By Éloi Gunn*
Current events and vox populi [the voice of the majority of the people – Ed.] have inspired me to learn more about the process of religious radicalization and the violent extremism that often accompanies it. This article summarizes my personal journey of reflection in three phases.
Primo, I compiled first-hand information (through testimonies and interviews). I went to Strasbourg, France to meet with moderate Muslims. I visited mosques and I spoke with Muslims, most of whom were of Maghreb origin and belong to the first and second generation of immigrants. I went to soccer fields in certain underprivileged neighbourhoods and I visited to social housing projects. I went to the Maison des adolescents de Strasbourg, which helps youth between the ages of 12 and 21 who are facing life issues.
Secundo, I reviewed current scientific literature about this phenomenon, including books by Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist who specializes in Islamic radicalization in France; Pierre Conesa, a former senior official in France’s Defence Department; and Montasser AlDe’emeh, a young Belgian–Palestinian Ph.D candidate at the Université d’Anvers who took the risk of entering Syria clandestinely and spending two weeks there.
Tertio, I had the privilege of attending the colloquium on radial Islam in Canada, which was held at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean on 15 April 2016. The wealth of information shared by a number of high-profile speakers, including Fatima Houda-Pépin and Benoît Blanpain (chief of a police division in Belgium), broadened my limited knowledge.
I will share my reflections as follows: after defining radicalization from a socio-anthropological point of view, I will attempt to understand the process by focusing upon the content of radical Islamist rhetoric. To conclude, I will put forward some potential solutions for preventing radicalization and achieving de-radicalization in the face of radical Islamist propaganda.
What is radicalization?
Generally speaking, religious radicalization is the process by which an individual or group of individuals push a religious ideology to the extreme. On the sociological level, that extremism takes the form of the individual’s or group’s exclusion or self-exclusion from the majority of the religion’s believers, and, as a consequence, from mainstream society. Thus, Dounia Bouzar defines a radical as “any individual who uses religion to exclude himself or herself from society, or to exclude others.”1 [Translation.]
Espousing a radical religious ideology, in and of itself, is not harmful to society. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, was a radical in his time. The Wesley brothers, who founded the Methodist movement, could also be seen as religious radicals. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the fathers of political–religious pacifism, also fall into that category. Radicals move society forward. That being said, any radicalization that incites physical and psychological violence is destructive and endangers values. Clearly, Islamic radicalization as preached by the Daesh (“Islamic State”) is detrimental to the well-being of modern societies. It is a form of radicalization that is violent or that incites violence; it “uses violence to disseminate or defend its convictions.”2 [Translation.]
In recent years, experts on radicalization have generally agreed that it is a gradual process given that there are multiple causes. While in some cases individuals have become radicalized in a few days, the process generally requires months or even years. It takes time for radical discourse to have an effect on an individual and for the “group phenomenon” to draw a young person into radicalization. As in the case of the Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels, the place where an individual lives is a determining factor in his or her radicalization. We once thought, incorrectly, that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were more susceptible to radicalization. Although we now question that, the fact remains that some environments are more fertile ground for radicalization than others.
Rhetoric in the process of radicalization to violence
1. The form of the rhetoric
The process of radicalization begins with radical rhetoric. It may be heard in places of worship, on the Internet, among friends in a neighbourhood or in the school yard. In mosques, the emergence of radical clerics—such as Mohamed Hammami, the Tunisian-born imam of the Omar mosque in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, and Shayh Alami, an imam of dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality in Dison, Belgium—aids the spread of radical ideas. In fact, according to the Courrier de l’Atlas, French Minster of the Interior, Manuel Valls, addressed the accusations against Imam Mohamed Hammami as follows: “During his prayers, the imam made comments that were openly hostile to the values of the Republic. He promoted jihad, made anti-Semitic remarks and justified the use of violence and corporal punishment against women.”3 [Translation.] What is more, the imam “is accused of [disseminating] Salafist propaganda and of fomenting violence and holy war.”4 [Translation.]
