On March 22, when Khalid Masood rammed his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London before attempting to stab his way to the Parliament building, it was as if the heart and soul of British democracy were under assault.
As horrifying as the terrorist attack was, however -- murdering four innocent people and wounding scores of others -- it belied the magnitude of a much larger problem that has been plaguing Europe and creeping up on the rest of the West. Jihadists committing murder in the name of Islam have left a trail of blood across North America, the Middle East, Australia, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
Police officers stand guard on London's Westminster Bridge on March 29, 2017, a week after Khalid Masood began his murderous car-ramming and stabbing attack at the site. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
In November 2015, a suicide-bombing and shooting spree in Paris left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded; in March 2016, three coordinated suicide bombings targeting travelers in Brussels killed 32 and wounded hundreds; and last December, a truck-ramming at the Christmas market in Berlin left 12 people dead and another 56 injured.
These were just a few of the successful attacks; those thwarted were more numerous.
France's prime minister said last September that authorities were foiling plots "daily," while some 15,000 people "in the process of radicalization" were being monitored. Last year, British security services prevented no fewer than 12 other assaults.
The average European now knows the names of Masood and those of other publicized terrorists. But few in the West are familiar with the many people who put those terrorists on their path by leading them up the rungs of a ladder of radicalization.
If you spend hours listening to speeches and sermons -- and reading countless articles by "respectable" local imams, community leaders and Islamic scholars -- you can see a pattern emerge. What you find is that behind every jihadist, who usually starts out as a young, often angry, Muslim seeking a purpose, lies a pulpit ideologue promising rewards and threatening punishments both on earth and in the afterlife.
The following is a description of the ladder of radicalization, based on material from 45 detailed case studies, covering the period 2012-2015, compiled by the author from U.K. government sources:
A radical preacher commonly employs theological "carrots and sticks" as a spur to action. He attempts to terrorize audiences with passages from religious literature about the horrors of hell. He shames those he brands complacent or reluctant to engage in jihad, and instills a heightened sense of crisis. He does this while harping on the notion of Muslim superiority and providing an idealized reading of history that emphasizes "glorious Islamic conquests."
The preacher quotes passages from the Quran and hadith [the sayings and deeds of Muhammad], gradually ratcheting up his rhetoric until openly calling for the restoration of the caliphate through global jihad. The preacher determines whether jihad is beneficial at a given time -- or whether it needs to be deferred -- depending on the clout a Muslim community has attained in a host country or culture. In other words, he decides whether to "declare jihad" based on what he deems possible for the Muslim ummah [community] at that time. Violent jihad may be postponed not out of concern for its victims, but rather if it might adversely affect a Muslim community. This view is frequently mistaken as "moderate."
The preacher presents stark, simplistic choices, cornering his audience into accepting his particular reading of Islam, and leaving no option but jihad. He does this by using language that evokes gut emotions. He presents the Quran, hadiths and Islamic history in a way he knows his audience is in no position to challenge. He juxtaposes, for instance, incidents in Muhammad's life to explain modern geopolitics -- such as the Arab-Israeli conflict -- and that point to a particular course of action. Or he uses ancient Islamic conquests as an inspirational model for current jihadist attacks against the West.
At the root of such preaching is a totalitarian worldview. According to it, there is no distinction between private freedoms and the public good. The past and the present are on a continuum. Secular matters are meticulously "guided" by clerical judgements. The nation state, he alleges, will give way to the caliphate. Morality is stressed, but expressed more in outward appearance (such as modest dress) than as an internal spiritual goal. And he emphasizes that the purpose of public worship is to consolidate al-mumeneen (the believers) into a unified bloc in the cause of jihad -- which ultimately entails physical warfare. The underlying theme is that all "infidels" are to be held in perpetual hostility until, as is written in the Quran, "Allah's word reigns supreme."
One reason that this radicalization process has gone undetected in the West has to do with language. Imams and Islamist intellectuals use terms that are seemingly identical to those of Judeo-Christian or secular-liberal discourse, but which have an entirely different connotation in Arabic.
Salaam, "peace," means the peace that will reign only after the whole world has accepted living under the rule of Islam.
Shihada, for example, often translated as "martyrdom," usually refers to the act of those who kill or are killed in battle for a religiously-sanctioned cause. It is not a testimony of faith in laying down one's life instead of recanting under pressure.
Iman, translated as "faith," is proven by total submission to Allah, His Messenger Mohammed and the edicts of sharia as propagated by the leader. It is of great "faith" not to waver in battle against Allah's enemies.
Qassas, wrongly interpreted as "justice", often entails a sense of vindictiveness, and "eye-for-an-eye" revenge. It is also circumscribed by Islamic law, sharia: whatever is inside sharia is just; whatever is outside sharia is not just.
Fight them; Allah will torment [not "punish" as many current translations claim] them by your hands... and will give you victory over them and satisfy the breasts (give a great sense of satisfaction, relief) of a believing people. -- Quran, 9:14, after Sahih International
Power is elevated as an Allah-given right to the believers, whereas humility is scorned as a sign of weakness. The goal toward which you are urged to aspire is not equality but ascendancy.
It is a matter of ihssan, or "benevolence" of Muslims that they tolerate the life and severely limited "liberties" of dhimmis (subjugated non-Muslims) so long as the latter pay a "protection" tax, the jizya, and abide by a covenant of inferiority "while feeling themselves subdued". In a state ruled by sharia, equal citizenship between Muslims and non-Muslims is unthinkable.
To challenge Islam's authority, its prophet's character or received tradition, or to critique the religion, is construed as ihanah, or "insult"; sabb-e-Rasul, "disparaging the Prophet," is a libelous offense worthy of death. Failure to accept Islam is also regarded as an "insult" that justifies attack:
As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help. -- Quran (3:56)
Counteracting the radicalization of vulnerable Muslims requires a multi-pronged effort on the part of governments, academic institutions and community leaders. Here are a few recommendations:
Discourage voluntary segregation in Muslim communities. Establish initiatives that introduce genuine multiculturalism into classrooms, neighborhoods and community centers. This is the only way that insular, extremist thought can be debated and challenged openly by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Prevent fundamentalist Muslim community leaders from hiding behind a "moderate" or "mainstream" façade. Hold preachers accountable for the content of their sermons, and make sure that what they are promoting in Arabic aligns with their public statements in English.
Subject the history of early Islam -- the conquests of Persia, the Byzantine Empire, the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, Spain and most of Eastern Europe -- to the same academic rigors to which Western history has been subjected. Do not allow a romantic view of it as a "superior" model to go unchallenged, and do not shy away from examining similarities between current and centuries-old jihadism. The same goes for religious texts and their modern-day interpretations.
Use the press and social media to expose young Muslims to facts other than those they are fed in mosques and the textbooks of their native countries, including the humanistic values of the West, such as freedom of speech and of the press; equal justice under the law -- especially due process and the presumption of innocence; property rights; separation of religion and state; an independent judiciary; an independent educational system, and freedom of religion and from religion -- for a start.
Those who preach hate simply build on ahistorical, uncontested narratives to spread the messages that inspired the Manchester, London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin terrorists and that groom the terrorists of tomorrow. When will correcting the record and addressing the root causes please start?
Saher Fares is an Arabic linguist and researcher from the Middle East.