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Proselytizing Islamic radicals

The current spate of Islamic terrorist attacks outside the combat zones — Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya — makes the global community wonder how the recruitment of terrorists works.

Thus far, all terrorists were young, mostly male, and usually educated. No terminally ill people or tired oldies who don't mind committing suicide were among them, no pious grandmothers ready to sacrifice themselves for religion, no priests — Imams — seeking a quick encounter with Allah.

The action is entirely undertaken by young people in the testosterone-rich age bracket who, if they care to leave a declaration behind — usually recorded on video for posterity — express the desire (and some certainty) to become "heroes."

To become a hero but being unable to savour the fame (because being dead) could be considered a sublime form of exhibitionism. It is well known that many people would do extraordinary things for achieving a few days of local, national or worldwide fame. Being seen on TV once or mentioned in newspapers is a powerful incentive for many average citizens.

The first group of London bombers carried enough documents with them to ensure that police would quickly identify them and make them known to Britain and the world.

To become famous as a hero requires two things: free media to carry the story around the world, and a group of potential admirers. If the Allies had made Iraq after the invasion an area off limits for media, Baathists and religious fanatics would have found it difficult to convince their recruits that their heroism would be noticed by anyone outside their small group. Saddam Hussein's cruelties, for instance, went on for years largely unnoticed because of his rigid control of the media.

Terrorism is a boon for mainstream media. Pages and pages of newspapers and hours of prime TV time are filled with grisly details and speculative reporting, at relatively little editorial expense. Two, three major terrorist attacks in mid-summer will boost circulation, TV quotas and obviate the need for Loch Ness stories.

As an unintentional result of their work, the media are busy writing the "golden book of martyrs", as it were, with the "heroes'" names being engraved in stone some time in future when radical Islam has achieved its goals.

This part of the mechanism which the leaders of terrorist groups are using to motivate their recruits is not difficult to understand. What is less clear to the world community is why these young people are seeking heroism in fanatism rather than in sports, politics or the military.

The misuse of religion for political aims is as old as religion itself. Even modern Europe, the cradle of rationalism, continues to have its Irish and Balkans problems. The use of Islam as a weapon in the pursuit of political and economic ambitions follows centuries of tradition. However, the degree of militancy and radicalism is new.

Islamic terrorism is almost exclusively based on Sunni Islam. Contrary to Shiite Islam, the community of Sunnis has no recognized head. That is why every so often, a self-appointed Mahdi can gather followers and attempt to reshape Islam, mostly in a more radical fashion and at the expense of "infidels" and other Muslims as well.

In the past, however, the Ulemas were religious leaders respected among the Sunnis for their theological qualifications based on their ability to read and write. As a result of the massive literacy campaigns of past decades, however, the Ulemas lost their monopoly of interpreting the holy scriptures.

Millions of pious Muslims started seeking their own approach to religion, similar to many modern people in the West who make up their own religion from Christian elements combined with elements gleaned from Buddhism, Islam and other sources of inspiration.

As a result of modernization, some Muslims considered including Western elements in their personal belief quite admissible while others followed the old Muslim urge of "purifying" their religion.

A meeting of minds between the "purifiers" and the protagonists of political and economic goals created the hard core of modern fanaticism. A heavy injection of money gave a movement which started as a lunatic fringe respectability and importance.

The fundamental question, however, remains: how is it possible that young, intelligent and often well-situated people become convinced that the radical views of a few represent the true interpretation of their religion and deserves the ultimate sacrifice?

The training courses in Afghanistan and Pakistan were the first vehicle which helped convince the young participants. We don't know how many attended these crash courses and returned unconvinced. But apparently, the percentage of those who swallowed the bait and returned as ready recruits for terrorist action must have been high.

Iraq is now considered the main training camp for recruits, followed in importance by the Internet. But independently from where and how the actual training takes place — in Chechnya or at home in front of the monitor — there remains the question why the potential recruits accepted to self-destruct for some lofty ideals projected on them.

One answer could be found in the fact that the past and ongoing literacy drive in Muslim countries provided millions with access to religious writings but with very little or no scientific training required for theological understanding and evaluation.

Without guidance from the old Ulemas the young become easy prey for anyone who offers a new interpretation of the holy scriptures apparently solidly based on quotes. With their limited analytic abilities they are unable to grasp that certain quotes favored by the fanatics might be taken out of context or be of limited importance and in contradiction to other, more significant, statements. Who among them has read the holy Q'uran cover to cover? Is it true that they believe in the promise of twenty virgins waiting in paradise (they better be pretty, too) for the self-immolated "martyr"? It is hard to imagine that the comparatively well-educated bourgeois or small bourgeois killers believed a word of this.

Yet. popular science and religious fervor can easily catch the fancy and mind of a half-educated person. Modern media make it possible to present pseudo-knowledge in very convincing ways, and millions in developed and part-developed countries can get overwhelmed by pseudo-religious fantasies, being brainwashed or brainwashing themselves.

Fascism, nazism and communism illustrated the devastating consequences of exposing the half-educated to radical concepts. Even innocent campaigns such as environmental movements, dieting, vegetarianism, Reiki or Falun Gong can lead millions to a state of total immersion and even fanaticism.

Once such a radical concept has been established among larger numbers of people it is very difficult to get rid of it. This usually requires generational change and a lot better education to set the minds free. It took over 70 years to make communism implode; 25 years and a world war to destroy fascism and nazism. How long will it take to free Islam from radicalism and violence?

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—— Ihsan al-Tawil