Western Europe is still reeling from the terrorist attacks that struck Paris on the evening of Friday, November 13, killing 129 people and injuring over 300 more, many critically. Political leaders are discussing appropriate responses to follow up on France’s initial airstrike against Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State that has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Details are emerging about the eight gunmen who carried out the attacks, all in their 20s or 30s. They appear to include at least five French citizens, including the Abdeslam brothers, Salah and Brahim, who lived in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, described by Belgian authorities as a “breeding ground for jihadists.” Two others were born and bred in Paris, the target of their attacks. Another of the terrorists was a Syrian national who appears to have arrived in Greece and registered as a refugee in October.[i]
An obvious question that arises from the above details is the motivation of the eight young Muslim terrorists. US Secretary of State John Kerry offered an answer:
They are in fact psychopathic monsters and there is nothing, nothing civilized about them. So this is not a case of one civilization pitted against another. This is a battle between civilization itself and barbarism and fascism. Both at the same time.[ii]
This analysis is wildly off-target, completely ignoring any religious dimension to the motivation of Muslim terrorists. The fact that a US government official of Kerry’s stature and influence could so misunderstand the situation is itself a matter of great concern.
What are the factors that led these young Muslim men to undertake such violent acts, and what are the factors that are driving so many other young Muslims to commit themselves to fight for the Islamic State caliphate?
Elements in the radicalization process
There is a central idea fuelling Muslim youth radicalization: young Muslims travelling this path are following a particular conceptual role model that praises activism for Islam, jihadi militancy, and death for the sake of Allah. A range of intersecting elements underlie this core idea.
The first is the problem of radical preachers in some mosques, as revealed in the “Undercover Mosque” series of documentaries produced for Dispatches in the UK some years ago.[iii] It is very likely that some mosques and their preachers attended by the Paris attackers, especially in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, were a source of some of their radical ideas.
The subversive role of such preachers is exacerbated by easy access to radical Islamic websites and social media sites. Jihadi groups such as the Islamic State are very skilled at hooking impressionable young minds through social media. From time to time such sites are banned by governments, but others quickly emerge in their place. Such websites create the ingredients for a further key element reinforcing the radicalized role model: a peer group of real-life and virtual radicalized youth which adds fuel to the pressures on young Muslims.
Sadly, parents sometimes also provide a radicalized role model. The father of one of the much discussed 15-year-old jihadi brides from Bethnal Green in London who joined the Islamic State in Syria was filmed taking a very active part in one protest led by the notorious radical preacher Anjem Choudary.[iv] Many young Muslims are brought up in family contexts where rabid anti-Westernism is a key part of family discourse. This is likely to have been the case in the Abdeslam family, which provided two of the participants in the Paris attacks.
A further radicalization role model for young Muslims is provided by the prophet of Islam himself. Muhammad is a complex character, but during the last 10 years of his life in the city of Medina, Islamic sources, such as the prophetic traditions or Hadith and the authoritative biography of Muhammad or Sira, record that he developed the doctrine of jihad, plundered trading caravans, sanctioned the beheading of perceived enemies, and endorsed forced concubinage.
How to respond to the radicalization process
So what can be done to prevent the radicalization of Muslim youth in the West, and thereby to prevent attacks such as recently took place in Paris? To some extent, responses can be linked with the above factors producing radicalization.
First, there should be a mechanism for monitoring sermons in mosques which have a history of questionable preaching. This practice is already followed in some countries, including Muslim countries, such as in Singapore, Pakistan, and Egypt.[v]
Second, radical preachers should be prosecuted and, where possible, deported, as was the case with Abu Qatada, who was expelled from the UK to Jordan,[vi] and Abu Hamzah al-Masri, who was extradited from the UK to the United States to face terrorism charges.[vii] At the same time, Western governments should take steps to limit access to radical websites. Civil libertarians will be uncomfortable with any suggestion of censorship of sermons or websites, but these are unusual problems that require extraordinary solutions.
Furthermore, citizenship should be withdrawn from dual nationals found guilty of involvement in radical groups, as is being explored by Australia and France.[viii] This should also apply to parents involved in radicalization of their children. At the same time, there is an urgent need for re-education programs for returning jihadis and their brides.
Finally, moderate Muslim leadership needs to address the elephant in the room: the role of Muhammad as a model for jihadi activism. This issue is barely touched upon in public discourse and, when it is broached, it is usually addressed in hushed tones and from an oblique angle. But there is little doubt that radical Muslim youth look ultimately to the example of their prophet during his years in Medina. It cries out for a full and free discussion.
As for Christian responses, the church must work with government and other social institutions in addressing this crisis along the above lines. The potent cocktail of ingredients that lead young Muslim youth down the path of radicalization debunks a simplistic explanation that has been popular amongst church people, namely, that Muslim youth radicalization simply results from their alienation from majority society, which must bear the major responsibility for the result. No other marginalized religious minority community produces hostile and radicalized youth in this way. Islam is a special case, a fact that should be acknowledged and acted upon by church and state alike.
[i] “5 Terrorists Identified, One by Shot-Off Finger,” November 15, 2015, RT Website, https://www.rt.com/news/322155-paris-terrorists-identities-revealed/ (accessed November 18, 2015).
[ii] Nahal Toosi and Eliza Collins, “Kerry Calls Paris Attackers ‘Psychopathic Monsters,’” November 16, 2015, Politico, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/john-kerry-paris-visit-215941 (accessed November 18, 2015).
[iii] Ole Olsen, Dispatches – Undercover Mosque, February 5, 2011, https://vimeo.com/19598947 (accessed November 18, 2015).
[iv] Jake Wallis Simons and Chris Greenwood, “Exclusive: Father Who Blamed Police for Not Stopping his Daughter Joining ISIS Attended 2012 Rally Led by Hate Preacher Anjem Choudary and Attended by Lee Rigby Killer,” March 26, 2015, Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3013703/Father-jihadi-bride-schoolgirl-attended-2012-Islamist-rally-attended-Lee-Rigby-s-killer-led-preacher-Anjem-Choudary.html (accessed November 18, 2015).
[v] Khalid Hasnain, “MYC to Monitor Friday Sermons in Mosques,” May 27, 2015, Dawn, http://www.dawn.com/news/1184519 (accessed November 18, 2015); Christa Case Bryant, “Islam, scripted: Egypt Reins in Friday Sermons at Mosque,” April 28, 2014, Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2014/0428/Islam-scripted-Egypt-reins-in-Friday-sermons-at-mosque (accessed November 18, 2015).
[vi] “Abu Qatada Deported from UK to Stand Trial in Jordan,” July 7, 2013, BBC Website, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-23213740 (accessed November 18, 2015).
[vii] “Radical Cleric Abu Hamza Jailed for Life by US Court,” January 9, 2015, BBC Website, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30754959 (accessed November 18, 2015).
[viii] James Bennett, Eliza Borrello, and Chris Uhlmann, “Government Promises Laws to Strip Citizenship from Dual-Nationality Terrorists Within Weeks, Amid Debate within Cabinet,” May 26, 2015, ABC Website, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-26/government-promises-laws-to-strip-citizenship-from-terrorists/6498300 (accessed November 18, 2015); “France to Strip 5 ‘Terrorists’ of Nationality,” October 6, 2015, The Local, http://www.thelocal.fr/20151006/france-to-strip-nationality-from-five-terrorists (accessed November 18, 2015).