An inside view of the largest mosque complex in Western Europe, Oct. 2, 2003, at Morden, London. The mosque built by the Ahmadiyya Muslims is called the Baitul Futuh Mosque, can hold up to 10,000 worshippers, and was inaugurated on Oct. 3, 2003.
Op-Ed, Sunday Herald
August 9, 2009
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Unveiling a bold new plan to tackle the radicalism that was born in Bosnia and culminated in a shocking attack on Glasgow Airport
THE DAWN of the 21st century has not been a quiet one. Over the past decade, as we have become familiar with the threat posed by terrorism and extremism, we have had to search for ways of combating these forces. So what have we learned? There is, it seems, bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is only so much you can do to cure terrorism with wars, intelligence, policing and high-tech gadgets — in other words, most of the methods on which we have traditionally relied. The good news is that you can begin to prevent it, using methods that are cheap, simple, and not reliant upon government agencies. The best news of all is that this is best done from the grassroots up, which means that an entrepreneur like me can help.
Later this month, my friends and I will establish a new Islamic educational organisation. The Solas Foundation will, among other things, teach young people about Islam in its proper context. It will provide organisations with advice on Islamic law and practice, and it will begin to strengthen the Muslim community. Ultimately, it will make Scotland and Britain safer.
How, you might ask, could Islamic education possibly help to improve the security of all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike?
Two stories might help to explain. First, let me take you back to the early 1990s, when I was a teenager growing up in Glasgow. Life for a Muslim kid like me was busy, going to mosque after school every day and on weekends. At the time, the news schedules were dominated by reports about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the eruption of the Bosnian civil war. And for many young Muslims, that grainy war reportage would influence the shifting dynamics of personal identity for many years to come.
Bosnia is home to 1.5 million Muslims. Most are ethnically Western in appearance, regard themselves as essentially European, and are religious moderates in a culture which comfortably encompasses both Sunni Islam and drinking traditional plum brandy. In 1992, their nascent republic was set upon by Serb forces, and soon the UN was hearing accounts of Bosnian Muslims being rounded up into camps and beaten with metal rods and wooden clubs, of men being castrated and women being raped and mutilated. The then US president Bill Clinton tried to persuade Europe to lift the embargo preventing the Bosnians from arming themselves to fight back, but to no avail. In his autobiography, Clinton writes that some European leaders were motivated by a simple desire not to have a Muslim state in Europe.
I remember the feeling of helplessness in the local Glasgow Muslim community at the time and the debates that took place in the mosque. Many people who attended the mosque, particularly those from the older generation, argued that this was clear evidence of the West's racism and Islamophobia, of a European war on Muslims and Islam.
They pointed to the 8000 or so Muslims killed when Dutch UN troops helped Muslims on to buses in Srebrenica, only for them to be taken away and massacred by Serb soldiers. They asked whether the West would have maintained an embargo which hampered self-defence if those killed had been Christians or Jews. "If they stand back and let this happen to European Muslims who look like them," the argument went, "then if there were ever an ethnic conflict here in Britain, what chance would there be for Muslims like us; people with a different skin colour?"
I didn't believe in that conclusion then, and I don't believe it now. But I do remember that like everybody else who heard these arguments from the mouths of our elders in the community, I had no ready counter-argument with which to prove them wrong.
When I finished my Highers in the summer of 1993, determined to find something positive to do, I volunteered with a charity, Direct Aid Edinburgh. Along with four others, I spent a week on a course in the Scottish capital learning how to use two mobile bakeries, which we intended to take to refugee camps in Bosnia to bake 10,000 loaves of bread a day for the refugees.
But my lasting impression of that time was of those at the mosque who argued that that kind of charity work was a waste of time. The only effective way to stop the killing of fellow Muslims, they said, was to take up arms as so many had done in Afghanistan against the Soviets. It was clear to me that European foreign policy gave plenty of rhetorical ammunition to those who propagated a radical worldview. Political passions in anyone are formed when the evidence of your eyes and ears is explained by an overarching narrative. And in the Muslim community at the time there was simply no alternative narrative with which a young Muslim like me could interpret the pictures appearing nightly on our TV screens. All too often, I watched arguments being won by the idea of a Manichaean struggle between Islam and the West.
My second story is drawn of necessity from a mixture of conjecture and established fact, but with a moral that is clear enough. It is a story about another Muslim lad, not much younger than me, who also lived in Scotland and studied in classrooms in Baghdad and Cambridge to become a doctor.
In 2006, he took a trip back to Iraq, now wracked by violence. We can only guess at what he did there and what he saw. Perhaps he met up with some of his old college friends, and took stock of the path of their lives. Perhaps some had been Saddam Hussein's Republican Guardsmen, who were now unemployed and without income since their units had been disbanded in the early weeks after the war. Perhaps some had lost friends or relatives to imprecise allied bombing. More than likely, some of them knitted the violence they saw into a grand historical story of battles fought by fellow Muslims many centuries ago. Perhaps some, sickened by the suffering of their fellow countrymen, friends or family, had even joined the insurgency, and would sit under the stars recounting heady stories of plots and battles. In all likelihood, legends were traded, strong and simple enough to direct the young man's anger towards a fully fledged radical belief system. We will probably never know the evolution of his worldview, but we do know the effect it had.
