Spreading the holy word—and fuelling Islamic extremism

Salafi preachers travel the globe preaching the ‘true’ Islam. Their converts are fertile ground for jihadists.

G. Paul Burnett The New York Times/ Getty Images/ Tim Wimborne Reuters

Canada’s Muslim community is reeling again after the arrests of three of its own last week in another alleged homegrown terrorist plot. In particular, the case of the dancing doctor, Khurram Syed Sher, has raised some serious questions, not only for those who practise Islam but for those who make their living from identifying threats to Canada’s security. How does an educated, Canadian-born Muslim and Canadian Idol aspirant with all the apparent hallmarks of moderation allegedly turn to violent jihad?

That question has become central to the discourse on the future of jihad, in Canada and among Muslims around the world. Canadians, who have already witnessed the case of the Toronto 18, are not alone in their concern over the radicalization of young Muslims previously considered immune to violent ideologies. In Pakistan, a spate of attacks over the past year has focused attention on a growing trend of radicalization among educated young people. One attack, in December 2009 near the capital of Islamabad, on a mosque frequented by Pakistani military officers, led to the arrest of a group of middle-class Pakistanis who had studied at some of the top universities in the country, and hailed from families with addresses in the posh, tree-lined laneways of Islamabad. They certainly did not fit the typical militant trope: the madrasa-educated fanatic out to cleanse the world of the infidel.

Five months later, another terrorist plot in New York City’s Times Square focused the world’s attention again on this new brand of violent jihadist. Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old baby-faced plotter of that failed bombing attempt, was the son of a Pakistani military officer, Western-educated and in every outward expression the embodiment of the well-adjusted, westernized Muslim.

Why are young people falling prey to radical ideology? Some, like Toronto Star commentator Haroon Siddiqui, argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the problem. “Stop being in denial that there is no connection between the wars we wage and the terrorist mayhem that they trigger, there and here,” he recently wrote. Others blame the Internet, where radical ideology is fast becoming mainstream fare.

Both points of view are valid—to a degree—but fail to address the key issue facing Muslims in the 21st century: what does Islam mean and how does a person express his or her faith? On that front, fundamentalists are winning the battle.

In Pakistan, their uncontested rise is rapidly changing the religious landscape to one ossified by a puritan ideology, fixated on the form of Islam practised in the seventh century. At the forefront is the Tablighi Jamaat, a network of proselytizers and religious activists who travel throughout the country—and the world—teaching the Salafi branch of Islam, the reductionist version of the religion practised by virtually all jihadist groups in the world. The Tablighis themselves claim an ideological pedigree from a slightly less radical form of fundamentalist orthodoxy. But since Sept. 11, 2001, their ideology has shifted closer to the Salafis, to a point where they are generally seen as being within the Salafi fold. And for both, Islam’s crisis is the consequence of a weakness of faith, poisoned by secular democracy. The cure is a return to the original form of the religion, cleansed of innovations that have misguided the faithful. “The greatest enemies of Islam,” says Ilyas Khan, a preacher at the Tablighi preaching centre in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s war-ravaged northwest, “are Muslims themselves.”

Whether preached by the Tablighis, who are self-professed pacifists, or Salafi groups that openly espouse violence, that message is spreading fast in Pakistan, where war and natural disasters like the current flooding have forced tens of thousands into refugee camps run by Salafi groups. “They are the only ones helping people in Swat,” says Anwar Shah in Madyan, a town devastated by the floods. “The government has done nothing, but the religious groups have been there since the beginning. They are winning over the local people.”

According to some local administrators, the influence of the groups poses a significant threat to the future of Pakistan. “It’s not just that they come here to help the people,” says one government official in Mingora, Swat’s main city, requesting anonymity due to fears of reprisals. “They set up schools where they teach their kind of Islam. They become a permanent presence, and they convert people for years.”

In Canada, Tablighis have become a major force in the Islamic reform movement. Virtually every mosque in Toronto has at one time or another hosted members of the group, often travelling from Pakistan to preach and convert Canadian Muslims to the “true Islam.” How much of their influence affected men like Sher remains unclear, but some evidence has emerged that their brand of fundamentalism may have played at least an ideological role. According to a CBC report, the wife of the group’s alleged mastermind, Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh, suddenly began wearing the niqab, the face veil that reveals only the eyes, two years ago after a visit to Toronto. Prior to that, she wore only the hijab, or headscarf. A third accused member of the group, Misbahuddin Ahmed, allegedly went on a trip to an undisclosed location for several weeks 16 months ago—returning with a full beard and a more fundamental Islamic outlook. In and of themselves, the transformations mean little vis-à-vis violent jihad.

But they are signature changes one sees in people who have spent time with the Tablighis.

