Peeling the Onion of Terrorism

We have a primary enemy: radicalized Islamic terrorists. We can try to understand them, but only after we identify them. Who are radicalized Islamists? It isn't as easy as some might think to know this enemy; ad hoc groups of radicalized Muslims seem to appear and disappear throughout the Mideast and Europe. The only connecting link among them is Islam and that is the conundrum; not all Muslims condone terrorism, indeed most do not, and the Muslims I know are the antithesis of terrorism. The problem is complex, but maybe we can gain some insight into it.

The first insight comes from a study of Muslim immigrants in a Danish youth prison by Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels. Denmark was concerned that something like 70% of the inmates of their youth prisons were Muslims. Furthermore, the disproportionate propensity for crime did not abate with succeeding generations.

Dr. Sennels studied a group of 350 inmates, of which 250 were Muslim immigrant youths from Mideastern countries. As such, his study group was a particular population of Muslims in Europe and while not representative of all Muslims, were, he found, representative radicalized Muslims. Dr. Sennels learned that the Danes and the Muslim immigrants were very nearly opposites in the way they related to the world. The Muslim inmates shared many of the same antisocial characteristics found in non-Muslim inmates, but with a significant difference. The first characteristic noted by Sennels was the volatility of the Muslim inmates. Their first response to any restriction or criticism was anger and aggression. We see this as well in non-Muslim populations of insecure adolescents and especially in criminal gangs of youths growing up absent adult supervision, but there is a difference. Whereas the anger and aggression of the non-Muslim delinquents is a defense against rival gangs or controlling authority, the anger and aggression of the Muslim youths was a preemptive attack against all representations of Western culture. Moreover, their primary allegiance was to Islam and Islamic law rather than to Denmark or any other country.

The Danish problem was more a cultural conflict than a religious conflict, but it had religious overtones. Dr. Sennels found that many of the Muslim inmates were not especially pious, and yet were unequivocal in asserting that defending their prophet and Islam was their primary obligation. The significance of their life was in their Islamic culture, and that was the root of the conflict. The cultural philosophy of the Muslim inmates Sennels studied was a philosophy of victimhood. This is almost a polar opposite of the worldview of traditional Western civilization. The philosophy of victimhood absolved radicalized Muslims of responsibility for any harm they caused others, and at the same time for any harm they suffered; it was always someone else's fault. Whereas people in Western society ask: "What did I do wrong?" when something bad happens to them, the Muslim inmate in Sennels' study typically asked: "Who did this to me?" Their common argument was: "It is our fault they attacked us because we provoked them."

This sense of victimhood was consistent with having no sense of local control and responsibility. Dr. Sennels discovered that as these Muslim youths grew from childhood to adulthood their freedom to act and think independently was systematically reduced to control by higher authority, ultimately by Islamic clerics representing the command of God. This was endemic to their radicalized, Islamic culture. Corresponding to this sense of having no personal responsibility in their life, they considered the Danish government responsible for maintaining the support structure of their life according to Islam. Danish society did not make special provision for Islam and the Muslim youths responded with anger and aggression. Whereas anger is viewed in Western civilization as sign of weakness and a last resort, it was viewed as a sign of strength and honor among the Muslims Sennels studied. His study revealed this dynamic carried over as a fragile sense of 'honor' shielding their social structures, attitudes, and customs with pre-emptive aggression. He found that these Muslim youths had very little confidence that their culture and its religious foundation could withstand any critical enquiry. They angrily attacked any question of it, or any perception of a lack of support of them as "special people." All of these characteristics of the Danish Muslim inmates were consistent with western experience with radicalized, jihadist Muslims.

What we see here is the anxiety of emptiness: the fear of losing what is significant in life and being left meaningless. In this case, it was the fear of being unable to answer questions or criticism, however indirect, that strike at the core of Islam and Islamic culture. If the anxious, radicalized Muslim is faced with critical questions he cannot answer, the significance of Islam is weakened for the questioner and doubly so for him. His defense against this anxiety is to forbid the questions. This is not uncommon to many cultures and religions; the distinction here is in how the questions are forbidden. In the form of Salafi Jihadist Islam in the 1980s it became the fanatic mantra of "kill the infidel," lest he infect the believers and their ideology collapsed leaving them empty. Eventually, this kind of fanaticism consumes the fanatic, leaving them with nothing but murderous intent. We have seen this repeatedly in primitive savagery such the recent beheading of a Catholic priest before a cheering audience.

