‘Not about religion…’ ???

I recently finished watching the four part drama The State, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK. The State follows four British Muslims who head off to Syria to join Islamic State, with, needless to say, less than hilarious results.

I am not going to review the programme; apart from anything I don’t want to give away plot details to anyone who wishes to watch it. I will however say that whilst I found the drama gripping, I was ultimately left wanting much more. Four episodes is no way near enough to get down into the reasons why individuals would choose to join a nihilistic death cult. I was more interested in that aspect rather than simply a 24 style drama and this was glossed over too much for my liking. It’s worth checking out though as it certainly wasn’t boring to watch.

I also saw an interview with the writer/ director Peter Kosminsky and picked up on something he said which I found somewhat problematic.

Kosminsky said that whilst researching The State, it became apparent that those who chose to travel to Syria to join ISIS could not be neatly placed into any neat category; for example, recruits came from impoverished families and rich families; some came from broken homes, others from stable homes and so on.

Kosminsky goes on to say that the one commonality found amongst budding jihadists was “shallow association” with their faith – they had either converted to Islam from another religion, or had been brought up Muslim but later on became “born again”. This apparently suggests that the more one studies Islam, the “less likely [one is] to travel”. I certainly find this to be an eloquent and highly persuasive analysis; however, I am somewhat less enamoured with the conclusion that Kosminsky draws from his research:

“What [the research] suggests to me is that although [radicalisation] purports to be about religion, it’s actually not about religion…”

Whilst I agree that new recruits to ISIS probably do not have a particularly in depth knowledge of Islam, I do not agree with the assertion that religious doctrine does not play a role in the decision to sign up. In fact, I feel that this assertion is almost as problematic as saying that ISIS represents Islam and Muslims as a whole (a sentiment which I find highly distasteful, in case there was any doubt).

Radicalisation is not all about religion, but it is something to do with it.

I urge everybody to read the autobiography of former radical Maajid Nawaz, a British born former extremist who has since formed Quilliam, the world’s first counter extremism think-tank. There are also a number of clips of him speaking about countering extremism on YouTube and these are also well worth checking out.

Nawaz distinguishes between ‘mainstream’ Islam on the one hand (as practised privately by the majority of the Muslim world) and Islamism/ Jihadism, which advocates the imposition of Islamic doctrine throughout the world via preaching or violent means. The issue of Islamism is one which I find particularly interesting and I will expand on this in a later post.

Whilst Islamism and its violent counterpart, jihadism, may often involve political grievances, it also seems absurd to me when some commentators deny any link between the actions of jihadist organisations and some Islamic doctrines, as contained in the Qu’ran and the hadiths. The doctrines of martyrdom and punishment for apostasy, for instance, are front and centre for groups such as ISIS and inspiration for both can be derived from Islamic doctrine (Qu’ran chapter 3 verse 129-130;  Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:260 )

Clearly, all religious texts can and must be contextualised; common sense must prevail and passages which are obsolete in modern times should be dismissed. Inconsistencies abound in all religions and most people cherry pick the good stuff (for want of a better phrase).

However, it cannot be denied that not everybody chooses to contextualise religious texts benignly. Islam is no exception here and highlighting this for the purposes of debate should not automatically amount to racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia.

There is a world of difference between debating the validity of human beings and debating the validity of a set of ideas. It cannot be denied for example, that certain passages of the Bible can be invoked as a justification for homophobia – we will all have heard the phrase “it’s in the Bible” at some point in our lives. It of course does not mean that one who identifies as Christian automatically subscribes to a homophobic mind-set, but it also does not mean that the doctrine itself does not exist.

Fortunately, most of us will have no problems in calling out racism or homophobia, even if religion is invoked as a justification. Yet there seems to be more of a reluctance to challenge the promotion of fundamentalist doctrines within Islam, for fear of being labelled Islamophobic or racist.

After the Charlie Hebdo killings took place in 2015, I was appalled to find examples of victim blaming, with criticism being levelled at the cartoonists’ decision to satirise the Prophet – “it’s terrible that these cartoonists were murdered BUT… those cartoons…”

There is no “But” when the end result of printing cartoons is the loss of life. Whilst anybody is entitled to take offence at anything, such individuals lose the moral high ground if they resort to violence, or indeed, if they become apologists for such acts.

Anders Breivik, the Finsbury Park mosque attacks, Charlottesville – all these have been called out for what they are – acts of white supremacist terrorism. The link to an ideology has not been denied, nor should it ever be. However this principle must be applied across the board – Radical Islam cannot get a free pass here.

Individuals have a choice about whether to be religious and how far they wish to take their beliefs. We must be respectful of this if, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it neither breaks our legs nor picks our pocket.

Nevertheless, it is not bigoted to denounce bad ideas, or to denounce those who seek to impose or promote them.

ISIS is no doubt operating with a political agenda and this is evident in their actions. However, this agenda is clearly underpinned by religion. To deny this is, for me,  cultural relativism at its absolute worst.

Til next time, be well,


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