78 EWI’s initial research focused.10 They are faced with multiple identities and the choices they make will lead to different lives. Knowledge about their own faith and the person who meets these potential recruits at that crossroads can be major determinants of the direction they choose. Often idealistic and searching, young people will be found by religious extremists anxious to mold and train them in their own image. When a young person is met by a religious extremist and has little understanding of the true tenets of his own faith, he or she is particularly vulnerable to recruitment. Most young people will, of course, be aware that religious extremism exists. Simply warning them of the danger will not suffice. Further, this dilemma does not argue for the avoidance of religious education. Rather, it cries out for the importance of proper religious education. The form that education takes will be as varied as the communities in which it occurs. However, it must provide young people with mentors with whom they can relate and teach them to think critically about how to relate religious principles to their lives. These are the same provisions generally proffered by extremist movements, but with a different message and by a different messenger. There is no one approach to combating this problem. Recently in the United Kingdom, the government began sponsoring civics classes with a curriculum aimed at matching the messages from the Quran to challenges in British life. It has met with mixed reviews, with one of the main criticisms being that it singled out Muslim children. This is a strong argument for the importance of consistency of approach, especially when the government is involved. However, as important as what is taught is who teaches it. In all three cases, EWI’s research confirmed the important role mentors played in extremist recruitment. Acknowledging finite resources—most notably money and time—all of those consulted by EWI agreed that there needed to be an even greater focus by leading persons of faith to connect with young people. Clergy need not be solely responsible for this, nor would they always make the best mentors. Again, each community will be different. Imam Sajid, an imam in the U.K., has also identified the continuing education of clergy as a major issue. He is particularly familiar with the needs there, especially the continuing growth of mosques and Muslim organizations and the attendant dearth of qualified people to staff them. To a degree, this may be a problem more specific to this region than to others. The larger issue of qualification—both theologically and as an authority figure overall—is one with
In Israel, this is a structural problem and often radicalization of young people will be dictated by the yeshiva they attend. The solution here will require far more pressure from moderates, something that will be addressed in the section dedicated to mobilizing the moderates.
widespread applicability.11 His recommendation, echoed by others at EWI’s conference, was the institution of a qualifications system before a person could be registered to preach or teach. Of course, this works only insofar as the preaching or teaching is public and is not something the government could or should seek to legislate. Rather, again, the onus must be on leading persons of faith to come together and institute their own checks and balances. To this end, Imam Sajid recommended a yearly course, designed in collaboration with the state and the community, focused on civilian laws pertinent to the faith, i.e., everything from laws affecting life cycle events to counter-terrorism measures. The objective is for leading persons of faith to push themselves to continually reinterpret their theology for the issues of the day. Finally, increasing religious literacy as a means of rehabilitating those enticed by extremist movements is also important. Clearly, finding and reaching such people is difficult, but there is one place where rehabilitation has been and can be attempted: prison. Clergy working with governments in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt have had some success in convincing incarcerated adherents of extremist ideology that they had been theologically mislead. This applies both to the foot soldiers and to high-level operators and ideologues. Egypt’s counterradicalization programs are the most extensive of the four, and their most recent success is the forthcoming paper “Advice Regarding the Conduct of Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World” by Sayid Imam alSharif, the founder and first commander of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In the paper he recants his theological interpretations that supported violent jihad, which had formed the core of his earlier work “Foundations of Preparation for Holy War.” This work had served as the ideological cornerstone for many violent Muslim extremist groups. The program has already resulted in twenty-five volumes of revisions in which former ideologues revised their prior thinking on issues including: declaring Muslims apostates, attacks on civilians, and waging war against Muslim rulers who do not apply Sharia law. These programs consist of allowing those imprisoned to speak with one another and to dialogue with clerics who bring a different, i.e. nonviolent, interpretation to theology. In some instances, reductions in prison sentences have also been used as inducements. This report does not recommend or condemn this approach —it is out of EWI’s area of expertise—but does caution that such inducements can yield surface level success and skew real results. Clearly, the optimal scenario is one in which a genuine conversion away from violence takes place, not abetted by material inducements. Further, not surprisingly, none of these recantations 11
Imam Sajid (Imam Brighton Islamic Mission) interviewed by Stephen Tankel (EWI Fellow), August 2007.
Published on Jul 23, 2010