But does this characterize Islam generally? No; Islam divides on orthodoxy. We have seen and heard the term "jihadist" in reference to groups of radicalized Muslims, but we need to understand where these groups come from. These terrorist groups appear and disappear almost daily throughout the Mideast, North Africa, Europe, and North America as cells in the larger sect of Salafism. Salafism is a relatively new Islamic sect among Sunni Muslims derived from Wahhabism. Wahhabism dates from the early18th century and adheres to an orthodox doctrine of Islam based on revelation and fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu'uan and Hadith. It is effectively the national religion of Saudi Arabia and subsumes Salafism. Salafists, however, consider Wahhabism to be a weak doctrine while they are a 'purer' form of the original Islam with literalist, strict, and puritanical approaches to Islam as practiced by the ancient Salaf people in the 8th century.

The question now is what is it that binds the orthodox Wahhabism, Salafism, and Salafist jihadism and separates them from Judeo-Christian culture? The thesis here is that the difference is not just religion; it is a cultural divide reflecting the ethics taught by religion. Whereas Christians believe man is born vulnerable to sin, Muslims believe man is born sinless in a state of submission to God. This seemingly simple difference has profound implications. Whereas Christianity teaches that man relates to God in a kind of mentoring partnership (cf. Matthew 7:7), Islam teaches that man relates to God in a master-slave relationship to obey and serve Him (cf. Sunan At-Tirmidhi, Book of Supplications, Shaddad ibn Aws). How the Islamic relationship is interpreted distinguishes orthodox Wahhabism and Salafism from non-orthodox Islam, and yet all of Islam subscribes to it. The Wahhabist/Salafist strict, literalist, and puritanical approach to Islam interprets it into a culture of totalitarian control in a hierarchical society of dogmatic discipline further exploited by the Salafi jihadis to justify their terrorism.

We prefer to resolve conflict with reconciliation, but reconciliation is based on some common understanding of good and evil and right and wrong ways of doing things. This is a cultural connection and there seems to be little common understanding of that kind between Western culture and orthodox Islam. What are we to do? We start with what is native to the nations of Western civilization, but alien to orthodox Islam: Nationalism. Orthodox Islam does not honor the sovereignty of any nation over allegiance to Islam and the authority of Shariah law. The people of the nations in the Western world must understand the fundamental differences between the cultures and grant no quarter to orthodox Islam. Westerners must set aside their grievances and focus on their contributions to the rich heritage of Western culture in the arts, philosophy, and the sciences over the last 600 years or more.They must summon the courage of confidence to affirm themselves in the face of the jihaid challenge.

We have a primary enemy: radicalized Islamic terrorists. We can try to understand them, but only after we identify them. Who are radicalized Islamists? It isn't as easy as some might think to know this enemy; ad hoc groups of radicalized Muslims seem to appear and disappear throughout the Mideast and Europe. The only connecting link among them is Islam and that is the conundrum; not all Muslims condone terrorism, indeed most do not, and the Muslims I know are the antithesis of terrorism. The problem is complex, but maybe we can gain some insight into it.

The first insight comes from a study of Muslim immigrants in a Danish youth prison by Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels. Denmark was concerned that something like 70% of the inmates of their youth prisons were Muslims. Furthermore, the disproportionate propensity for crime did not abate with succeeding generations.

Dr. Sennels studied a group of 350 inmates, of which 250 were Muslim immigrant youths from Mideastern countries. As such, his study group was a particular population of Muslims in Europe and while not representative of all Muslims, were, he found, representative radicalized Muslims. Dr. Sennels learned that the Danes and the Muslim immigrants were very nearly opposites in the way they related to the world. The Muslim inmates shared many of the same antisocial characteristics found in non-Muslim inmates, but with a significant difference. The first characteristic noted by Sennels was the volatility of the Muslim inmates. Their first response to any restriction or criticism was anger and aggression. We see this as well in non-Muslim populations of insecure adolescents and especially in criminal gangs of youths growing up absent adult supervision, but there is a difference. Whereas the anger and aggression of the non-Muslim delinquents is a defense against rival gangs or controlling authority, the anger and aggression of the Muslim youths was a preemptive attack against all representations of Western culture. Moreover, their primary allegiance was to Islam and Islamic law rather than to Denmark or any other country.

The Danish problem was more a cultural conflict than a religious conflict, but it had religious overtones. Dr. Sennels found that many of the Muslim inmates were not especially pious, and yet were unequivocal in asserting that defending their prophet and Islam was their primary obligation. The significance of their life was in their Islamic culture, and that was the root of the conflict. The cultural philosophy of the Muslim inmates Sennels studied was a philosophy of victimhood. This is almost a polar opposite of the worldview of traditional Western civilization. The philosophy of victimhood absolved radicalized Muslims of responsibility for any harm they caused others, and at the same time for any harm they suffered; it was always someone else's fault. Whereas people in Western society ask: "What did I do wrong?" when something bad happens to them, the Muslim inmate in Sennels' study typically asked: "Who did this to me?" Their common argument was: "It is our fault they attacked us because we provoked them."

