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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Religion, Absolutism, Violent Extremism, Fitna and Syria

In a number of recent conversations, I've taken to downplaying the role of religion in fueling Al Qaeda’s particular brand of terrorism.

I don’t do this because I think religion is unimportant to the question at hand, but because I think religion-based approaches are inherently limited.

As an indicator, religious absolutism (sometimes called fundamentalism) is too broad to be very useful in diagnosing a tendency toward violent extremism. As a cause of violent extremism, religious belief usually requires another component, such as social or political grievance, or identity politics.

As grounds for engagement, arguing on faith-based principles ultimately boils down to the theological credibility of the person making the argument -- an art, not a science, and thus not reliably reproducible. Most religious corpuses are inherently contradictory, and faith requires a leap past reason. The outcome of that leap is too often a roll of the dice for my taste.

Yet there are many ways in which the religious absolutism of violent extremism informs outcomes, and within those channels, there are opportunities to understand and engage. With that in mind, the recent fitna in Syria can be highly instructive.  (All of the principles discussed here are applicable to many different kinds of religious extremism, but I'll stick with the jihadist example for this exercise.)

Fitna -- an Arabic word commonly referring to dissension among Muslims -- is poison to jihadists, and they know it. For many supporters of the mujahideen in Syria, who are fueled by religious absolutism, fitna forces recognition of an uncomfortable reality -- someone has to be wrong. 

That realization undercuts the primary characteristic of absolutism, which is a foundational certainty that the absolutists cannot themselves be wrong. 

Needless to say, jihadist religious absolutism doesn't crumble at the first blush of fitna. Rationalizations bloom profusely amid such conflicts, and they currently are in full view in Syrian jihadist social media circles. One very common response is simply to pick your partisan -- "the group I support is right, and the others are wrong." Another is to argue that the beliefs of jihadists are perfect, even if the people implementing those beliefs are not.

But both of these rationalizations, while structured to protect the validity of religious absolutism, require people to exercise individual judgment about which people are implementing the absolute principles correctly and which are not. And they must exercise that judgment within the identity group they have embraced. They can blame interference from outsiders and conspiracies, and some do. But many grapple with the problem as it exists in the real world. 

Either way, this process inevitably exposes differences among adherents as to which absolute principles are most absolute, which are subject to interpretation and who can be trusted to interpret. It also starkly exposes a truth that is difficult to convey through engagement and argumentation -- if the mujahideen and their leaders can be wrong, then maybe you can be wrong too.

It's one thing when some moderate Muslim, or even worse, a non-Muslim, tells you that you might be wrong. It's another thing entirely when those who share your precious and specific religious identity force you by their actions to confront that harsh reality.

Often our critiques of jihadists are focused on the content of their values and the ways in which they are out of the mainstream of Islamic thought. These approaches can and sometimes do find purchase in people who come to extremism through a more sophisticated process of religious reasoning.

But many religious extremists are markedly unsophisticated in their religious thought. They gravitate toward simple answers because the answers are simple, and they employ absolute acceptance of those answers as a hedge against the complexity of living in the world. Fitna forces some absolutists who might otherwise never emerge from their cocoons to think for themselves.

Not all of them, certainly. Some will hitch their wagons to the first star they see and insist that their unshakeable faith has not been shaken. Others will simply ride out the fitna until one party or another comes out on top, and side with the winner.

But some will find that thinking for one's self has its rewards. That doesn't mean their ultimate conclusions will take them out of the fold of violent extremism, but it means that alternative belief structures might be in with a shot.

What does all this mean for those who wish to counter violent extremism using methods other than force?

The outbreak of fitna offers opportunities, to be sure. In my opinion, the crucial point of approach is the crack that fitna opens in the wall of absolutism as a concept in itself.

The growing use of social media by jihadists opens opportunities for those countering violent extremism to exploit such cracks, but it also means the cracks will grow, to some extent, without interference from outside. 

Unlike the previous forums where jihadists talked among themselves -- such as Internet message boards and around the campfire of a terrorist camp -- there is no leader on social media with the authority to silence adherents with misgivings who do not agree to be silenced. 

Jihadists must now confront their differences in belief and the differences among their organizations in the field. Social media did not create dissent among jihadists, but it does remove several powerful obstacles to the airing of such dissent. It's a relief valve -- perhaps the easiest outlet for growing internal pressures within the movement.

It's tempting -- and valid -- to dispute with extremists over their values. But it seems to me that relatively few are willing to sincerely engage with such arguments, because they believe in the absolute correctness of their beliefs. 

For most, the argument cannot be won or lost on the validity of differing religious interpretations. It can only be won when the absolutism of the adherent admits to the possibility of doubt.

In my various, often shallow, conversations with jihadists, I have occasionally asked them whether they experience any doubts about the validity of their beliefs. Many simply say "no," others admit to doubts but characterize them as the whisperings of Satan, a challenge to be overcome by brute force rather than by addressing the substance of the doubt itself.

The ultimate antidote to religious extremism is a healthy injection of doubt. 

From a religious perspective, I personally feel that faith untested by doubt is worthless. The believer who never wrestles with doubt is not admirable but lazy. They are people who are willing to cede their most precious principles to someone else – and that someone else is almost never "God Himself," but one of his fallible interpreters.

As the long-simmering war among Syria's jihadist factions comes to a full boil, it's time to start thinking about how people believe, and not just what they believe.

Our own values suggest it's better to teach people how to think, rather than tell them what to think. 

We will not always like their conclusions, nor the values they arrive at under their own steam. 

But absolutists are ultimately people who volunteer to be cannon fodder. They are ready, willing and sometimes eager to die in the process of fighting violently for their unconsidered beliefs, and that's a recipe for eternal and pointless war. 

We deserve a better future than that, and so do our adversaries. 

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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