Exploring the ‘radical origins’ of Islamic extremism

Readers are presented with a factual history of where it all went wrong in the Islamic world.
December 24, 2017
Cover of Azeem Ibrahim’s “Radical Origins.”

“Radical Origins” by Azeem Ibrahim aims to address why society is losing the battle against Islamic extremism. A loaded question because there are as many theories about the origins of terrorism as there are to expound them. Ibrahim, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, states on the book’s cover that he can educate his readers on how to turn the tide.

He says the fundamental flaw in the Western approach to Islamic extremism is linked to the lack of understanding of religious doctrine. “Most people’s understanding of the history of Islam is basically non-existent,” he said.

Therefore, he provides the reader with a detailed historical account of Islam. Ibrahim draws on the golden age of Islam from the pluralistic approach adopted by Prophet Muhammad to connect how much Islam has in common with Western ideals. Ibrahim reinforces the point by telling the readers the country he thinks best aligns societies in terms of laws, politics and business to the Quran. The answer is not a Muslim nation but Ireland.

Ibrahim’s connecting issues throughout the book gives audi­ences not proficient in Islam an understanding of the similarities that unite rather than clash. He explains how Islam was a leader in science and innovation during the Abbasid era (750-1258). The Abbasids once dominated global culture, characterised as the most advanced civilisation in the world.

That is a stark contrast to the Islamic world at present, which the author defines as dangerously regressive, veer­ing towards the pre-Islamic Dark Age in Arabia. Ibra­him makes one significant consternation to explain the shift: “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) is chanted in the name of death and war rather than in the name of peace and enlightenment.

“Radical Origins” explains the main challenge the world faces regarding violent extremism in the form of the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and other such terror groups. Ibrahim’s interpretation of the challenge faced is found in the rise of Salafism, which he says, threatens the world.

He alerts the reader to the potential demise of the religion by addressing the threat of pamphlet Islamism that rejects the intellectual underpinning of the religion and discounts liberal Islamic juris­prudence. Radicalising would-be jihadists through online teaching methods and funding of clerics have increased the notoriety of the Salafist move­ment.

The violent rejection of the Salafist status quo needs to be central in the counternarra­tive across the globe. Otherwise, Ibrahim suggests, the anti-modernist tenets of Salafism are responsible for what is happening in the Middle East. Ibrahim’s reflec­tion on the current Islamic world is an image of infighting, where theological compromises have been made leading to “watering down of the holy text.” He adds those “who have exported Wahhabism throughout the world in the package of Salafism a manageable guise” are the catalysts in the spread of violent jihad.

What is commonly not under­stood by the wider world is that “Islam not only offers its own just war tradition. It has much to say about how war and conflict are handled,” Ibrahim writes. He firmly points out that the conflicts involving ISIS or al-Qaeda are aligned with Mardin Fatwa, a tool to justify immoral actions. Conse­quently, he said their actions are outside the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence.

What are the solutions in the fight against radical Islam? Readers are presented with a factual his­tory of where it all went wrong in the Islamic world. Unfortunately, the solutions offered by Ibrahim are not as well drawn out, which is not a surprise given the complexity of the subject.

Ibrahim divides his solutions on what the counternarrative should be from what policymakers can do, focusing on education, the role of the media, preachers and the influence of Saudi Arabia.

All are important but the most viable solutions stem in Ibrahim’s focus on education, media and policy. The number of geopolitical disputes needs to be reduced be­cause they are considered perfect breeding grounds for jihadists, he argues.

Regarding education, Ibrahim states the curriculum on inter­national history must expand to include the Middle East and Islam. This solution may work as facts are needed to reduce division for future generations. He says news presenters in the United States must stop projecting the “us versus them,” “Muslims versus the West” slant. Not an easy task with the Trump administration in power.

Ibrahim concludes by saying: “Let the only thing we are intoler­ant about be intolerance itself.” However, what he has presented in this thoroughly detailed epilogue is that the radical virus remains unless real reforms are adopted.

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