The jihadis who read “Islam for dummies”

In an article for the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan relates the following tragi-comic fact:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? A copy of Milestones by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb? No. How about Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama Bin Laden? Guess again. Wait, The Anarchist Cookbook, right? Wrong.

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.

It is far from being the only study to reach this conclusion:

According to the Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, it is politics, not religious fanaticism, that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up. The study shows that:

“…though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.”

The findings of the Flinders University study are supported by the research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force. Of the 524 suicide terrorists carried out in the past 30 years, more than half of the attackers were secular. Let that rock your worldview.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks have a strategic goal in common—to compel an occupying force to withdraw from territory the terrorists prize. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Chechnya, the central goal of every suicide terrorist campaign has been to resist military occupation by a democracy.

The upshot of both pieces of research seems to be that the motivations of jihadis are sectarian rather than religious. They strongly identify as Muslims but that identification doesn’t arise from faith or theology.

This doesn’t only apply at the level of individuals but also whole movements. The earliest incidents of contemporary terrorism like Dawson’s Airfield and the Munich Olympic massacre were perpetrated by Palestinian groups like the PLO and the PFLP. There ideologies were respectively nationalist and Marxist. They have of course now been largely supplanted by groups with Islamist ideologies like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But as I suspect that despite this divergence the reasons that people joined the PFLP then and Hamas now are fundamentally the same: opposition to the Israeli occupation.

Very often religion does not create values but provides a justification for those the believer already has. And religious terrorism seems to work the same way.

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