Jihadists are adept at social media and are using it to their advantage. The propagandist speeches and videos on the Internet rely on two main symbolic strategies:5 (1) borrowing accepted cultural codes that are rooted in the collective memory of Western society (fire or flames) and (2) the symbolic norms of Al Qaeda’s jihad (the attacks of 11 September 2001). Genres are being mixed in a way that blurs the boundaries between fiction and imagination. More than ever, jihadi rhetoric is transgressing traditional family codes by invading homes, both physically and through online and other media. The state and parental gatekeeping process has been breached and circumvented.
2. The theological scope of the jihadist narrative
2.1 “Pure” Islam
The jihadist narrative claims to guide Muslims and non-Muslims back to “true Islam.” It promotes a return to the source. Therefore, it follows that modern-day Islam must be cleansed of all its imperfections in order to achieve the Salafist ideal. “Pure” Islam has allegedly been corrupted by the culture and customs of Western society. Those who adhere to this “pure,” “true” Islam will be part of a small group of elect that believes they possess the truth. They believe themselves to be superior to other believers and to non-believers (kafirs). As the distinguished French anthropologist, writer and educator Dounia Bouzar notes, the use of the notion of group purity in jihadist propaganda is an ominous sign.6
The sociological function of “group purity” is to create two separate worlds: the pure and the impure; us and them. The notion of purity ‘de-culturalizes,’ excludes and re-creates a globalized Islam. Consequently, “true” Muslims define themselves through their connection to this new group of “pure” Muslims who no longer identify with Western culture, a specific country, or nationality, but only with Salafist fundamentalism.
This type of discourse is nothing new; it is based on strategies employed by sectarian groups or new religious movements driven by revivalism. One thing Salafism and American Protestant fundamentalism have in common is that “both reject culture, philosophy and even theology in favour of a scriptural reading of the sacred texts and an immediate grasp of the truth.”7 [Translation.]
2.2 Eschatology and jihad8
The notion of purity in Salafist discourse is coupled with an eschatology which takes a more tangible form with the creation of an “Islamic State.” According to the self-proclaimed jihadist expert Montasser AlDe’emeh, the end of time is an additional motivating factor for young people who join a radical Islamic movement. He states that many of the young people who have travelled to Syria to fight “believe it is an honour to take part in the apocalyptic combat between Islamic fighters and the unbelievers. In their eyes, the war in Syria is a prelude to the coming of a messianic figure who, according to some Islamic sources, will bring justice in the world.”9
It would be a mistake to ignore or minimize the weight of this eschatological message [doctrine of death, judgement, heaven and hell – Ed.] in the radical discourse of Islamic State. If young people can be convinced that they are participating, in real time and in a real place, in the coming of the Mahdi, that belief gives their lives meaning. For those among them who are disillusioned with politicians or our capitalist society of consumerism, the eschatological perspective of the jihadist narrative makes sense. For many of these young people, the proclamation of the Islamic State is a light at the end of their existential tunnel: at last, they can play a useful role in a decaying society. According to the narrative, although it may appear as though humans are in control, the reality is that Allah make the laws, not corrupt politicians.10
Writing in the second person, historian and former senior French defence official Pierre Conesa describes the eschatological vision of a young radical in these terms: “This corrupt world cannot survive: there are too many injustices, too many unconscionable wars, too many massacres committed with impunity, too much depravity…. This decadent society is a return to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Sumer and Babylon, wallowing in lust, usury, incest, sodomy and the cult of idols…. The imminent divine punishment will destroy this society, as it destroyed Rome and Byzantium. The final battle will be fought in the city of Dabiq, in Syria, as the Prophet has foretold.”11 [Translation.]
