Quilliam’s Program Officer Charlie Winter examines why we cannot just focus on challenging the violent extremists in society when the issue is within Islamism as a whole.
On Thursday last week, Zale Thompson, a Muslim convert from Queens, New York, attacked a group of police officers with a hatchet, injuring one critically before being shot to death. As time has passed and more information emerged about the attack, it seems that the event could be the latest in a series of terrorist operations carried out at the indirect instruction of Isis, the extremist group that now rules over much of Syria and Iraq.
If, indeed, this is the case, the implications are significant. However, it is imperative that we treat this, and other like attacks, with a level head.
First of all, it is important to lay down what we know about Thompson’s motivations. In the public sphere, evidence to suggest that Thompson was an Isis supporter was initially scant. As the days have passed, though, more details have emerged that do indicate, pretty authoritatively, that he was inclined to jihadism.
Initially, people jumped to irrational and unhelpful conclusions on the back of there being a Quranic verse on his Facebook page. Such a generalisation is as harmful as it is ignorant. However, since then, it has been learned that he regularly watched and commented on videos that, if their messages were not directly supportive of Isis, were sympathetic to its cause. Furthermore, it has since emerged that he had actively sought out a range of Isis’s ultraviolent propaganda in the past few months, during which he also trawled through websites with known links to al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab.
Certainly, then, the man appears to have had an unhealthy interest in jihadism and, as the days go by, it is looking more and more likely that he was indeed responding to Isis spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s call for Western Muslims to carry out terrorist acts in his group’s name.
However, he was not on a watch-list, something that has prompted people across the world to cry “lone wolf”, and claim that Thompson “self-radicalized” in his bedroom and, hence, that nothing could have been done to stop the attack from taking place.
However, while Isis’s millenarian rhetoric – rich as it is with references to the End of Days and the coming of the Antichrist – is powerful, it is not that persuasive. Indeed, propaganda, no matter how effectively it is produced, can only go so far. Certainly, it can make an extremist more extreme, but it alone will never be able to make a non-extremist a terrorist. To think as such is just naïve.
So, while the internet is being attacked left, right and centre, the real roots of Thompson’s radicalisation are not. He did not just happen upon jihadist content and suddenly become violent. Rather, since his conversion to Islam two years ago, he will have been groomed, socialised and indoctrinated into non-violent extremist Islamism, long before he came across any Isis videos. Herein lies the problem.
We cannot just focus on challenging the violent extremists in society. Rather, the issue is within Islamism as a whole, its fundamentally undemocratic, misogynist and illiberal principles. Only countering its violent manifestations is inadequate and short-sighted. Indeed, it might be hard to swallow, but the more people non-violent extremists recruit to their hateful cause, the larger the pool of potential adherents a group like Isis will have. The two – non-violent extremist Islamism and jihadism – are inextricably linked.
Unhappily, when in the hands of charismatic preachers, the most intolerant, rejectionist forms of Islamism have much appeal to the vulnerable. Such individuals twist all grievances into the same simple theo-political paradigm before presenting Islamism as a solution to all problems. Something must be done to counter its proliferation.
However, any state-led attempt to challenge non-violent extremism will inevitably be compromised by illiberal legislation. Hence, it is not the place of governments to deal with this problem. Rather, it is upon normal people, Muslims in particular, to reclaim their voices and upend the comfortable position from which many extremists preach.
After all, invariably, this vocal minority of non-violent extremists is at the beginning of any Western Muslim’s journey to jihadism and, until they are robustly challenged at a community level, we will continue to see vulnerable individuals like Zale Thompson commit terrible, misguided, offences.
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