By Mark Esposito
The following is the fourth installment in a multi-part series exploring religious fundamentalism and the means of checking its excesses. You can read the first part here and the second part here and the third part here.
There are 1.5 to 2.0 billion Muslims in the world but only enough to fill a minor league baseball stadium find the motivation to join ISIS or al Qaeda and fight global jihad. Why? To understand you must first understand the origins of jihad.
Jihad is a fluid term in the Muslim world with two simultaneous meanings. To most peaceful Muslims, it means an inner spiritual struggle to understand and develop rightly using both the Qur’an and the Hadith as guides and examples. This is not the external jihad advocated by dedicated Wahhabis. To them, jihad is a permanent global struggle against non-believers who must be subjugated and taxed or destroyed. There is no alternative.
The notion of such a violent jihad is a relatively modern phenomena. The founder of Wahhabism, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, made no such demands except in the most extreme of cases. The only unforgivable sins to the early Wahhabis were shirk (idolatry) or rejection of tawhid (monotheism). And these sins were reserved for members of the Muslim faith.
Unbelievers were not prey but Muslims in the making. To Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the notion of external jihad rested on two pillars — persuasion and education — and was designed to recruit not dismember. Only if the non-believer, having been given the ample opportunity to convert and rejected the offer, would violence be permitted and then with numerous restrictions.
In her seminal work, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, scholar, Natana J. DeLong-Bas, lists the classic restrictions on global jihad. Jihad could not be:
- used against non-Muslims who had submitted to jizyah tax or who have a business relationship with Muslims.
- directed at children, elderly, blind or monks (these were to be called to Islam “until they either submit or God causes them to die for their errors in faith”), or women (provided they did not fight Muslims, encourage non-Muslim fighters or engaged in “revile or scold” Muslims/Wahhabis).
- used against non-believers whom Muslims found had”the personal habits or practices of a given group of people … inappropriate” (inappropriate practices including the “drinking of date wine (khamr)” or “a desire for power”).
- used unless it was a “defensive military action.”
- used unless it has a “religious justification” and its purpose “is the protection and aggrandizement of the Muslim community as a whole”,and “to win adherents to Islam.” It was not for “personal gain or glory”,or to take booty.
That concept changed for Wahhabis with the advent of the 18th Century and the rule of Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad who adopted a “convert or die” policy “for the express purpose of acquiring wealth and property.”
The concept of external jihad further metastasized in the 19th Century when Iman Ibn Taymiyya called for “jihad against anyone who refused to abide by Islamic law or revolted against the true Muslim authorities” on the grounds that such people were not true Muslims. Wahhabis embraced Ibn Taymiyyah (according to DeLong-Bas) because they badly wanted to evict the Sharif rulers of the two holy cities in Hijaz, and to rule Mecca and Medina themselves in a more righteous manner. ” Wahhabis considered the sharifs to be corrupt heretics and not true Muslims and were willing to die to free the holy cities from their rule.
The notion of martyrdom in furtherance of jihad was refined in the 20th century by Islamist Sayyid Qutb, who justified the practice because of the “implacable treachery” and enmity towards Islam of all Jews and some Christians. In his book Milestones, Qutb preached that jihad, `is not a temporary phase but a permanent war … Jihad for freedom cannot cease until the Satanic forces are put to an end and the religion is purified for God in toto.”
Understanding jihad is only the first step to understanding its appeal to young Muslims. To understand that you have understand the psychology of young people and dispel some commonly accepted myths. In a comprehensive report on the topic for the US Institute of Peace, US Army Captain John M. ”Matt” Venhaus sets the record straight:
- Recruits Are Crazy– No organization on earth no matter how pernicious can function with madmen as either leaders or followers. This is especially true of clandestine organizations like al Qaeda or ISIS. Researchers Clark McCauley and M. E. Segal conclude, “The best documented generalization is negative; terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology.”
- Recruits Are Poor And Uneducated – In fact, the best research we have says their lot is a mixed bag from middle class to poor with some even being considered well-off. “Among the subjects studied, economic motivations were the least cited
reason for joining a terrorist organization.”
- Recruits Are Mostly Dedicated Muslims – Most recruits have not studied their religion or have an incomplete understanding. They are vulnerable to radicalization precisely because of what they do not know and not what they do know. Many do not have a strong religious background as evidenced by the recent perpetrators of the attacks in France who lived a secular existence for much of their lives carousing and rarely attending services in the Mosque.