The young man went back to Scotland, took a job at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, and moved into a quiet house in the suburbs of Glasgow. There, he and his flatmate learned how to solder circuit boards. They learned how to buy different cars in different locations to cover their tracks. They learned how to attach a gas canister to the underside of a Jeep. They learned how to make a detonator out of a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. And they learned how to add nails and knives to an improvised bomb so that it would harm as many people as possible.
Then, early one Saturday morning in the summer of 2007, they drove around Loch Lomond for eight hours. We can only speculate on why. Perhaps to find a secluded spot to attach the propane canisters to the car. Perhaps to meditate on their hopes for the chaos that they intended to wreak. Perhaps to offer the final twisted prayers of two lives which they believed had only a few more hours left to run.
But when, later that day, they eventually launched their notorious Jeep attack on Glasgow International Airport, they demonstrated once again that the radical narrative which says that the West is fighting a war against Islam may seem wrong to most of us, but it has the power to motivate some individuals to kill themselves and others.
As important as it is to condemn both their terrorism and their distorted worldview, that must only be a start. It is not the whole solution; it does not provide the necessary counter-narrative or put Islamic teachings in their proper context.
I recount these stories only to put in perspective what I believe to be the central question here: what can we actually do to break the link between perceptions of foreign policy and radicalisation?
When you research how radicalisation actually works, one striking fact sticks out: almost all Islamist terrorists actually have no authentic education in Islam. Very few of them have learned anything about what Islam really teaches.
Writer and academic Reza Aslan argues that almost 90% of violent jihadists have had no religious education at all. That was true of all of the 9/11 attackers, and of the 7/7 bombers. Even the leadership of al-Qaeda itself lacks credibility. Osama Bin Laden had no formal religious training and never attended a religious seminary. Most of the al-Qaeda leadership lack any religious training whatsoever, but have backgrounds in medicine, engineering or business.
This should come as no surprise to anybody: if radical Islamists had spent any time at all studying authentic Islam, they would know that their methods contravene Islamic ethics. Real Islamic scholarship delegitimises the bloody methods of Islamic extremists. For radical Islamists, authentic Islamic scholarship and ethics are a very real threat. Perhaps the greatest threat of all.
In Britain, the radicalisation process has been exacerbated by a gaping lack of mainstream Islamic education for the young, and a dearth of advice on how to apply the rules in a business context. When Islamic companies have needed advice in accordance with mainstream interpretations of Islamic law, there has been no organisation qualified to provide it. This gap has often been filled by scholars who interpret Islamic law in ways that are not appropriate to modern life. In some areas it has been filled by extremist preachers, unqualified in Islamic law and theology, normally from outside Europe, who have replaced traditional pietistic, apolitical Islam with an ignorant, pamphlet-based Islam which emphasises politics. So the best answer to the question of what we can do to break the link between foreign policy and radicalisation is simply to educate our young people in genuine, authentic Islamic teachings. Then, if they encounter radical narratives, dubious theology or ignorant preaching, they will be able to see these for the perversions of the religion that they really are. The fact that the vast majority of extremists have not undergone this process reinforces the point.
This is what our new centre will begin to do for Scotland and Britain. It will offer genuine, authentic Islamic teaching which puts the history of Islamic thought in its proper context. It will fill a gap in the market by providing advice which is appropriate in a modern British context, and mainstream Islamic education. It will not be an organisation devoted to counter-terrorism, or to de-programming those who have been brainwashed — there are other organisations which already do that. It will not, in other words, aim to provide a cure.
Rather, its goal will be prevention: the quiet changing of minds which cuts off the attraction of radical discourses at the root. It will foster a genuine understanding of Islamic teachings, and how they apply in contemporary Britain. To that end, we will teach Islam in a way that reflects British society. We will make sure that all our teachers translate the traditional Arabic texts into English so that young people can understand them, no matter how little Islamic study they have done before.
Solas will also act as a hub for authoritative Islamic scholarship, offering advice on how to apply Muslim ethics in modern society to both Islamic organisations and non-Islamic organisations who would like to better tailor their services to Muslims. The foundation will address controversial contemporary issues within an authoritative theological frame of reference. And it will work to educate a new generation of community leaders, teachers and advocates who will then be able to strengthen the British Muslim community.
Crucially, the Solas foundation will be run by teachers who are credible to young people. Our leading scholars, Shaykh Amer Jamil and Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed, were both born and educated in Scotland, but have travelled in the Muslim world to study with leading Islamic theologians. This combination of scholarship and personal experience makes them uniquely qualified to relate to young people, teach Islamic theology authoritatively, and explain how it fits into modern Scotland. They are also prime examples of how Solas will encourage home-grown scholars, so that in time British mosques can reduce their reliance on preachers from abroad, who are often unable to relate to the issues of the day.
Ultimately, the Solas foundation will be a success if young people no longer interpret the news they see on television with reference to extreme and narrow perversions of the rich traditions of Islam. If we achieve that, the result will be better relations within families and between communities. Scotland — and the UK as a whole — will be a safer place to live. And Muslims will be able to continue playing a positive part in the national story of Scotland, and of Britain.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a World Fellow at Yale
The Solas Foundation can be contacted at email@example.com
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