People tend to confuse Islam and Islamism a lot these days. Whenever we talk about organised religion-inspired violence, it is important to make a clear distinction between conventional Islam and the radical Islamic sects.
It is also crucial to understand the basic theological concepts that facilitate the phenomenon known as the Islamic terrorism, and to be able to see the broader geopolitical factors that enable violent religious extremism.
Speaking of theology, a significant portion of all the modern Islamic extremism has its roots in the spiritual legacy of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an Islamic scholar from the Arabian Peninsula who lived in the 18th century. Al-Wahhab idealised the 7th century AD, viewing those times as the pinnacle of the Arabic World in its historic development. He argued that that those were the “purest” times, as the world witnessed the inception of Islam and its subsequent spread that facilitated cultural development and the Great Arab Conquests.
Al-Wahhab concluded that in order for the Arabs (and Muslims) to become powerful once again, the world should go back to what he considered to be the “pure” version of Islam, forcefully reverting all the progress that has been made in the fields of theology and philosophy over the last one thousand years through “Jihad” along the way. Hence the concept of Salafism was born, a concept that sparked a movement that promoted the idea of regressing the world back to the 7th century state (“salaf” is an Arabic word for “ancestor”, so, Salafism could be interpreted as, literally, the religion of ancestors).
Salafism/Wahhabism was just a small cult at the beginning, and it would have likely remained marginal, if not for various colonial powers and their intelligence agencies that started to exploit those deviant jihadists in their geopolitical games.
First, there were the British spies who used various religious movements to destabilise the Ottoman Empire. Then there were the Nazis from the Third Reich who were working with Islamists prior and during the World War II to compromise the British.
Nowadays, Islamists are being used by the United States (al-Qaeda was originally created in the late 1970s under the CIA supervision, with Zbigniew Brzezinski personally overseeing the project, to wage guerrilla warfare against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan; that venture was codenamed Operation Cyclone back then) and certain regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose elites seek to destabilise their geopolitical rivals, Syria and Iran, and to spread covert ideological influence over the region.
The total number of radical Islamists is rather small, compared to the overall number of Muslims. According to various estimates, there are anywhere between 1 and 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The Islamic State was thought to have around 200 thousand fighters during its best days. Add to that all the al-Qaeda members and their sympathisers, and you’ll get a couple of millions. Maybe even a dozen of millions. But it’s still pretty marginal, if the bigger context is taken into account. A couple of percent, at best. 1-3% is a typical number for deviant, criminal individuals in any society.
There are radical sects in Christianity (e. g. the Westboro Baptist Church). There are radical, violent sects in Buddhism (e. g. Body Bala Sena in Sri Lanka). There are even radical sects within the atheist communities (like Femen, a feminist organisation that has a record of using violence and vandalism in their political stunts).
A specific issue with Islam, however, is that its radical sects, unlike their counterparts in other religions, are well-organised, well-funded, and well-armed by those who seek to exploit them (Middle East has been a battleground for various geopolitical players for centuries).
Partly because of their geographical location, those Islamic sects are being heavily financed, their members trained, armed and coordinated, with millions of dollars poured into their PR/propaganda/recruitment programs, hence they have such a wide reach these days, both on the Internet and in real life, with specially trained Salafi/Wahhabi imams infesting Muslim communities and brainwashing highly impressionable (or otherwise psychologically unstable) individuals into committing to “Jihad” and even becoming suicide bombers.
Most people who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked groups are psychologically unstable, impressionable individuals who have poor knowledge of Islam (they read Wahhabi fatwas on the Internet, at best; in many cases, they are outright illiterates who are simply unable to read the Quran, yet along dedicate time to study it systematically and acquire knowledge on various theological interpretations of its passages).
Righteous Muslims, who dedicate time and energy to study the Quran, usually advocate the idea of special respect towards the “people of the Book”, a term used to describe all those who follow the three great Abrahamic, monotheistic religions – Jewish, Christians and Muslims.