With this eschatological vision, every young person who is in the process of becoming radicalized is convinced that he or she will participate in the birth of a new world in Syria. Some will go even farther and compare themselves to, or take themselves for, the Madhi.12 They may reason that the city of Dabiq is occupied right now by the caliphate and cite Abu al-Darda’s declaration concerning the physical location where the Madhi will appear: “The best garrison of Muslims on the day of the Malhama [Armageddon] will be located in Ghouta, near a city called Damascus, one of the best cities in Sham [Syria].”13 [Translation.]
The eschatological illusion of the new Islamic movement known as Daesh is not unique in the history of religions. Some Jewish groups in the time of Jesus of Nazareth—the Zealots—believed that they were contributing to the coming of the Messiah. Our contemporaries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (a Christian group), had predicted that the “time of the Gentiles” would end in 1914. They believe that we are living, as per the Book of Daniel (Chapter 12), in “the end times,” after which Christ will reign for a thousand years and free the world from its suffering (putting an end to war, famine and injustice). According to them, a “little flock of 144,000” will form the new humanity, which will dominate the Earth according to divine law and, in 1,000 years, will restore pre-lapsarian perfection.
A quick comparison between the eschatological discourse of the Islamists in the Daesh movement and that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reveals two theological thrusts: the imminent end of this unjust world, and the formation of a privileged group of the elect and the introduction of religious law in order to bring humanity closer to the divine. The only difference is that, unlike Daesh, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use physical violence to disseminate their religious ideology. But, like Daesh, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to separate their believers from the rest of society.
Since the first goal of religious radicalization to violence is to separate young people from society and recruit and indoctrinate them into a new “family of the enlightened,” the process of de-radicalization or de-indoctrination requires that the radical discourse be deconstructed. The process of deconstruction will identify the rhetorical elements that have persuasive power and make it possible to construct a more positive discourse aimed at convincing the recruits to free themselves from their “slavery.”
Toward a de-radicalization of religious discourse: Understanding the rhetoric of commonplaces or topoi
The persuasive effect of the discourse of religious radicalization to violence is heightened by the use of certain rhetorical elements, notably topoi, or commonplaces.14 It seems to me that both the prevention of radicalization and the process of de-radicalization must be grounded in an understanding of these rhetorical commonplaces, so that we can be more aware of their persuasive power at the outset.
These topoi are so deeply rooted in the society and culture from which they emerge that we can refer to them as socio-cultural commonplaces. According to the ancient philosopher Aelius Théon, socio-cultural commonplaces can be defined as certain or probable assertions derived from an ensemble of forms of knowledge, values and social conventions. A commonplace is used to construct a line of reasoning based on an amplified description of an action.15 Islamist rhetoric of radicalization to violence contains a number of topoi, including the Ummah (an ideological concept of a global Muslim community), retribution, death and resurrection, and the end of time. To simplify and focus my argument, I will examine a single topos: the Ummah.
2. The Ummah commonplace
The socio-cultural topos is the most fundamental one in Islamist radicalization to violence. The conflicts in the Middle East, the confrontations between Israel and Palestine, and the conflict in Syria are also rallying cries for the creation of a virtual global Muslim community. Radical discourse uses the Ummah commonplace to intensify the sense of belonging to Islam by ignoring individual nationalities. One extremist had this to say about the banning of the Islamic veil in Belgium:
How many stories have we heard of women who were forced to remove their hijabs, while Muslim men were there and did nothing? Guys, it’s your responsibility! You must stand up for your sisters…. We are a community. We have to stand up for our sisters.16
As we can see, the author, writing from the perspective of the Ummah commonplace, emphasizes what he perceives as a fault: the pacifism of Muslim men (wherever they are) while Muslim women living in Western countries are suffering. Here, this topos is used to label as guilty those who fail to act. The message resonates with young Westerners, especially when they have grown up in a culture that encourages people to take action against social injustices. This is analogous to the Canadian Armed Forces’ Operation Honour,17 in which a program was implemented to counter the psycho-social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. No one in our society wants to be the witness who sees the next Kitty Genovese raped and murdered on a New York Street and does nothing.18 Similarly, those who want to help women and children who have been traumatized by war are susceptible to becoming drawn into Daesh. In this context, the Ummah commonplace, amplified by guilt and its psycho-social parallel, the bystander effect, becomes a mirror in which people undergoing radicalization see and interpret the injustices which Daesh claims to stand up against.
