Years ago, periodicals studying political violence would mostly publish articles on secular-based movements; but today more and more space is given to groups claiming some type of religious justification, especially Islamic ones.
And some terrorism experts have come to a conclusion similar to Muhammad Haniff bin Hassan’s (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) writing in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (September): “The real target in the battle against Muslim extremist groups should not be the groups themselves, but their ideology, which should be stopped from spreading beyond their current members.”
Hassan adds that there were instances of similar ideological work in the past. During the Malayan insurgency, Muslim scholars were successfully engaged to prove that communism was against Islam. However, one should remember that Al Qaeda’s type of violence does not only justify its actions through ideology, but also claims to champion grievances of Muslims, from Kashmir to Chechnya and Iraq. The majority of Muslims, not terrorist groups, should be seen as the primary targets of the ideological response; all military efforts will be useless in the long run if groups such as Al Qaeda continue to find recruits and sympathizers willing to help it.
Hassan argues that a comprehensive understanding of the ideology is required (“know your enemy”), not only for devising appropriate response, but also for conducting “forensic theology” (i.e. ideological surveillance) for preventive purposes, such as the identification of discourses which would support terrorist activities. Those who resent the West and seem to sympathize with Bin Laden do not always actually subscribe to Al Qaeda’s ideology.
An effective counterideological work should refrain from generalizations (e.g. lumping all Salafis or madrasahs together). Sweeping statements are dangerous: they define the battle front too widely – and create additional enemies. The war on terrorism will be won through co-opting strategic partners in the Muslim community, as well as by correcting prejudices against Islam by non-Muslims which only serve to antagonize Muslims and fortify extremist views, Hassan concludes. For that reason, the role of religion scholars can also be expected to play an important role in this effort.
Already the role of religion scholars in the war on terrorism is helping to create unprecedented challenges to the American legal system. An article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine (October) looks at how the government’s strategy of “pre-emptive prosecution” of terrorists targets both religious actions and intentions. Unless religious beliefs bear directly on guilt–the use of illegal drugs such as peyote in religious rituals–they are generally barred from trials as prejudicial.
The change surrounds the government’s strategy of demonstrating danger both through acts, such as training to commit violence, and through “speech, belief, or association” documented through the defendants’ words or materials found in their possession. As a result, courts have become battlegrounds where religion scholars clash over the meaning of evidence which is largely theological in content before jurors with little knowledge of Islamic radicalism or Islam in general.
Amy Waldman writes that the expert scholars, lawyers and jurors all wrestle with the fact that religious language does not neatly translate into language of criminal intent. Invocations to God to punish one’s enemies do not necessarily mean that individuals will carry out such punishments. The problem is compounded by the fragmented nature of Islamic authority which cannot provide a common meaning for texts and other teachings.
The conundrum of where to draw the line between belief and action was on display in the recent trial of Pakistani defendant Hamid Hayat, who was convicted of intending to commit terrorist actions because he attended a jihadist training camp and was in possession of extremist literature. Yet prosecutors found no actual plans for terrorist activity. One of the most incriminating pieces of evidence was a small piece of paper that Hayat carried with the written prayer, “Oh Allah, we place you at their throats, and we seek refuge in you from evil.” The prayer was later found to be a common prayer of protection that travelers often carry with them in Pakistan. Waldman concludes that this new approach of reducing the risk of terrorism is resulting in a “de facto restriction of the fundamental liberties of a select group of Americans.”
(Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Taylor and Francis Group, 325 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106)
— This article was written with RW Contributing Editor Jean Francois Mayer, founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info).