Needless to say, righteous Muslims, both Shia or Sunni, suffer from Salafi/Wahhabi extremists the most (which, by itself, serves as a perfect illustration to how “pure” those radicals really are).
How righteous those radical sects really are? Well, the reports suggest that the members of Boko Haram, a West-African branch of the Islamic State, cut people’s throats and drink their blood. We’ve seen the US-supported FSA fighters (thousands of whom later deflected to the Islamic State) killing Syrian soldiers, cutting out their organs and eating them on camera. Ritual human blood drinking, feral cannibalism and similar quasi-pagan practices would hardly classify as a fundamental Muslim tradition. A righteous Muslim in their right mind wouldn’t even dare to consider justifying such acts of barbarism.
Speaking of right mind, do you know how Islam prohibits drinking alcohol (or any mind-altering substances, for that matter)? Some theologists reason that every Muslim has a duty to pray five times a day (the prayer is called salah, or namaz), and a person has to ensure his mind is always crystal-clear while communicating with Allah. A righteous Muslim does not drink alcohol because there is no guarantee he will be able to sober up completely before the next prayer, as they literally happen every couple of hours.
A significant portion of all those so-called Islamic State “fundamentalists” are on drugs like captagon (such stimulants act like painkillers, numbing thirst and hunger, as well as temporary relieving the need for sleep; the side effects of taking these methamphetamines often include psychosis, hallucinations and sudden death from exhaustion or cardiac arrest). Being high on meth certainly does not go in line with having a clear mind for prayers.
And, finally, there are multiple recorded instances of the Islamic State terrorists destroying mosques. Destroying sacred Muslim places and vandalizing architectural masterpieces that have the name “Allah” written on them wouldn’t be something a righteous Muslim would do.
Conventional Islam has limited relation to Islamic extremism. Those pseudo-Islamic barbaric cults are usually nothing more than a smokescreen that serves to attract derailed individuals who have never read the Quran, as well as to hide the real purpose of those groups. It is doubtful that the generals and the social architects who stand behind entities such as the Islamic State are even religious.
It is all about political power and control over natural resources. When it comes to religious extremism, religion is just a form and a tool for exploitation.
It is absurd to blame all Muslims and Islam as a whole for instilling violence. We have numerous examples of Muslim and mixed-Muslim societies being stable, progressive and socially/economically advanced – Indonesia, Kazakhstan, various regions in Southern and South-Western parts of Russia, where Muslims have been co-existing peacefully and harmoniously with people of other confessions for centuries (although, having said that, it is important to remember that those examples are organic, and that they came into existence due to a whole bunch of regional socio-historic factors; mindlessly mixing communities from different cultural backgrounds on a large scale, though, is unlikely to lead to anything stable, as some cultures are, sadly, incompatible; it’s important to understand and respectfully acknowledge each other’s differences if we want to live in a sustainable world).
With radicalism, the problem isn’t Islam itself, but the bad socio-economic environment in which radicalism thrives, coupled with the influence of geopolitical players who seek to exploit the situation. Religion does not exist in isolation.
If there had been no Islam in the Middle East, various geopolitical forces would have found other spiritual movements and/or ideologies to radicalise, propagate and exploit – Christianity, various ethnocentric ideologies, e. g. Pan-Arabism, Pan-Turkism, Kurdish nationalism, you name it.
So, the best way to fight religious extremism would be to solve geopolitical issues.
Simply bashing religion is counterproductive, as it creates unnecessary tension between different ethno-religious groups everywhere. We must act holistically and systemically if we want to address those problems.
Thus, we must arm ourselves with the knowledge on who finances all these sects, who arms them, who sends them military/logistics experts, who pours money into their recruitment networks. We already know the names of Salafi/Wahhabi scholars who spread radical ideas, encouraging direct, physical violence against the “infidels” (Salafi/Wahhabi scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi).
If we had responsible governments utilising their diplomatic channels and intelligence services to curb this plague (while also encouraging local scholars and spiritual leaders to educate their people and guide them in the right direction), religious radicals would lose their support and will soon be eradicated.