This sense of victimhood was consistent with having no sense of local control and responsibility. Dr. Sennels discovered that as these Muslim youths grew from childhood to adulthood their freedom to act and think independently was systematically reduced to control by higher authority, ultimately by Islamic clerics representing the command of God. This was endemic to their radicalized, Islamic culture. Corresponding to this sense of having no personal responsibility in their life, they considered the Danish government responsible for maintaining the support structure of their life according to Islam. Danish society did not make special provision for Islam and the Muslim youths responded with anger and aggression. Whereas anger is viewed in Western civilization as sign of weakness and a last resort, it was viewed as a sign of strength and honor among the Muslims Sennels studied. His study revealed this dynamic carried over as a fragile sense of 'honor' shielding their social structures, attitudes, and customs with pre-emptive aggression. He found that these Muslim youths had very little confidence that their culture and its religious foundation could withstand any critical enquiry. They angrily attacked any question of it, or any perception of a lack of support of them as "special people." All of these characteristics of the Danish Muslim inmates were consistent with western experience with radicalized, jihadist Muslims.

What we see here is the anxiety of emptiness: the fear of losing what is significant in life and being left meaningless. In this case, it was the fear of being unable to answer questions or criticism, however indirect, that strike at the core of Islam and Islamic culture. If the anxious, radicalized Muslim is faced with critical questions he cannot answer, the significance of Islam is weakened for the questioner and doubly so for him. His defense against this anxiety is to forbid the questions. This is not uncommon to many cultures and religions; the distinction here is in how the questions are forbidden. In the form of Salafi Jihadist Islam in the 1980s it became the fanatic mantra of "kill the infidel," lest he infect the believers and their ideology collapsed leaving them empty. Eventually, this kind of fanaticism consumes the fanatic, leaving them with nothing but murderous intent. We have seen this repeatedly in primitive savagery such the recent beheading of a Catholic priest before a cheering audience.

But does this characterize Islam generally? No; Islam divides on orthodoxy. We have seen and heard the term "jihadist" in reference to groups of radicalized Muslims, but we need to understand where these groups come from. These terrorist groups appear and disappear almost daily throughout the Mideast, North Africa, Europe, and North America as cells in the larger sect of Salafism. Salafism is a relatively new Islamic sect among Sunni Muslims derived from Wahhabism. Wahhabism dates from the early18th century and adheres to an orthodox doctrine of Islam based on revelation and fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu'uan and Hadith. It is effectively the national religion of Saudi Arabia and subsumes Salafism. Salafists, however, consider Wahhabism to be a weak doctrine while they are a 'purer' form of the original Islam with literalist, strict, and puritanical approaches to Islam as practiced by the ancient Salaf people in the 8th century.

The question now is what is it that binds the orthodox Wahhabism, Salafism, and Salafist jihadism and separates them from Judeo-Christian culture? The thesis here is that the difference is not just religion; it is a cultural divide reflecting the ethics taught by religion. Whereas Christians believe man is born vulnerable to sin, Muslims believe man is born sinless in a state of submission to God. This seemingly simple difference has profound implications. Whereas Christianity teaches that man relates to God in a kind of mentoring partnership (cf. Matthew 7:7), Islam teaches that man relates to God in a master-slave relationship to obey and serve Him (cf. Sunan At-Tirmidhi, Book of Supplications, Shaddad ibn Aws). How the Islamic relationship is interpreted distinguishes orthodox Wahhabism and Salafism from non-orthodox Islam, and yet all of Islam subscribes to it. The Wahhabist/Salafist strict, literalist, and puritanical approach to Islam interprets it into a culture of totalitarian control in a hierarchical society of dogmatic discipline further exploited by the Salafi jihadis to justify their terrorism.

We prefer to resolve conflict with reconciliation, but reconciliation is based on some common understanding of good and evil and right and wrong ways of doing things. This is a cultural connection and there seems to be little common understanding of that kind between Western culture and orthodox Islam. What are we to do? We start with what is native to the nations of Western civilization, but alien to orthodox Islam: Nationalism. Orthodox Islam does not honor the sovereignty of any nation over allegiance to Islam and the authority of Shariah law. The people of the nations in the Western world must understand the fundamental differences between the cultures and grant no quarter to orthodox Islam. Westerners must set aside their grievances and focus on their contributions to the rich heritage of Western culture in the arts, philosophy, and the sciences over the last 600 years or more.They must summon the courage of confidence to affirm themselves in the face of the jihaid challenge.

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