3. Countering the Ummah commonplace: Deconstruction
How can we counter the persuasive force of this topos?
We must simply begin by deconstructing it. But before we can do that, there is something we must understand: the Ummah commonplace is based on a myth in the service of a religious ideology. Contrary to what the Ummah seems to offer—one global Muslim family—the reality is that the Arab–Muslim community is not as tight-knit as Daesh would like young people to believe. As Pierre Conesa writes, “The Ummah is actually a mythology. Every day, there are more massacres and religious solidarity is weakened. In the past, we have seen proletarian solidarity, which was supposed to unite all the workers of the world. It was compelling and intoxicating, but no less deadly for all that. Today, the Ummah is experiencing the same crisis.”19 [Translation.] The war in Syria and its casualties are evidence of that. In the Arab–Muslim world, there are clashes between the different factions. The economist and philosopher Guy Sorman describes the situation in the online newspaper L’Hebdo:
In Kabul, the Taliban attack a hotel frequented by Afghans; in Pakistan, Ismaili pilgrims, a Shiite sect, are assassinated by Sunnis; in Yemen, an internal conflict pits local Shiites supported by Iran against Sunnis armed by the Saudis, who are followers of Wahabi. In Syria, the Alawis, who are affiliated with the Shiites, massacre Sunnis and Kurds.20 [Translation.]
To believe in the myth of the Ummah, one must ignore the internecine warfare between the various branches of Christianity which have marked its history. The long war between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a country with a Christian majority, are just two examples. In short, it is no secret that there are many divisions between different movements within the same religion. Of course, the ideal of all religions is harmony. But in light of the religious history of humanity, we are forced to recognize that harmony is just a utopia. To believe in, or persuade others to believe in, the Ummah is to believe in and promote a grandiose myth.
Fundamentalist religious discourse that incites violence contributes to radicalization of young people from all social classes and all walks of life. Often, we focus on the phenomenon of radicalization from a political and social point of view while paying little attention to the message itself. In this short article, we have shown, through a few selected examples, the importance of the topos, or commonplace, in the persuasive power of rhetoric.
The prevention of radicalization and the process of de-radicalization should both begin with a systematic analysis of the rhetoric used in the fundamentalist religious discourse of radicalization to violence. We must identify the commonplaces and find a rhetorical counterweight for each. Then, we must create a realistic, convincing narrative supported by concrete action on social, economic and political issues. The war against any religious extremist ideology is often, first and foremost, rhetorical: “In the beginning was the Word.”
About the author:
*Lt(N) Éloi T. D. Gunn, chaplain, was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada in 2005. After serving in several civilian parishes, he enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2011. He served as chaplain for 12 RBC, 5 RALC and 5 Svc Bn in Valcartier (Quebec) before he was posted to the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre in Borden, where he currently serves as course director. He earned a Ph.D (Th.) from the University of Ottawa, a Doctor of Ministry from Saint-Paul University as well as a two-year undergraduate diploma in sociology from the University of Lomé (Togo).
This article was published by the Canadian Military Journal, Volume 18, Number 2, Page 65.
- Dounia Bouzar, Désamorcer l’Islam radical (Paris: Les Éditions de l’atelier, 2014), p. 17.
- Montasser AlDe’emeh, Pourquoi nous sommes tous des Djihadistes (Paris: La boîte à Pandore, 2015), p. 259.
