Theological Pathway Out of Islamic Extremism: Using Islamic Study and Qur’anic Reading in De-Radicalization Programs
The spread of the Internet and the advent of social media have played a key role in the recent rise of violent Islamist extremism globally. Platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have exacerbated the problem of Islamist radicalization and incited terrorism, as algorithms that underpin these networks promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas. The internet has also offered terrorists and extremists the capability to communicate, collaborate with and convince other individuals towards their ideology, creating more opportunities to radicalize and accelerating the process of radicalization. Today, radicalization primarily occurs on the Internet. Individuals radicalize “remotely” by consuming jihadist propaganda online, and become self-directed, internet-inflamed Islamist extremists who self-recruit in extremist groups. Unfortunately, this increase in online Islamist radicalization and jihadism has been tied back to Islam, in turn provoking a rise in Islamophobia and Muslim hate crimes. Yet, most Muslim majority countries have centered their deradicalization programs around theological dialogue in an effort to contest interpretations and messages received from violent extremists and jihadist propaganda. These “soft” counter-terrorism programs seek to undo the radicalization process, divorcing Islamist militants from their extreme beliefs by providing spiritual guidance and encouraging personal reflection on Islamic theological principles. This essay seeks to examine the importance and the process of deradicalization programs that rely on theological dialogue and Islamic religious re-education. Why does this ideological component of deradicalization programs matter to counter extremist narratives? How is this type of deradicalization carried out and what are the theological underpinnings in the Qur’an that allows for deradicalization? In addition to answering those questions, this essay will also assess the degree of success these programs have.
Why It Matters: Deradicalization and Ideology, Reversing Islamist Extremist Indoctrination
Many people who radicalize online actually have poor knowledge of Islamic theology and religious texts, and many have not even read the Qur’an. This is problematic because extremist narratives manipulate specific verses to fit their political purposes and jihadist ideology. Theological dialogue and Islamic re-education help challenge extremist interpretations of Islam, disseminating ideas of peace to correct radical ideas and to prevent jihadist recidivism. This theological deradicalization process is based on the assumption that militant Islamists do not have the proper understanding of Islam and that their religious interpretation is wrong, therefore implying they can and must be reeducated or reformed. Moreover, since Islamist militants tend to be ideologically motivated and committed to jihadism, it is difficult for them to renounce their ideology, which is rooted in a major world religion. Deradicalization focusing on ideological moderation hence provides an opportunity to leverage mainstream Islam to challenge extremist interpretations of the religion and their radical Islamist ideology. It also facilitates the deradicalization of radical Muslims by making it possible for them to renounce their extremism without also renouncing their faith. Furthermore, this type of deradicalization program offers a compelling approach to counter-terrorism because it allows Islamist militants to engage with the most authentic and legitimate source of Islam—the Qur’an, which they cannot question. This will likely effect a more permanent change in the militant’s worldview, but will also help weaken the radical Islamist movement altogether by discrediting its ideology, especially considering most radicals had little to no formal religious training.
Another important element in theological-based ideological deradicalization is that it can redirect jihadis quest for significance sought in extremist groups towards new, more positive and fruitful goals. Indeed, Islamist militants tend to join extremist groups because they wish to be relevant, to have meaning in their lives—a desire that is fulfilled through extremist narratives that present violence as a spiritual duty or even necessity and a politically acceptable method. Former extremists tend to have a dramatic impact when countering these motivations because they personally denounce radical Islamism and encourage Islamic moderation, which will push Islamist militants to question and eventually renounce extremism, in addition to fatally discrediting jihadist groups. By engaging these militants with theological dialogue, these programs can redirect militants’ quest for significance towards more positive goals, like piety, moral uprightness, or da’wa. Essentially, this type of deradicalization program aims to reverse Islamist extremism by challenging ex-combatants’ Islamic beliefs system and using credible religious sources to support their religious re-education and curb their radicalism.
How to Use the Qur’an to Deradicalize Ex-Jihadis?
