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A Mistaken Identity: Muslim Radicalism as a Complex Phenomenon

Paper No 5734                            Dated 27-Jun-2014

Guest Column By Moorthy S. Muthuswamy Ph.D.(The views expressed are author's own)

If the above premise holds true, the coming years promise a new and potentially fruitful approach to mitigating the threat of ever-growing violent Muslim radicalism.

First, some background.

About a decade ago, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region was the main theatre of violent transnational Islamic radicalism. The phenomenon has spread far and wide, despite the immense efforts of the United States and its allies. First, the AfPak region appears to be all set to revert to its pre-9/11 days; second, militant groups are now operating in vast swaths of territory from the Middle East to North Africa. Moreover, even the Western counties themselves are hardly free from terrorism conducted by resident jihadists. Countries such as India, Israel, China, the Philippines and Thailand that border Muslim nations and have significant Muslim minorities are reeling under increasing attacks by home-grown Muslim radicals.

If these results are any indication, both the experts in the intelligence world who drive policies and in the academia have failed to delineate the dominant causes that drive Muslim radicalism. For instance, terrorism scholar Marc Sageman pointed out in 2013 that “overall, the same stale arguments about ‘how can this [a terrorist incident] happen?’ are debated over and over again—with very little new insight.” This could mean two possibilities: one, that the learned experts have yet to comprehend this phenomenon and two, that the phenomenon itself may be so complex that it is hardly driven by one or two dominant causes.

It appears that most experts in Western intelligence world are being made to focus on short-term projects that put them at a disadvantage in taking a long-view of the phenomenon. Moreover, as Sageman notes, they usually lack a high-end analytical background. However, the experts in academia, typically PhDs in political science, may have a different shortcoming. Recently, questions have been raised about the quality and relevance of academic scholarship, with a well-respected political scientist noting that “[p]olitical science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis.”

The Underlying Simplicity

While the conventional wisdom holds that the radicalization process is “complex,” I am positing that such a characterization is unwarranted for the following reasons: Violence conduced in the name of Islam is preponderant compared to other religions; almost always, this radicalism invokes sharia and armed jihad; this violence transcends, ethno-cultural, linguistic, geographic and income fault-lines.

The above universality suggests that specific religion based causes or processes are behind the modern phenomenon called Muslim radicalism. The extent of its spread suggests that these processes could not be complex and that they are likely to be simple to the extent that, many Muslims understand and identify with them.

One might wonder why this phenomenon has taken off only recently, rather than, say, four decades ago. There are two main reasons. First, only since the late 1970s, the birth place of Islam, Saudi Arabia, has apparently spent well over 100 billion dollars to spread sharia and armed jihad emphasizing Wahhabism around the world. Second, the worldwide training of Muslim activists in armed conflicts stemmed from some of their participation in the following event: the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, directed at countering the Soviet occupation of Muslim-majority Afghanistan.

Toward Developing Science of Muslim Radicalism

What could be the basis of such “simple” processes?

A starting point could be the realization that almost all of the Muslim militant groups around the world are purportedly fighting to institute sharia as the governing law of Muslims. Sharia, the Islamic legal system or, more broadly, a religiously sanctioned “code of conduct” is a prominent feature of Islam. The Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not directly mention sharia; rather, it is a legal system based upon an interpretation of Islam. Hence, in a community where sharia is popular, an outlook can take hold that views sharia-based governance as an appealing and plausible ideological alternative to modernity in many walks of life.

Naturally, due to their perceived command of religious knowledge, clerical interpretations of sharia hold sway. Moreover, a recent study conducted in India shows that the Muslim minorities have been more personally influenced by their clerics than the Hindu majority by its religious leaders. Thus, it is in the self-serving interest of clerics to promote sharia as all-embracing divine law. For instance, the 2008 All India Anti-Terrorism Conference, attended by thousands of Sunni clerics in India, called upon Muslims “to spend their lives in the country following Islamic sharia and [Islam’s] teachings with full confidence.”

However, flip side of a broad definition of what constitutes sharia law is that it has materialized in the form of rampant, contradictory and confusing (sharia-derived) injunctions called fatwas, usually delivered by clerics. Along these lines, some of the most authentic and influential calls that invoked armed jihad, too, have emanated from clerics. A disturbing trend is that in communities where sharia is popular, the so-called jihadist clerics (the subset of clerics who espouse armed jihad) are sought out for their expertise on sharia. Besides, jihadist clerics such as Saeed Mohammed, chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba, has cleverly placed himself at the forefront of the call for implementing more sharia laws in sharia-popular Pakistan and this platform has helped him to publicly advocate for armed jihad. Moreover, militants are able to extract fatwas from jihadist clerics to suit their violent causes.

The heart of developing science of a phenomenon lies in outlining a testable hypothesis followed by its validation. With that in mind I have proposed the following hypothesis: Sharia’s popularity forms a platform for jihadist clerics and militant groups to advance a violent agenda. While I invite the interested readers to read the forthcoming article, I provide below the essence of this scholarship.

Data from Pakistan show that the growing clerical influence there correlated with sharia’s popularity. This is also true of the subset of jihadist clerics and militant groups vis-à-vis sharia. This hypothesis also consistently explains the radicalization process underway in Muslim minority communities in the United Kingdom and India. Moreover, much reduced extent of radicalization found in Turkey is correlated with the reduced popularity of clerics and sharia there. This study also suggests that sharia-empowered clerics stifle socioeconomic development by overemphasizing religion at the expense of modern education.

The Need for a Paradigm Shift

This analysis has policy implications. Instead of ad hoc policies such as countering the extremist narratives that emphasize interpretations of jihad in an armed context, efforts should mainly focus on countering the self-serving clerical narratives of sharia as all-embracing divine law, thereby, clearing the way for Muslim communities to govern themselves and develop their societies by embracing modernity.

In a broad sense, this calls for a strategy similar to the one used to counter—as part of the Cold War—the ideological basis of the former Soviet Communism, with an understanding that undercutting the influence of sharia also helps promote religious freedom and human rights of those under its spell.

(The author is a U.S.-based nuclear physicist. Dr. Muthuswamy is the author of Defeating Political Islam: The New Cold War; email: