Why have we stopped mentioning religion when we talk about ISIS?

Political and social factors alone are not enough to explain what drives young people to cold blooded murder


So, CAGE think it was interrogation by M15 that turned sweet Mohammed Emwazi into a murderer. This is not an isolated view; on Thursday Catherine Heseltine, the CEO of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, told Jon Snow that young Muslims are being radicalised thanks to a two-pronged combination of Western foreign policy and the extent to which they feel alienated in British society.

Others who reject this view talk about the ruthless, psychotic nature of killers like Emwazi, which they say has nothing to do with either the wider Muslim community or with British foreign policy.

What is, maddeningly, being omitted from this conversation over and over again is the role of religious belief in the spread of violent extremism.

It should go without saying that Emwazi’s version of belief is not representative of that of the vast majority of Muslims, and Heseltine has the right to her opinion that Emwazi is a product of Western mistakes. But at the same time, why could she not identify the third prong underpinning all of this is as a belief in an afterlife, the belief in a holy mission?

Because psychopaths are rare. It is not good enough to say that Emwazi and his ISIS comrades are simply brutal, evil men. There are tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands of people now fighting with ISIS and what unites them, more even than their hatred of the West, is their belief in an extreme form of Salafi Islam. They believe that they will go to heaven for their actions. They believe that there is a god who smiles on their murders, and this is what enables them to perform them.

The missing schoolgirls Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana are not, I would wager, psychopaths. Nor, coming from a diverse area of London and attending a school that is by all accounts inclusive, would they have felt uncommonly alienated by their Muslim identities. But their actions are deeply disturbing.

Having witnessed the slow burning to death of Muath al-Kassasbeh (also a devout Muslim), and watching a group of ISIS men hurl a bound prisoner from a tower block, these girls decided this was something they would like to be a part of, and decided they liked it more than their own families and friends.

I can accept that these girls are impressionable and confused, and also that there is a certain romance in flying to an exotic country to live with infamous men. But it is a natural human instinct to feel sorrow at the suffering of others, to recoil from the sight of a knife slicing a throat, to be sickened by the sexual enslavement of captured Yazidi girls.

Unless you are indeed a certified psychopath it takes belief in an afterlife to overcome these instincts. There has been much talk about who brainwashed these three girls, and how. What keeps being overlooked is what they are being brainwashed with – the belief in a divine law that supersedes human rights, kindness, empathy and family. They are being asked to check everything their community has taught them about being a good person at the Syrian border and replace it with a bloodthirst which, ISIS tells them, is what their god really wants.

I have to say it again: I know that this is not the usual Muslim version of belief. But without their warped interpretation of it, ISIS fighters would fear death, they would have a rational goal – presumably to stop Western interventions that kill civilians – and they could be negotiated with. It takes religion to make them unstoppable.

In Paris, there is heavy security after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Men with guns guard tourist sites. But what use are they? Because individuals like the Kouachi brothers don’t care if they are killed. They wholeheartedly believe that, if they can just take some of the Prophet’s abusers with them, they will go to heaven, and this is what is so terrifying, and so difficult, because no government in the world knows how to dismantle that belief.

Of course we have to talk about the political side. It is the politicisation of Islam which has so distorted the religion for groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, just as it is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have galvanised feelings of alienation in the Muslim community. And hunger for power is clearly a factor in the swaggering bravado of killers like Emwazi. But his is not just the arrogance of machismo; it is the arrogance of a man who thinks he is blessed.

Similarly, if they just wanted to protect Muslim children from Western drones, the three schoolgirls would have helped in other ways. It is only the belief in a higher power and the supposedly holy mission that ISIS expertly promotes that could possibly make them think joining ISIS is the best way to do this.

This is not a battle between objective good and evil. We have to remember that in their own eyes, ‘jihadi brides’, IS fighters, the Copenhagen and Paris terrorists, think that they are doing the right thing, by a god they care about more than anything on earth. This is why it is becoming so fatally difficult to negotiate with them.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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72 Responses to “Why have we stopped mentioning religion when we talk about ISIS?”

  1. Lamia

    You made idiotic claims about the letter. The onus is on you to provide the quotes to support your claims. Off you go, then.

    I haven’t ‘spat in your face’. Nor have I attacked all Muslims, and nor have I characterised Muslims as non-British. Get over yourself and stop making things up.

    I’m sure you’re all for cutting security funding for the Jewish community as well, given your attitude to me here.

    There is nothing in what I have said or implied to support such an absurd smear. My attitude to you has to do with you being a nasty piece of work who aggressively makes up totally unfounded smears about people he disagrees with.It has nothing to do with you being Jewish.

    You complained about funding against extremism in the Muslim community being cut, and I challenged you to explain why such funding is needed when no other religious community gets such funding. How do you square the need for funding against extremism in the Muslim community when you are incensed by the mere suggestion that there is a particular problem with extremism in the Muslim community, and smear people as racists for doing so.

    Try again.

  2. Lamia

    He didn’t advocate genocide, you lying turd.

  3. Lamia

    You’re a bloody headcase. I pity the people who have to look after you. They need to increase your dosage.

  4. Lamia

    You are a deeply disturbed person with only the most tenuous grasp on reality. Get professional help.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    Ah yes, I can’t use facts. Can’t be allowed. “Try again”, you scream, until I’m saying the right thing – spouting the right propaganda.

    You have said that every faith leader in the UK and many other leaders are idiots. As you demand i WORK FOR

  6. Guest

    Ah, you’re saying he’s omnicidal.

    Well, thanks for that, obviously you agree with him.
    Because eliminating religion does mean killing all the religious people.

  7. Guest

    So you call the Jew a Islamist, showing how ridiculous your views are.
    You’re simply on the far right, and clearly anti-semitic for that remark alone.

  8. Guest

    You said it very clearly. You’re now trying to back down, without admitting your own post.

    You keep screaming that using facts is mad, as you evidently care deeply I’m Jewish, and are going on about that.

    You throw the same old far right mental health, eugenics-based slurs, your social darwinism and utter intolerance of any other kind of view, as you claim to speak for everyone, as you scream once more that I am your kind of far right liar.

    I won’t waste doctor’s time, of course, on your bigotry and anti-Semitism.

  9. Guest

    Ah yes, poison the Jew, like your ideological forefathers.

    Keep screaming your utter intolerance of other views, showing your fanaticism and hate to the world.

  10. Guest

    Keep insulting the Jew and demanding I get my face smashed in by far right thugs.

    You’re repeatly showing your anti-semitic, far right, social darwinist views with your utter intolerance of any other kind of viewpoint and of anyone who dares use facts.

    I’m sure you are disturbed I, as a Jew, dare disagree with you.

  11. Di Eselbalaam

    No, it is spot on. Wake up and stop sleep-walking you lefty R-swipe.

  12. Di Eselbalaam

    Something doesn’t add up when people tiptoe around the religious motivation behind IS and other jihadi vermin. It simply will not do to dismiss “Jihadi John” as a lone weirdo or psychopath who is unrepresentative of Muslims in general. The reason he is feted and protected by IS, we are also told, is because he is a very effective “poster boy” and recruiting agent for them. If he was so unrepresentative of young Muslims in general, he would be a huge turn-off to the average rag-head, a PR liability. It’s glaringly obvious that violent jihadis are drawn from a huge range of Muslim and non-Muslim countries, speak different languages, have very different cultures, and belong to different races. What other common denominator do these people have, other than their religion? Too many leftists and secularists are in denial about this, preferring to bury their heads in the sand. The problem with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not that we went in, but that we didn’t go in hard enough. We are only delaying the inevitable show-down with this filth.

  13. emastro

    I would have disliked Leonard Nimoy if he tried to put in practice what his religion advocates. Fortunately he was a genuinely good person and he never did.

    I am not labeling theists, by the way – I am saying that religion is dangerous to democracy and civilisation unless you cut out or ignore large parts of practically every sacred book; incidentally, haven’t you noticed that the only decent theists are those like Leonard Nimoy, who actually “interpret” and pick the acceptable bits from their religion?

    I don’t think he ever refused to work with an actress because she was impure, and he did drive (or at least ride a bike) on the Shabbath, he fought for gender equality, which is not really something you’ll find in the Torah.

    He was a good person, therefore he ignored the evil/stupid bits of his religion.

  14. damon

    You’re just a shrill ranter.
    It’s not just me you have a problem with.
    Lamia noticed your daftness too.

  15. Matthew Blott

    Name calling. How brave.

  16. Guest

    Ah, so you dislike, for example, courts of law. A major thing in Judaism.
    And you’re saying that it’s “good” to oppose them, That Nemoy opposed them.


    You then backtrack within a single sentence on your labelling of theists and say that allowing thiests is magically “dangerous” to democracy, as you call for ignoring those evil things like “thou thalt not steal” – which I agree is completely foreign to any good capitalist.

    You know basically nothing about Judaism, and seem to have a plain bigoted view of theists. You chose the evil/stupid bits of your faith, your intolerance. And then you slur good people.

  17. Guest

    You, one user with multiple usernames.

    You demand I have your kind of problem.
    You call having other views “shrill ranting”, and I note you can’t deny what was said.

  18. emastro

    You seem desperate to have an argument about something entirely unlike what I keep saying. Feel free to have it but kindly find someone else to have it with

  19. guest

    emastro: “which are part and parcel of all monotheistic religions”

    Monotheism includes deism amongst others.

  20. guest

    I think the “problem” with Islam is that there are no authoritative Islamic voices that are coming out in support of Western liberal democracy and condemning ISIS / ISIL action. My understanding of Islam is that it’s adherents believe the Qur’an to be the direct and unalterable word of God. Which suggests that Islam is inherently a fundamentalist religion. It’s very difficult to argue rationally with someone who is a fundamentalist.
    [guest 2].

  21. Guest


    Nimoy was Jewish, you are intolerant, the facts won’t go away no matter how hard you deny them and hate on Nimoy.

  22. johndowdle

    While the headline for this article is largely correct the contents – and most of the comments – are not.
    It is religion in general, not just one in particular, which is THE problem.
    All the monotheist religions share similar outlooks, whether Judaic, Christian or Islamic.
    They all believe there will be an End of Days and a cataclysmic battle between forces of good and evil.
    Their forces will be led by a messiah figure who will triumph over the forces of evil.
    There will then be a period of 1,000 years where peace, tranquility and harmony will rule over the Earth.
    This kind of millenialism has flared up over the centuries, eventually leaving the “believers” nowhere.
    The same thing is happening again with ISIS, with impressionable and vulnerable people being taken in.
    Religion is THE problem, as is the constant insistence by all governments at all times that the promotion of religion as a cheap form of social control is a good thing for any society – or, at least, for them as governors.

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