Those convicted of extremism should not be further demonised, but instead, be taught to reintegrate back into society
ISPEAK on behalf of the vast majority of Muslims when I say: I dread seeing the words “Islamist”, “terrorist” and “attack” plastered across the television screen. Whenever that occurs, I find myself feeling frustrated, disappointed and exceptionally perplexed, especially when the attack is performed by a regular citizen.
When I first began writing this article, I was relieved that it had been a while since a terrorist attack dominated the news for days on end. I spoke too soon: last week, Khalid Masood, a British Muslim convert, ploughed into pedestrians near the British parliament and proceeded to stab a policeman.
The attacker was described by his friends as a “friendly guy”. Yet, a deeper look into his background story reveals a history of violence alongside prison sentences long before his conversion to Islam.
As I write this, Masood’s motivations have not been made clear by British authorities, and, if it was religious radicalisation that prompted his senseless attack, it is not yet confirmed that his radicalisation took place while he was in prison. Nonetheless, the 52-year-old had all the “right” conditions to develop extremist tendencies.
What factors come into play for someone to abandon his family and all sense of rationality to trod down the path of violent religious extremism? Although I have always simply concluded that religious extremists are innately violent and possess warped-up reasoning to begin with, I recently learnt that the making of an Islamist terrorist is not that straightforward.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) Convention in Putrajaya. One of the many esteemed speakers was American Muslim scholar Shaykh Dr Umar F. Abd-Allah. In his talk, he mentioned that there were three elements crucial to our understanding of what triggered radical Islamist thinking — geopolitical, socio-psychological, and ideological contexts.
From a geo-political perspective, violent Islamist radicals are fuelled by rage. Islamic State (IS) members and sympathisers have often witnessed how Western foreign policies have destroyed their countries or other Muslim countries. It is no surprise that the contents of IS propaganda are cunningly created to further aggravate geopolitically rooted sensitivities.
Next comes the socio-psychological context: IS largely targets psychologically vulnerable individuals, such as marginalised youths, especially those with a history of mental health issues. It is also worth noting that many violent extremists and their likes come from abusive homes.
IS functions like a cult; potential recruits are often isolated from their religious communities, families and even society as a whole, so that they can be brainwashed without any external opposition.
Third is the ideological context: Islamist extremists practise a version of Islam that is in defiance to traditional Islamic teachings. This is further backed up by the countless fatwas (religious rulings) against terrorism, released by Muslim scholars globally.
Datuk Dr Afifi Al-Akiti, Oxford Fellow in Islamic Studies, released a fatwa entitled “Defending The Transgressed By Censuring The Reckless Against The Killing of Civilians”, which clearly explains Islam’s firm position against terrorism and the targeting of innocents.
As of last November, 60 Malaysians were reported to have joined IS to fight in the war in Syria. The recruits formed a diverse group consisting of both men and women from different social classes, professions, age groups and marital status.
How did a bunch of our own people slip under our noses to fly across the world to fight in a battle that is not even theirs? But, the bigger question now is: how do we put an end to this?
To rephrase Dr Umar, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to combat Islamist extremism, but instead, we need “creative, multilayered strategies” that are “short, medium and long term”. Although our government certainly has a critical role in curbing this dilemma, so do we.
Islam puts great emphasis on communal values; the welfare of our community is our responsibility. Just as no one should go hungry, no one should go astray either. While it is true that no one bears the sins of another, Muslims have to be proactive in working together to ensure that our brothers and sisters are not susceptible to Islamist extremism by being aware of the elements that fuel radical thinking.
Dr Umar also added that even those convicted of extremism should not be further demonised, but instead rehabilitated and taught to reintegrate back into society.
A fine example of this approach, is that of Sensei Imanul Hakim. Sensei Hakim is an aikido practitioner of 25 years and the founder of Aikikenkyukai Aikido Dojo, Indonesia. He has had success in using the spiritual dimension of the martial arts to rehabilitate youth radicalised by terrorism by appealing to their hearts.
I would like to end this article with an authentic which I learnt at the RIS convention that perfectly sums up why extremism should be avoided by all Muslims. Ibn Abbas narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Beware of extremism in religion, for the only thing that destroyed those before you was extremism in religion.”
Muslim men holding flowers as they stand in line on Westminster Bridge during an event to mark one week since the terror attack by Khalid Masood in London.