The call is often from a worried teacher. They are noticing changes in students from immigrant backgrounds. Before, they defined themselves by nationality, as Kosovars, Bosnians or Turks, now they say they are Muslims. Before, they took part in art classes, now they insist their religion prohibits art. Then there’s a second change: these young men and women start to talk of a war against Islam that targets Muslims – targets them.
When I listen, I remember myself as a 16-year-old, the daughter of a diplomat from a secular family, coming back to my home country, Yemen, after four years in Morocco. It was 1982 – a period that saw the mushrooming of Islamist ideology in North Yemen. I was fascinated by a religious group led by a charismatic young woman of 17. The group met in the schoolyard. I would later learn it was part of a strong Islamist movement that saw Salafists work hand-in-hand with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“My father was not my father anymore; he was an enemy of Islam, I was told”
The sessions were fascinating. Our leader explained about the love of God. The moment we enter into Islam, she said, all our sins are washed away and we become equal. The fate of those who are not Muslims was never mentioned. She told us that we could be better people if only we embraced the message of Islam – the true Islam, not the corrupted form of our society. For a teenage girl, lacking direction, the message was mesmerising, and I embraced it wholeheartedly.
The changes in me were gradual. It started with language. Instead of greeting others with “good morning” or “good evening”, I used only the salute of Islam: “assalamu alaikum”, peace be upon you. Later I would learn that this salute is only reserved for Muslims. “Do not use it with non-Muslims”, I was told.
My days took on a rigid religious structure: prayer, Quran recital. It was strict, but simple and reassuring. “You have to wear the hijab”, I was told. “Hell will be filled with women hanged by their hair because of the way they seduced men by their beauty”. I was used to walking with my hair open. I covered up nevertheless. I did not like it. It suffocated me. But I did it – if this is the price for God’s love, how could I object?
“Militant radicalisation feeds on non-violent Islamism”
I was told all those around me including my practicing mother were living in Jahiliyya – “the state of ignorance and false belief that prevailed before the time of Islam”. I was told that painting, sculpture, art and music were all part of Jahiliyya and prohibited by Islam. I started to feel uncomfortable. I grew up surrounded by art and was fascinated reading about it in the encyclopaedia my father gave me when I reached 13. I was told that, like the companions of Mohammed, I had to renounce my parents and their society. I was told I belonged to a “chosen group” made supreme by adherence to the real Islam.
The more I embraced their message, the more I was drawn away from my father – an intellectual, a philosopher. He was a man of wisdom who taught me about life, philosophy and religion through poetry, books and critical thinking. My father was not my father anymore; he was an enemy of Islam, I was told. He objected to my wearing of the hijab. He objected to what I started to tell him about Islam and the world. He was telling me this is fundamentalism, and I was starting to be angry with him. When I told my group about our fights, they repeated the message about the companions of Mohammed and how sometimes they had to fight their own fathers, brothers and uncles, even on the battlefield.
I started to be separated from my surroundings. Our meetings were no longer in the school, but in houses of young members of the movement. Older women were talking to us now. They were telling me killing is OK. I was given a booklet about the life of Khaled Eslamboli, the army officer who planned the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Eslamboli was treated as a “hero of Islam”. Sadat was a Pharaoh who made peace with Israel, who worked with Jews intent on destroying Islam.
It was not just the militant dimension of their message that finally made me realise that something was fundamentally wrong with this group, it was the gender aspect. It was when I was told a saying of the Prophet about a woman who ignored her husband to visit her sick father. I was told the Prophet said, “the angels are cursing her, for she defied her husband’s order”. Later I came to understand that the Prophet might not have said this at all.
“Violence is often the last step of the radicalisation process”
I left our meeting that afternoon knowing I would never return. Who should be cursed here, I asked myself, the woman who wants to visit her sick father, or this husband who has no mercy in his heart?
It was with a sigh of relief that my father witnessed the end of my short flirtation with Islamism – taking off my headscarf was its first sign.
I was lucky. I was raised in a context that provided me with the tools to question everything I was told, not to take things at face value. Others are not so lucky and become entangled in a web of radicalism.
I am sharing this personal story with you because it connects with the phone calls I receive nowadays from Swiss teachers, overwhelmed with changes they are witnessing in their students. It connects with the questions raised by European and North American policymakers on how to tackle militant Islamism. Those policymakers often seem content with policies that address the security dimension of radicalisation, focusing on violent Islamism but ignoring its non-violent version. When they attempt to chart preventive or de-radicalisation policies, they conclude that working with “non-violent extremism” can be the best antidote to violent extremism.
I strongly disagree with this approach, because Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State are simply violent manifestations of that non-violent Islamism.
As a scholar, my research has always touched on Islamism. I researched the Arabian Peninsula’s social and political structures. I travelled the region for a book on authoritarian Arab states and women’s rights. I researched Sharia Councils in the UK. The more I learned about Islamism, the more one crucial message became evident: militant radicalisation feeds on non-violent Islamism – tackling the first requires confronting the second.
I tend to distinguish between two types of Islamism: societal and political.
Societal Islamism refers to those puritanical religious movements which concern themselves with changing social behaviours to conform to their rigid world view. They call for an Islamic mode of life, to separate its followers from wider society and often refrain from politics. The Salafi Islam of Saudi Arabia and Deobandi Islam of South Asia belong to these movements.
Political Islam, on the other hand, is a modern ideology that seeks political power as a means of transforming society. Its goal is revolutionary change compelled by a vision of a puritanical society governed by the law of God. In this state, identity and citizenship are defined by religious affiliation and observance.
There are different types of political Islam. Movements, such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, seek to create this vision of society through outright violence. Others – such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami – use an incremental approach. Violence is still socially acceptable, but the strategy is gradual Islamisation through the education system, the mosque and the media. It is no coincidence that every time Islamists enter a government the first ministry they insist on having is education, and the first measure involves moulding the curriculum around their ideology.
Sometimes the two types of Islamism intertwine to become indistinguishable. Both embrace the ultimate objective of an Islamist state that implements what they consider the laws of God. Both call for a state run by a chosen supreme group of Muslims. Both actively promote concepts of military and missionary Jihad against enemies of Islam – the West included. Both emphasise control over women in their preaching of an ideal Islamist world.
I was drawn to both societal and political Islamism. The first paved the ground for the second. Societal Islamism sought to systematically separate me from my diverse Muslim North Yemeni society. It immersed me in a religious teaching that gradually turned political – the ultimate aspect of which was violence, that “it is OK to kill the enemies of Islam”.
My story took place in the ‘eighties, decades before the Iraq War and the War on Terror, which some point to today to explain the radicalisation of young migrants. It would be difficult to blame Western foreign policy for my fascination with Islamism. Nor did I come from a poor or marginalised background. I was upper-middle class, educated and privileged, but I was also young and searching for my identity.
Many of those radicalised in the West today are second, or third, generation migrants with Islamic heritage, or converts to Islam. They may face marginalisation and racism, identity crises, or the urge to rebel against family and society. However, the main driver of radicalisation is the ideological message of societal and political Islamism. It provides new recruits with direction, structure and identity. It empowers them with images of supremacy and domination. Violence is often the last step of the radicalisation process.
Taking on militant Islamism requires policies that confront its societal and political messages in schools, mosques and religious classes. In charting these policies, it makes sense to avoid alliances with societal or political Islamist movements, however “non-violent” their message.
Elham Manea is an Associate Professor at the University of Zurich specialising in the Middle East, a writer, and a human rights activist.