How to Respond to Radical Islam

The post below was originally published in HartfordFAVS. You can access it here.

There are two ways to begin to approach the problem of radical Islam. The first is political and sees radical Islam as a problem of political will and development. The first question to ask here is, “what are the goals of an Islamist group?” Is the goal one of military takeover of the geographic area, or the spread of ideological and religious Islam? Take the case of the Gaza Strip and Hamas. Much of Hamas is militaristic and seeks political control of the Gaza Strip. Other elements, mostly smaller elements, want to impose religious law and work with offshoot groups that are Salafi-Jihad groups.

Hamas in Gaza receives international attention for its conflict with Israel but they also compete with other groups that are more radically Islamist in nature – even though the numbers are small and they are poorly organized. The competition is between principles of political Islam and not so much about military strength. There are more than a few members of the Hamas leadership who have little interest in debating political Islam and find these Salafi-Jihad groups to be annoying at the moment. Most Hamas leadership prefers to spend their time threatening Israel and organizing the Gaza Strip rather than finding new ways to express political Islam. In fact, there are times when Hamas has quite an oppositional and antagonistic relationship with these religiously-based groups. One leader of a radical Islamist group a couple of years ago challenged Hamas and declared in Islamic emirate in Palestine and demanded that Sharia law be imposed. At present, Hamas resists these groups and prefers to keep them at a distance while they maintain their more contentious relationship with the PLA and Israel.

So what is the best way to challenge and perhaps overcome radical Islam? These groups are very extreme, wishing to reestablish the Caliphate and bring all Muslims under a single rule, and removing anyone (especially Israelis) from what they considered to be Islamic holy land. And they usually classify declared Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran as illegitimate because they are not Islamic enough. This leads to infighting among Islamist groups and is troubling and destabilizing for governments. Governments in Central Asia and other places have contributed to the problem by engaging in strong repression. This radicalizes the group and forces them to respond even more aggressively. Worse yet, these groups can give governments a license to carry out violent retaliation that usually exacerbates the problem. Below are some suggestions for dealing with groups with a dangerous agenda and a threatening form of political Islam. All of these suggestions are based on the assumption that authoritarian political systems, which are economically undeveloped and lack legitimate democratic outlets for conflict resolution, contribute to the popularity of these groups and encourage citizens to turn toward them.

  1.  Governments confronting extremist Islamic groups must establish conditions for these groups to operate within legal confines of democracy. In other words, the government should allow Islamist groups to organize and express themselves on the basis of free symbolic behavior. This allows citizens to begin the habits of listening to alternatives. Imposing repressive sanctions on these grou I ps drives them underground and radicalizes them.
  2. Begin a program to work with young people explaining the consequences of political Islam. People in a community in general should develop more knowledge about religious issues and various leaders. What will it mean for the state to adopt or Islamic principle and its governance? Include in these discussions secular political groups as well.
  3. Allow democratically defended opportunities for criticism and complaints. This must be done within the confines of the law and proper modes of political expression. The press of course can be a good platform for the presentation of issues and ideas.
  4. Use the language of Islam to understand the language of extremist Islam. That is, the best way to challenge the political ideology of extremist Islam is within the discourse of Islam itself. This will require using imams and scholars to engage in such debate.
  5. Maintain proper control of police and security forces. They should be used mainly to control and manage criminal behavior and not to stifle political activity.

Steps in this direction will prevent Salafi-jihad groups from radicalizing and going underground which makes them only more secretive and difficult to manage. By eliminating the conditions under which these groups thrive, it becomes possible to control them. The process is difficult and slow but more open political systems, economic development, and freedom of expression will keep these groups exposed and under more control.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 11, 2012, in Political Conflict, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Don,

    As always, your reasoned, well-thought-out suggestions are as oil on troubled waters. I think you are right in both word and deed to target the younger members of this society as a potential lode of pre-indoctrinated acceptance of coexistence with the non-Muslim world.

    I worry, however, that you are attributing an unwonted and certainly infrequently evinced degree of sophistication to those whose sole goal is the recreation of a world-wide caliphate. I speak particularly of the much-admired (autocratic, male) elders among them. Their actions appear as ruthless as their society is antiquated, and dangerously so.

    Deal with them we must, but I am more inclined to think the Teddy Roosevelt. definition of diplomacy is still the gold standard. That is, of course, saying “Nice dog, nice dog,” until one can find a big stick.



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