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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