Religious scholars and Islamic clerics are recruited in those theological deradicalization programs to discuss and educate Islamic extremists on Islamic theology, relying on the Qur’an, to emphasize religious tolerance and provide gentler interpretations of passages that could be taken to promote violence. Participants are listened to and share their ideological motivations with these religious experts, who then guide them through a religious academic course of study. The main objective of the course aims to persuade the participants that their jihadist interpretation of the Qur’an is incorrect. In particular, these religious leaders strive to dislodge certain concepts like ‘takfir’ (apostasy) or ‘al-wala’ wal-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal’), which nurture and sustain hatred, repudiation, and enmity towards non-Muslims and Muslims who do not abide to the same religious interpretation. Based on this creed, intolerance and radicalism are justified and allows for the killing and brutal murder of any non-Muslim or whoever that does not belong to the group, even though the Qur’an strictly orders that anyone offering peace should never be described as “unbeliever” (4: 94). A main issue that leads to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Qur’an is that often these contentious verses are taken out from their general context to fit a specific political and ideological agenda. Nonetheless, a more accurate understanding of specific verses should be bounded within its overall context and place in the Surah. For example, if the general context talks about an ancient history, one should not apply the specific verses absolutely on the present. Moreover, if the general context of the Surah talks about war, then the specific verses should not be applied in times of peace at all. In order to combat these distorted understandings, religious and community figures use Qur’anic study to promote and restore the true spirit of Islam, which revolves around peace, tolerance, and pluralism. In addition to intensive spiritual guidance, states have supplemented this effort by reforming mosques, training imams, and implementing Islamic religious seminars or workshops to promote a more moderate message of Islam within its society that counters extremist narratives.
Islamic religious re-education focuses on reconciling Islam with peace and tolerance by contextualizing verses that could be seen as promoting violence and analyzing verses that teach love, compassion, and promote religious freedom. Indeed, the Qur’an presents a peaceful life where the infinite compassion and mercy of God manifests itself on earth, and offers love and compassion for every human being, no matter their religion. In 2: 208, the Qur’an says: “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace (Islam). Do not follow in the footsteps of Satan. He is an outright enemy to you,” which is a call for peace and the importance of fostering a life in absolute sincerity and honesty before God. The concept of religious tolerance in Islam is most explicit in 2:256, “There is no compulsion in acceptance of the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong” and 28:56, “You cannot guide those you would like to but God guides those He wills. He has best knowledge of the guided.” Here, the Qur’an highlights that no one should be forced to believe in Islam or practice Islamic principles, and that whoever disbelieves will eventually be guided towards Islam and will be dealt with only by God. Another clear elicitation of tolerance is expressed in 109: 6“For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” God also insists that only He will be the judge for matters in which humankind differs (22: 69-76). In 2:62, God says: “Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” This verse illustrates that regardless of individuals’ beliefs, God has an extraordinary tolerance for Jews and Christians, indicating they will be admitted to heaven if they do good, and thus should not be discriminated against by Muslims on earth.
Furthermore, the Qur’an provides an environment where people can fully enjoy freedom of thought and religion, allowing people to live by the faith and values they believe in. According to the Qur’an, everyone has a right to live freely, by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Even in regard to Christians and Jews, the Qur’an describes them as “the people of the Book,” and says “God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.” (60: 8) This quotes showcase the potential for interfaith dialogue; Muslims who share basic values and ethics of goodness as Christians and Jews should strive together to spread moral virtues across the world. God explicitly states in the Qur’an that the existence of people from different faiths and opinions is something that we have to acknowledge and welcome heartily, for this is how He created and predestined humankind in this world: “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (5: 48) In acknowledgement of these quotes, we can say the Qur’an displays the importance of accepting human beings as they are, regardless of their differences in values, and that Islam is a religion of mercy, kindness, tolerance and ease. By emphasizing on Qur’anic values of non-violence, religious tolerance and pluralism, religious experts can and have reverse(d) and rectify(ied) jihadis radical ideological indoctrination and brainwashing.
To conclude, deradicalization programs that rely on theological dialogue and religious re-education are essential because they have more potential in bringing permanent change in the militant’s worldview, avoiding jihadist recidivism, and in facilitating deradicalization by allowing radical Muslims to renounce their extremism without renouncing their faith. This type of program has been somewhat successful although most experts agree that this success is difficult to quantify because it requires longer time to meaningfully measure the success of such effort, and because this ideological component of deradicalization is usually combined with a social component to rehabilitate extremists and facilitate their reintegration into mainstream society after they have completed the program. This involves not only cutting former ties to extremist groups and their network, but also ensuring ex-militants and their family can find alternative sources of income, housing, healthcare, and education so that they can establish a new life outside of the group.
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