The brutal nature and wide geographic scope of the terror attacks by Daesh in recent weeks that killed over 400 innocent people in Sinai, Beirut, Baghdad and Paris have once again sparked a frantic quest by befuddled intelligence agencies and analysts throughout the world to answer several important and related questions: Why do these Muslims kill in the name of their religion?
Why do they strike at home and abroad? What do they want? How should the world deal with them?
I was in the United States on 9/11 and watched first-hand the perplexed response to Al Qaeda’s criminal attacks among the American public and political circles. Its main fault then, which we may be seeing repeated in the response to Daesh today in France and other countries, is to emphasize the Islamic religious dimension of these terrorists while not sufficiently acknowledging the political, social, national, and economic dimensions of the relatively small number of people who join or support such groups in the Arab world, or among communities in the West. Misdiagnosing such terrorists as primarily a religious problem leads to the ineffective policy of military force and counter-terror tactics, which have only seen Al Qaeda expand in recent years and Daesh come to life following the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003.
The brutal nature of Daesh’s crimes should not cloud our rational capacity to retrace the steps by which it and other such terrorist groups came into being in the last few decades. This is a movement with a core of just thousands of young, desperate, rootless men whose political/economic conditions in their home societies have radicalized them to the extent that they seek to achieve two main goals: to challenge and destroy the prevailing local and global order that has tormented them and to create a new society that offers them — as they see it — the order, justice, opportunity and righteousness under Islam that they have not experienced in their lives.
The fact that they must resort to brutality and intimidation in their own so-called “Islamic State,” and the terror they unleash against foreigners, confirm that their plan for an Islamic State, leading to a new Caliphate and the messianic apocalypse they anticipate, is widely rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Arab world and abroad.
Their own intemperate and violent interpretation of Islam finds as much support among Muslims as abortion clinic bombers and Ku Klux Klan members find among American Christians, i.e., just handfuls of people here and there, with other supporters further afield who cheer from a distance, because they share the bombers’ grievances, but not their violent means.
Polling evidence in Arab countries in recent years repeatedly shows majorities of citizens rejecting Daesh’s extreme interpretation of the Islam.
The fact that many of Daesh’s leaders and senior operatives are former intelligence officers in the Baathist machine that ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein is one sign of the political, rather than religious, motivations of many Daesh recruits. Another important insight into the real nature of such terrorist organizations is the extremely wide variety of reasons — personal, political, psychological, national, historical, socio-economic, and religious — that attract those few thousands of Muslims among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Rather than a pure religious phenomenon, Daesh, and the likes of it, in practice are a catch-all escape and instant solution to the wide range of problems that frenzied people experience in their lives.
Daesh offers its adherents a new fulfilling life, but the catch is that it never delivers. The brain-wash mechanism used by Daesh relies heavily on luring people via carefully carved religious texts because religion by nature resonates so deeply with subjugated people who have no political means to improve their life conditions. Daesh further promises its impoverished followers financial comfort to pull them in, proving that had its way been the right one, it would not have had to bribe individuals.
Politically minded adherents often join such groups to redress history’s crimes against them, in their eyes, like Arab states’ borders drawn by colonial powers, repeated and continuing foreign military attacks against Muslims, etc. A few youth also probably join terrorist groups for adventure and thrills, or to rebel against family and social constraints, as youth do everywhere.
These reasons have nothing to do with religion directly, and much to do with desperate human beings seeking a better life that is promised in a religious package by such opportunist terrorist groups. Their desperation, however, hides the reality that Daesh is unlikely to provide what they seek, but that is the way of zealots who inhabit imagined worlds their minds create.
The religious veneer provides them with convincing justification and moral legitimacy, especially because Daesh, Al Qaeda, Nusra Front and others of the sort have selectively used the rich and varied theological texts and traditions of Islam to offer one narrow, harsh, and exclusivist version of Islam as they see it, and they apply in the lands they control.
Learned Muslim scholars routinely challenge and counter the terrorists’ arguments by pointing out the many Quranic exhortations, and examples from the Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) life, to respect life and pursue justice and mercy. Islam considers killing an innocent person as a great sin. Quran 5:32 explicitly notes “he who unrightfully kills an innocent life, it is as if he has killed all mankind. And if anyone gives life to another person, it is as if he has given life to all mankind.”
The fact that the majority of Daesh and Nusra Front victims have been other Muslims, also suggests that their real motivation deviates far from the consensus forms of Islam that most Muslims practice in their daily lives.
The four most recent terror attacks troublingly confirm that Daesh can do this by using individuals or small cells of followers in other countries. This emphasizes the need to go beyond attacking such terrorist groups militarily, by eradicating the underlying structural reasons for discontent and alienation among citizens, across the world.
It would be the highest expression of Western liberalism and enlightenment now to reject the knee-jerk tendency to see Islamic extremism as the core problem that must be resolved through fierce military strikes, and instead acknowledge that modern history shaped by regional dictatorships and foreign powers has transformed small numbers of ordinary men and women into savage killers. The world must work together to reverse those dynamics that created such killers, and resume the Arab-Islamic world’s historic legacy of seeking to implement the divine dictates of justice, peace and humanism through the civic mechanisms of decent governance that meets the basic needs of people who have clearly expressed their rejection of terrorism’s false promises, fanaticism, and cruel fantasies.