- Terrorist Organizations Make First Contact – In fact, most jihad fighters make the first move towards radicalization and initiate contact with the terror cells via the internet and social media. According to a study by Marc Sageman, “individual recruits sought out information about al-Qaeda through friends and associates.”
So what does motivate young jihadists? As it turns out, about the same things that motivate young activists everywhere like those in Occupy. Venhaus defines the four personality types comprising typical al Qaeda recruits. He calls them “seekers” and explains that:
They want to understand who they are, why they matter, and what their role in the world should be. They have an unfulfilled need to define themselves, which al-Qaeda offers to fill.
Venhaus categorizes the “seekers” into four distinct but sometimes overlapping categories which I restate in edited form verbatim from the report and without footnotes:
“The Revenge Seeker: Looking for an Outlet for Frustration
The first of the four seekers, the revenge seeker, perceives himself as a victim in society.
In his logic, external forces are causing his unhappiness and making it hard for him to succeed. More accurately, he doesn’t know why he feels angry, so he is looking for something to be angry about. The flames of his anger can be fueled by any number of minor slights, from a schoolyard rivalry to a romantic rebuff, until he is filled with frustration and rage. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described this as “narcissistic rage . . . the need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all of these aims.” Many of the subjects interviewed for this study initially claimed that their reason for fighting was to punish the West for its attacks on Videos of past and future volunteers; photos of martyrs
on leaflets, posters, and calendars; and the reenactment of martyrdom operations in
pageants and school plays all serve to justify and glorify the act of suicide bombing.9
Muslims. As the discussions progressed, however, it became clear that they had been angry with members of their families, especially their fathers, or had been involved in neighborhood disputes and squabbles before becoming interested in al-Qaeda.
The Status Seeker: Looking for Recognition
Whereas revenge seekers were more common among those living primarily in Middle Eastern Muslim societies, the second group, status seekers, was more prevalent among the diaspora, especially those living in the West. The status seeker sees a world that does not understand or appreciate him as he perceives himself. His frustration stems from unrealized expectations that he will be successful in his new home and recognized by his community. This is especially prevalent in recent immigrants looking for work, and in international college students looking to assimilate in a foreign country. They are often not shown the kind of respect that they got before leaving their home countries.
The Identity Seeker: Looking for a Place to Belong
Unlike the status seeker, who wants to stand out from the masses, the identity seeker is
more concerned with assimilating into a defining organization. Being part of something is
the principal motivation for the identity seeker. The strength and stability of one’s personality rests on the formation of a satisfying and functioning identity, and the motivation to define oneself by the group identity is strong and, indeed, almost universal among developing adolescents. It draws young people to street gangs and chess clubs, to marching bands and al-Qaeda. This springs from the innate need to internalize the behavior, mores, and attitudes of a social grouping. The identity seeker needs the structure, rules, and perspective that come from belonging to a group, because belonging defines him, his role, his friends, and his interaction with society.
As a young man struggles to define himself, the norms of group identity and the acceptance of his peers are crucial. Group identity also provides outward symbols of his affiliation, announcing him to the world and defining him in the eyes of others. Identity seekers comprised the largest percentage of foreign fighters studied. For them, al-Qaeda is more than just a legend—it is the best possible club to join. As with other highly exclusive groups, from fraternal orders to religious cults, al-Qaeda’s ideology demands strict obedience to a state of mind and prescribes how members should think, feel, and behave. These clear rules and coherent vision of the world appeal to identity seekers because they neatly package an identity into the ideology. A young man casting about for guidance and direction finds it in abundance with al-Qaeda.
The Thrill Seeker: Looking for Adventure
Thrill seekers represent the smallest percentage of those studied, accounting for less than
5 percent of the sample. They also represent a very distinct motivation from the other
three. The thrill seeker is filled with energy and drive. He wants to prove his manhood by
accomplishing an arduous task or surviving a harrowing adventure. Bored or unchallenged
at home, he looks for the next trial or newest adventure. Often from a middle- or uppermiddle-class family, he has no interest in the family business or what he perceives as the mundane life on his horizon. The thrill seeker is often attracted to violent video games and the fanciful tales of returning fighters. He is most impressed by the images of glory and adventure portrayed by al-Qaeda propaganda. For the thrill seeker, al-Qaeda is a horror action brand that promises spectacular violence and unimaginable glory.”
The list reads like a list of stock characters from a James Dean movie about the search for identity among the young and their misguided attempts to “find themselves.” So how can the West effectively combat youth and these “Rebels With a Cause”who are lethally radicalized against it?
We’ll look at that next time.
~Mark Esposito, FFS Contributor