- Rachad Cherif, “Expulsion d’un imam radical de Paris vers la Tunisie,” Courier de l’Atlas, 23 November 2015, http://www.lecourrierdelatlas.com/1043223112015France.-Expulsion-d-un-imam-radical-de-Paris-vers-la-Tunisie.html#sthash.SUDfjodd.dpuf; consulted on 8 April 2016.
- “Nouvel arrêté d’expulsion: l’imam radical de Dison, visiblement irrité, frappe le micro de notre journaliste,” RTL Info, 16 March 2016, http://www.rtl.be/info/regions/liege/nouvel-arrete-d-expulsion-l-imam-radical-de-dison-visiblement-irrite-frappe-le-micro-de-notre-journaliste-802692.aspx, consulted on 8 April 2016.
- In her speech (“Mythes et enjeux du discours terroriste à l’ère du numérique”) to the colloquium on radical Islamism in Canada, held on 15 April 2016 at Royal Military College Saint-Jean, Lily Gramaccia highlighted the role of online media in in disseminating terrorist discourse.
- Dounia Bouzar, Comment sortir de l’emprise “Djihadiste”? (Paris: Les Éditions de l’Atelier, 2015), pp. 51–52.
- Olivier Roy, “Le ‘born again’ et son univers fondamentaliste,” in Dounia Bouzar, Quelle éducation face au radicalisme religieux? (Paris: Dunod, 2006), p. 43.
- There are two types of jihad. Greater jihad is the struggle of personal self-improvement against self’s base desires and lesser jihad, which is defined as a military struggle to defend Islam.
- Montasser, AlDe’emeh. Pourquoi nous sommes tous des Djihadistes, Paris, La boîte à Pandore, 2015, p. 144.
- Ibid., pp. 145–146.
- Pierre Conesa, Guide du Petit Djihadiste à l’usage des adolescents, des parents, des enseignants et des gouvernants (Paris: Fayard, 2016), p. 38.
- The Madhi is the name given to the Prophet’s descendant, who, at the end of time, will help Christ establish order and justice.
- Dounia Bouzar, Comment sortir de l’emprise “Djihadiste”? (Paris: Les Éditions de l’Atelier, 2015), p. 81.
- Aelius Théon defines topos, or commonplace, as “an amplifying speech about a wrong or a brave act. For the commonplace is double: one commonplace is against those having acted wickedly … whereas another one is on behalf of those who have accomplished something virtuous….” J.R. Butts, The Progymnasmata of Theon: A new text with translation and commentary (Claremont: UMI Dissertation Services, 1986), p. 403.
- Éloi Gunn, Prosopopée idéologique de Paul: Une lecture socio-rhétorique du discours de Paul à Athènes (Actes 17, 15-18, 1), Ph.D. thesis, University of Ottawa, 2005, p. 197.
- Montasser AlDe’emeh, Pourquoi nous sommes tous des Djihadistes, p. 15.
- Operation Order signed by the Chief of the Defence Staff on 14 August 2015; the mission was to “Eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the CAF.” http://www.forces.gc.ca/assets/FORCES_Internet/docs/en/caf-community-support-services-harassment/cds-op-order-op-honour.pdf, consulted on 10 January 2017.
- Kitty Genovese, a young waitress, was murdered by a serial killer in 1964 in Queens, New York. Approximately 30 witnesses are thought to have seen the crime and heard the victim screaming for help, but none of them came to her aid. A number of psychologists later tried to determine the reason for the witnesses’ inaction. In 1968, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané demonstrated what is now called the “bystander effect.” For more information, see Didier Decoin, Est-ce ainsi que les femmes meurent? (Paris: Grasset, 2009).
- Pierre Conesa, Guide du Petit Djihadiste à l’usage des adolescents, des parents, des enseignants et des gouvernants (Paris: Fayard, 2016, p. 25).
- Guy Sorman, “L’islam contre les musulmans,” http://www.hebdo.ch/les-blogs/sorman-guy-le-futur-cest-tout-de-suite/lislam-contre-les-musulmans; consulted on 10 January 2017.