired to kill and be killed. In the past decade, Islamist revolutionaries have taken over major cities in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, and elsewhere. They have trained or inspired revolutionaries to kidnap schoolgirls in Nigeria, blow up an airport in Belgium, massacre worshippers at a mosque they disapproved of in Egypt, run over pedestrians in New York City – hundreds of attacks each year, all over the world.
But the good news is, the ghosts are fading. The message is losing its appeal. The revolutionaries can’t recruit enough followers to replace the ones who die or defect as they lose territory.
Today’s revolutionary leaders, such as Ayman Zawahiri of al-Qa’ida and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself caliph of the so-called “Islamic State,” are unattractive and uninspiring. They can’t compete with Muslim televangelists and motivational speakers who preach a gospel of prosperity. Young Muslims – even devout young Muslims who feel Islam is in danger – are turning to nonviolent campaigns of personal piety rather than revolutionary violence.
Let’s look at the numbers: In 2014, at the height of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State,” fatalities from terrorism peaked at approximately 100 per day—outside of the world’s 10 most dangerous civil war zones, the total was under 20 per day. These figures are from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland’s START Center. Since 2014, fatalities from terrorism have dropped about 10 percent each year. By way of comparison, approximately 1,300 people died each day from civilian violence, according to data from the World Health Organization, plus an additional 400 from warfare and 1,200 from malnutrition. Even in civil war zones, civilians are more likely to be killed by government airstrikes and troops than by revolutionary cells and militias. The largest ratio is probably in Myanmar, where Rohingya casualties in villages and concentration camps are thousands of times higher than Burmese casualties at the hands of Rohingya militants.
In Europe and North America, the revolutionaries have resorted to low-tech, do-it-yourself attacks that require little or no training, such as shooting people in public places or driving a truck on the sidewalk, but they can’t generate more than about one attack per month.
Islamist revolutionaries are very upset about this. A decade ago, Bin Laden worried that Muslims are like “sheep in the flock” who “hope that the wolves will stop killing them, but their prayers go unanswered. … Can any rational person fail to see how they are misguided in hoping for this? This is our own state of affairs.”
A more recent example: Several months ago, the online newspaper of the “Islamic State” bemoaned a “disease of weakness whose final result will be the supremacy of the enemy over the Muslims.” The newspaper cited a hadith – an eyewitness account of the first years of Islam – that is popular among revolutionaries. According to this account, the Prophet Muhammad foretold a time “when nations will surround you from every side, just as diners gather around the main dish.” Muslims will be numerous, but weak, “like the scum of the flood, and the cause of all that is the love of life and hatred of death.”
The great mass of Muslims love life and hate death, and Islamist revolutionaries think of them as scum. Fortunately for the world, the feeling is mutual.
More evidence on these trends is available in The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press). A revised edition of the book, updated for the age of ISIS, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2018.