The recent killings outside Parliament on the 22nd of March have been followed by a trickle of information about the killer, Khalid Masood. He was a British-born petty criminal, with some violent incidents in his past, including a drunken attack with a knife. He was married to a Muslim, and had worked in Saudi Arabia, but he seems to have been radicalized in prison.
Islamic terrorists have no consistent profile. They come from all walks of life. Some are from university-educated backgrounds, such as the Cambridge medical students who fought for al-Qaeda in 2007. Others, like Masood, have been involved in crime and drugs.
The poor correlation between a conservative religious upbringing and terrorist involvement has led commentators like Mehdi Hassan to deny the religious claims of the terrorists to be acting in the name of Islam. In this argument, the terrorists’ actions are signs of their ignorance of ‘true Islam’.
This pattern is certainly puzzling. It leads Eric Kaufmann to describe Islamic extremism as a problem more like Ebola than malnutrition: it must be treated as a network that transmits dangerous ideas, rather than a byproduct of other social problems. Support for extremism does not show direct links to poverty or to conservative religiosity and the segregation that often accompanies it. Indeed, drawing on data from the 2001 census, he observes that ‘in a ward with almost no Muslims, a Muslim person has an 18% chance of saying that violent extremism is sometimes justified’ (correcting for other factors), compared to an 11% chance for Muslims in an all-Muslim neighbourhood.
Many forms of conservative Islam, including Salafism, have a long history of opposition to political violence (known in Islamic studies as ‘quietism’). Personal conduct is often strictly regulated according to the sunna, the deeds of Muhammad, and religious discussion often hinges on the exclusion of alien ideas from ‘true Islam’.
Conservative circles are marked by strict adhesion to dietary rules and prayer routines, and by the avoidance of close friendships between Muslims and non-Muslims. Such behavior is often justified by the slogan ‘Islam is a complete way of life’. A priori, these requirements mean that settlement is clustered around mosques and madrasas.
But even groups that condemn the immorality of wider society also draw on a theological tradition that forbids political violence. As the Policy Exchange survey, Unsettled Belonging, on Muslim communities observed, increased religiosity is not a marker of political radicalism.
However, conservative quietism is not a solution to violent extremism.
Firstly, the segregation of society is a social evil even if does not generate religious violence. A segregated society is a less trusting, less cohesive society, as many articles on the Integration Hub have already discussed. Furthermore, polarization and mistrust make violence between communities much more likely, as was the case of the 2001 Bradford riots and the 2005 Birmingham riots.
Such violence was not religious in inspiration in a direct sense: clerics did not play a role in stirring up rioters and the Qur’an was not used to legitimate violence. But rioters in both cities drew on a strong sense of the defence of ‘Muslim territory’ in places where settlement was already segregated. Here religion relates to violence as it did in parts of Belfast, Liverpool or Glasgow in the recent past: it did not directly inspire violence but it did provide the symbols and histories that made sectarian polarization possible.
Secondly, segregated, religiously conservative environments also provide reservoirs for the airing of prejudices that go unchallenged. Criticisms of ‘the West’ incorporate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, homophobia and disgust at sexual ‘immorality’ and the use of alcohol. For conservative Muslims a key aim here is drawing strong boundaries between permitted and illicit behavior for children growing up in a threatening cosmopolitan environment. But there will be a small number of Muslims who are motivated by these narratives of Islamic purity and Western immorality to seek more radical solutions.
To help us think about the relationship between conservative religious discourse and violence, a good example is the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. Breivik was an avid reader of the American commentator Robert Spencer, well-known for his outspoken condemnation of the horrors of Islam and prophecies of the takeover of Europe by Muslim migrants (Eurabia). In the context of his connections to far-right groups and his hatred of liberal politics in Norway, Breivik then concocted his own solution to the problems that Spencer foretold. A violent solution to perceived political problems was an idea spread by an extremist far-right network. But the identification of these problems had already been undertaken by Breivik’s contact with public writings that, though divisive, never justified violence.
A similar analysis can be applied to the relationship between conservative Islam and violence. We do not have to doubt the claims of quietists to condemn violence to observe that a strong condemnation of Western immorality creates a narrative of ‘us and them’. This will make the use of violence more acceptable, because it makes all ‘outsiders’ culpable and deserving of punishment. In an inter-connected society, if people produce ideas or behaviours that discourage the social and intellectual contact that generates trust, then they are partially to blame for the effects of distrust.
Educational solutions to violent extremism (or to segregation) cannot rest on appeal to a ‘true Islam’ or to ‘British values’, however these are defined. To do so is to give oxygen to divisive narratives. The solution rests in exposing young people to a greater diversity of moral viewpoints. Totalitarianism and support for violence rest on certainties, and the antidote will come from intellectual diversity. Realising that many perspectives carry an element of truth means that no other citizen can be ignored, whatever his or her background.