Dallas shooting: downplaying the role of ideology will only make matters worse

We have so far failed to challenge jihadism intellectually


Whenever a jihadist attack hits the headlines, our first question is always the same. Who, or what, inspired the killers to take up arms?

In the case of Sunday’s attack in Dallas, we didn’t have long to wait. Reports state that the attack was preceded by a tweet by the handle ‘Shariah is Light’. The avatar of that account displayed a photograph of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda Yemen leader and prominent preacher. We learnt that this man and his brother had given baya  – or sworn their allegiance – to the Amir ul-Mumineen: that is, to the new Prince of the Believers. By that, he meant the leader of ISIS: the so-called Caliphate or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. These tweets were published 15 minutes before the attacks took place.

Shariah Tweet

We now know that the two men were Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi. Simpson had been considered by the FBI to be a dangerous jihadist who had flown to Somalia to join Jihadists, presumably Al-Shabaab. When questioned, Simpson had lied about his reasons for travel to the FBI. He was convicted for lying about his plans to go to Somalia. However, strangely, the judge decided that they had not proven that he was going to Somalia to join a jihadist group. Accordingly, he was given a suspended sentence.

The Twitter account was not the total of Simpson’s social media activity. However, the authorities had decided that he wasn’t a threat and had no idea that he would undertake this attack. The attachment to Awlaki should have been a clue, given that the late preacher had delivered extensive talks and lessons inciting people to kill those who insult the Prophet of Islam.

We saw the same pattern in both the Danish and French incidents, where the killers had given their baya to the ISIS ‘Amir’ online, or made videos to that end. We know one of the French duo had previously been in contact with Awlaki in Yemen. So now, in three countries, people have either been killed or attempts have been made to kill people, apparently for the sin of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam (and let us not forget, or in the case of the French and Danish incidents, merely for being Jewish).

Those targeted in these accounts were of varied political orientation. Pamela Geller, who organised the event in Dallas exhibiting cartoons of the Prophet, heads the bigoted American Freedom Defence Initiative, who are hardly advocates of liberal rights when it comes to Muslims. Charlie Hebdo, by contrast, is a pro-immigrant, anti-racist Left publication that tirelessly criticised the Far Right in France.

In Denmark, the murdered were simply Jews in a synagogue; in France they were Jews in a supermarket – though they were described by Obama as a ‘random bunch of folks in a deli’. The murderers included people from Europe but with North African or Palestinian heritage, a white American and apparently an American of Pakistani heritage born in the US, who was a graduate of Utah University.

What did these killers have in common? They all subscribed to extremist ideology, manifested in a strident reading of religious texts mixed with the modern concept of a totalitarian Islamist expansionist state. They all gave their medieval pledge of allegiance to this state and leader, or were followers of Al Qaeda’s Anwar al Awlaki. They all believed that they were faithfully discharging a modernist implementation of an anarchic take on the shariah law of blasphemy.

It is these ideological beliefs that tie all these murderers together. The link is their connection with extremist clerics, ideology, and the ISIS/Al Qaeda version of Islam. Not ethnicity. Not social backgrounds. Not the socialisation in society or lack thereof. Not a lack of family and education. Not their family history of colonisation. These attacks cannot be explained by any other social factors.

That does not mean that other considerations are unimportant. Take the Danish case. Omer el-Hussain was rejected by everyone including the gangs in which he was involved. He was however associating with extremists in prison and reports were made to the authorities which raised concerns about his radicalisation. The Danish authorities did not take these reports seriously. In the same way, they did not address the threat to the Jewish community and synagogue in Copenhagen, even when help was requested following the attacks in Paris.

It is essential that we identify this particular fundamentalist reading of scripture, and totalitarian ideology seeking to enforce a specific and own singular reading or interpretation of religion. It is this ideology which manipulates people’s often new religious identities, and takes grievances that they may have in order to distort them. Thus we are faced with the spectacle of people who – allegedly – are so disturbed by the plight of the Palestinians that they go ally with their oppressors and murderers in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp.

None of this is new. Whether it is the idealised totalitarianism of Mao, or the paranoia of Stalin, or the utopian ideal of the Islamist super state, all such ideologies end in a gory retelling of Animal Farm. Jihadism is no different in the manner in which it destroys human life. Slaughter, in the name of the state, or to protect the religion, or for the greater benefit of protecting the faith or advancing the one true ideology is always the final chapter.

This totalitarian vision is peddled by other groups too, to a greater or lesser extent. Hizb ut-Tahrir have found it difficult to express any deep criticism of ISIS, although they question its validity. By contrast, the group al-Muhajiroun (which takes all of its ideological content from Hizb ut-Tahrir but its theological beliefs from Salafism), has declared the soundness of the ISIS state. You’ll find other Islamists who will raise fringe objections to the particular Islamist State in Syria and Iraq because, well, they just aren’t burning the right people.

None of this means that we shouldn’t care about attempting to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or try to address structural issues of inequality and discrimination, or to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry. However, ignoring the ideology or downplaying the role of Islamist ideology in radicalisation is dangerous and will have more grave consequences. Challenging it intellectually is key, but we have so far failed to do so.

Our institutions need to address these jihadist ideas. It is the role of our intellectuals to demonstrate why these ideas are poor ways to organise societies; our historians to show their perfect historic narrative is really a counter factual; our specialist scholars to highlight the falsehood of their claims to religious consensus (in this instance this is a violation of the consensus) and authority. We need to argue that, fundamentally, we can live in a society composed of different religious traditions and values.

We must recognise that the liberal and pluralist settlement we have achieved in Europe, born from our experience of the horrors of totalitarian experiments in the twentieth century, provides the best framework in which competing religious ideas, groups and political ideas can coexist.

Yet, I fear that before we win that battle, we will sadly see more deaths on all sides: both of innocents and of their misguided assailants.

Rashad Ali is a fellow of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and a director of the counter-extremism consultancy CENTRI

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