Rashad Ali: "The ISIS narrative is not orthodox religion, it's a modern heresy"

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By Valérie Gauriat
Rashad Ali: "The ISIS narrative is  not orthodox religion, it's a modern heresy"

Rashad Ali is a Senior Fellow for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue. When he was 15, he joined an islamist extremist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, of which he became a key leader in the UK. He later rejected the group and it’s ideology, and has become an expert in counter-extremism. He tells euronews reporter Valerie Gauriat of the mechanisms which can lead people to join terrorist groups as the so called Islamic State, and the need to develop a strong counter-narrative to deradicalise them.

“There’s no single theory of how people radicalise and therefore how to deradicalise individuals. You can’t take a blanket approach and apply it to everybody in the space. When looking at a question like deradicalisation, what we found in our efforts overall several years, we’ve dealt with probably almost 1000 cases of individuals who’ve been in various parts of that spectrum, that actually, you have to define what it is you’re dealing with first and then you can start looking at actioning what are the issues that you need to tackle and how do you measure the change in that individual. Some people prefer to talk about disengagement. You no longer support violence or take part in violence, and that’s the key goal, and that’s all that can be achieved with those individuals. Maybe they have political reasons, maybe they have a blend of ideology that is some sort of notion of good and bad and the west versus what’s happening in the world.. If they’re islamists, then it’s the west versus muslims and Islam, in this binary perspective. They see the immoral, evil nature of western governments and powers etc; and from there it moves to deciding , after they’ve dehumanised the other, that violence is the legitimate means towards reaching certain goals.

In that situation you may want to tackle the underlying psychology as well. You may want to tackle the dehumanisation of the other, you may want to tackle the simplistic political binary narrative; you may want to
take how the allegedly religious justification for this sticks. And if all of those factors are looked at you may be able to say there is a change. In the engagement of that individual, with extreme ideas or ideology or causes. In the motivation of that individual to undertake these acts, to justify these acts, and the means by which they’re going to do so. In that sense you can talk about not just disengagement but deradicalisation or moving away th psychological intellectual motivations for that individual and why they would consider violence a legitimate option.

One thing that’s very key, especially with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, is the very strong ideo-political element: that we have a duty of joining ISIS, this caliphate. We’ve had people whether it’s Al Qaeda speaking of restauring the caliphate from Spain to Indonesia, or people like Ayman Zafari often speaking about this. More radical groups which don’t engage in violence but describe the utopian caliphate system, have spread that ideology quite strongly. Now we actually have not just an idea of it but we have a real manifestation of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. It’s no longer just something people talk about, it’s there. And so the pull of a real islamic state or so called islamic state, is one that is a strong brand for people to go to. Now we have this utopia. There are no longer the borders between Syria and Iraq. It doesn’t exist anymore. We have a state that doesn’t recognise the imperial borders that were imposed on us. We now no longer have an elected leader or a western inspired leader, we have a true islamic leader, a calife. We have the shariah law being implemented. We have a jihad going on which is fighting both the agents in the muslim majority countries , both the governments, and the western powers. Actually you have a real life caliphate and jihad which people have spoken about, but actually taking place now. Therefore that brand is very powerful. Hence the ideological drive is very strong. And the appeal to young people who arguably are in a situation where they have been brought up around this us and them narrative; they hear it about the west and about the muslims, about the kafar, and about the people of faith. About looking at the hegemony of capitalism and we need an alternative.. This narrative has been imbued for many many years. And actually when they now see it playing out, and they see people telling them come to the islamic state, we have a true islamic economy, we have a welfare system which is islamic, we have even a health service which is ran in the islamic guidelines, we have an education system where we teach true Islam to people. And we have this State, this utopian idealistic state. Where you can live your islamic identity, and live by the islamic rules an regulations, where we segregate men and women in society, where we impose chariah punishments on people that violate to those key things. Where we are actually living a true perfect islamic life. When you attach that to individuals who maybe well have a sense of lack of belonging to wider society, they may well have a lack of integration and identity issues, but they don’t fully , for whatever reasons, political or not political, they do not fully integrate and identify themselves in the society they’re from, then that that psychological state can easily be manipulated. Coupled with ideology its a very strong driving force.

So the way to tackle that you have to do 2 things. You have to separate what the specific cause for the individuals is. What is it that attracts the individual. For some it will be an understanding or religious ideology. And then what you need to do is unpack that understanding or religious ideology. The approach we take is actually, because Britain may be a Christian state but its a secularian state, we have a liberal perspective on how we build our laws etc.. We shouldn’t be interfering in the religion of people. However in any type of intervention we will try and challenge the narrative, which is skewed. And so we will take a part in question, and take a kind of socratic approach, where we dismantle the religious foundation of this ideology. Tackling things like the notion of the west being an alien land to Islam and muslims, historically and religiously. And actually muslims have the the ability to practice their faith in most countries. They have the ability to express their faith without persecution. This religiously speaking means that this isn’t a hostile land to muslims and Islam. And then their narrative is actually not orthodox religion, its very unorthodox, it’s a modern heresy. Similarly, ISIS as an example will talk about ..one of their books is called the management of savagery. It speaks about how modern guerilla warfare is almost a universal science. it doesn’t require religiosity it requires understanding. That of the power of savagery and brutality being able to take that apart and acting both on a modern level, that’s not true. We have all sorts of Geneva conventions, we have all sorts of laws, all sorts of international courts. But also religiously speaking, that may well be a trend amongst guerilla warfare. But it violates classical consensus. So we’re not talking about changing the religion we’re talking about have you understood the foundations of your religiosity. Because in classical conceptions of warfare in Djihad we’re always fighting the right cause and not killing women and children etc… Even on a medieval level, the underpinning is actually very modern as opposed to medieval. And then tackling the other issues, the concept of caliphate. A lot of the things here when people speak about this stuff, looking at it historically, the caliphate was a massively diverse empire. With many different empires, Ummayad in Spain, or the abassides, or the fatimides, or the ottomans, or the safavides across Iran, they were very very different. The empires were not homogeneous singular states. In this religious empire, where people had different religious enclaves. The ottomans towards the end , they had all sorts of laws, often brought from the french and the dutch, which they saw as religiously acceptable. And a lot of these extreme groups still describe the ottomans as a caliphate.

So yo start to break the narrative of single super state; religiously you can easily do this by looking at the simple fact that … there’s a saying if you get 2 jews, you’ll get 3 opinions. And it’s the same with muslims. They have a variety of traditions and religions which all route back to scriptures. one you establish that it becomes difficult to reconcile totalitarianism and absolutism with a religious tradition that’s massively diverse. Walking that landscape and being able to demonstrate that is important. Because it’s nothing to do with the religion primarily, its the politics.”