The Tablighis argue that they are apolitical, pietist Muslims who condemn the violent actions of their jihadist counterparts. Some observers remain skeptical. The FBI claims it has found that al-Qaeda has used the Tablighi Jamaat as a recruiting tool; Richard Reid, the U.S. citizen who in 2003 attempted to blow up a flight by detonating explosives hidden in his shoe, was a member but apparently left because the movement was not violent enough for his tastes. The bombings of nightclubs in Bali in 2002 were reportedly planned in southern Thailand, where the Tablighis run a network of mosques.

Others, however, including some of the world’s foremost experts on Islam, reject the connection between Tablighis and terrorism, arguing instead that the movement is strictly reformist and pacifist. “There was no link between the pietist Salafi groups I worked with and radicalization into terrorist violence,” says Noah Salomon, a researcher at the University of Chicago Divinity School who has studied the Salafi movement in Sudan. “The Salafis I worked with made the most firm anti-violent intervention I heard in Sudan.”

The uncertainty over what role the Tablighi movement plays in Islamic radicalization has become a contentious issue in recent years. The fact that the group rejects bloodshed makes them, in some ways, untouchable. But their promotion of the same ideology that jihadists follow, with its rigid rejection of any other form of Islamic practice, marks them out as extremists in their own right—and ones whose message could easily be twisted into violence.

In fact, while it is difficult to sift through the array of Salafist groups, some are clearly preaching jihad. In her essay, “Salafism in Pakistan,” contained in a new collection, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, Mariam Abou Zahab notes that Salafist madrasas in Pakistan have grown fourfold since 1988, with the total number of students reaching 3,000 by 2006. “Their success in ‘converting’ Muslims from different schools of thought has indeed been phenomenal,” writes Zahab, a professor of history and political sociology at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris and an expert on Pakistani jihadist groups.

“The aim is to use modern technology to spread the message of jihad and prepare children from a young age to become mujahedeen.” Textbooks used in these schools glorify the martyr killed in the pursuit of jihad, she adds, and encourage children to sacrifice their lives for “the great nuclear power that Pakistan has become.”

The overarching message of Global Salafism is that while the Salafi movement is by no means a monolithic entity, recent history demonstrates how even pietist Salafi movements can quickly turn violent if left to their own devices. Essays list such transformations in Indonesia, Egypt and North Africa. “An apolitical Salafism associated with pietism,” writes the book’s editor, Roel Meijer, in his essay “Commanding right and forbidding wrong as a principle of social action,” “can snap and tip over into an activist, even revolutionary, movement at the crucial point when subservience is transformed into revolt.”

Indeed, the Tablighis themselves do not reject the idea of jihad. “We don’t believe this is the right time for it,” says Nauman Naeem, a 27-year-old Tabligh preacher at a mosque on the University of Peshawar campus. “The Islamic community is too divided and weak. Why do you think Muslims haven’t been able to expel the foreigners from Iraq and Afghanistan? In the time of the Prophet, a handful of Muslims defeated entire armies. Why? Because they were true Muslims. God was with them. Once Muslims return to the true Islam, when they become one, will they achieve victory.”

Tablighis thus focus their attention on “correcting” Muslim practice and doctrine. Part of that involves isolation from non-Muslims. “We tell our brothers and sisters living in secular societies that mixing with non-Muslims makes them weak Muslims,” says Naeem. “We tell them to separate, to build their own schools and spend their time with other Muslims. This is the only way to battle the forces of secularism.” Until that process is complete, jihad must wait for its proper time.

But having been brought around to the “correct” Islam, many young people don’t want to wait. The fight, they are told by jihadists, is now. And an increasing number are answering the call.

The transformation of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad from a young man eager to adopt a Western lifestyle to a man ready to sacrifice his life for Islam offers a telling glimpse into how the process works. An angry Muslim searching for solutions to Islam’s crisis turns to Salafi forums on the Web, where there are few moderate alternatives. He finds the answers he wants. Muslims themselves are to blame, he is told, for letting their faith slip. He is told to shun the infidels, and focus all his thoughts on his obligations to God.

Shahzad detaches himself from the world around him. He becomes more extreme in the expression of his religious beliefs—much like Misbahuddin Ahmed allegedly did following his mysterious trip. Friends and colleagues in his hometown in Connecticut have related how the young man became distant in the weeks and months before he tried to set off his crude bomb, how he started following the strict rules of Salafi doctrine. But it was not enough. Like Richard Reid, he wanted to do more; quietism failed to quench his desire for action. He was then drawn into the world of the jihadist Salafis, in his case following the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, himself a former pietist Salafi preacher turned jihadist. He actively sought out experienced terrorists who could help him, much like Canada’s Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh is alleged to have done. Shahzad found his backers in the Pakistani Taliban. Not long after, he carried out his attempted attack.

The transformation is in many ways typical: a confused young Muslim turns to the ultra-conservative Salafis. Some may preach violence, others may be self-professed pietists like the Tablighis. But they pursue their mission with aggressive zeal.

Moderates have done little to counter their influence, leaving the door open for more transformations and, potentially, more violent jihadists.

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