Radical extremism within Muslim communities is a problem that needs to be tackled, and quickly. The question is how?
Don’t blame Muslims - or Somalis - for Al Shabab’s terrorists
During a recent meeting in New York, Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki expressed his concerns about Tunisians who have gone to Syria to fight against the Assad regime. He compared them to the Arab mujahideen who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Mr Marzouki said that “nobody can be sure what would happen” when they return home.
Radical extremism within Muslim communities is a problem that needs to be tackled, and quickly. The question is: what is to be done about it, and how?
The Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, denounced the attacks on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya last month, and Somali communities abroad did the same. Muslim community leaders, particularly those that live among non-Muslim majorities in Europe and North America, publicly and unequivocally deplored the attacks.
On the face of it, the reaction from Somalis and Muslims seems appropriate. But that risks advancing a problematic narrative. Muslims should not be solely blamed for such atrocities as they do not hold fully responsibility for it as a community. They have a role to play but there are deeper problems to be recognised and addressed, but not only by Muslim communities.
The Kenyan atrocity is a tragedy that is partly a result of the lack of international leadership to resolve the conflict in Somalia. The lack of this leadership is still there and the tragedy may still be repeated.
When the Somali president denounced Al Shabab, he insisted the group does not belong to Somalia – that radical extremism is not endemic or intrinsic to Somalia and Somali culture. When Somalis elsewhere denounce the actions of Al Shabab, there is an implicit recognition of blame and responsibility for Al Shabab, but the Somali president was clear in his characterisation of Al Shabab being a non-Somali movement that has simply found a host in Somalia.
One might argue that Somalis should take responsibility for hosting Al Shabab, but that would only be true and accurate if Somalis had the capacity to control what happens on their territory in the same way that other nations do. Somalia has suffered from the realities of a failed state for two decades. In spite of the efforts of Somalis, the inaction of the international community has allowed extremism to fester. As a result, Al Shabab thrived on chaos and gradually transformed into a multinational group with members from many different nationalities.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, portrayed the ideology of the attackers as not being that of believers in true Islam, but a perversion of it. Muslim community representatives echoed his sentiments and they also found themselves locked into a particular narrative where they, more than anyone else, were obliged to speak out against the ghastly acts of Al Shabab. The corollary assumption is that if they do not speak out, they’re somehow ethically responsible for those actions.
After September 11, 2001, it’s unsurprising that Muslim communities, particularly those in the West, feel obliged to speak up. The level of suspicion, especially after the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry from the far-right in Europe and North America, means that they may feel they are under threat or might be targeted as a result of these attacks. A Fox News commentator, Bob Beckel, has even said that until “moderate Muslims” denounced the Kenya attacks, no mosques should be constructed in the US and no Muslim students from outside of the US should be permitted to enter the country.
The narrative is, of course, deeply flawed. No calls were made for Buddhists in the West, for example, to openly denounce the actions of Myanmar Buddhists that targeted a religious minority. Similar comparisons can be made about other religious groups.
Still, Muslims should work to strengthen a moderate religious discourse that leaves little room for radical extremist ideas to take root and to prevent extremists from recruiting Muslim youth. This argument should also allow for the factors that would help Muslim communities to build and promote such a discourse.
The mainstream religious establishment has already identified these radicals as being essentially heterodox – though such denunciation is often missed in media headlines. Those sort of statements against religious extremism will have to continue, but tackling radical extremism remains the responsibility of security services worldwide and simply cannot be the task of religious leaders.
It remains easier for extremism to spread when mainstream ideas are not widely promoted. Religious moderation requires an environment that allows it to grow and flourish. In failed states such as Somalia, where the security apparatus is not effective, extremism has been left to fester for many years.
The tragedy of Kenya cannot be blamed on Somalis and Muslims but all of us. When turmoil and destruction become the norm for the citizens of a country, while the international community stands idle, violent extremism finds fertile ground. Mr Marzouki spoke of Afghanistan, and the unpredictability of what was to happen as a result of fighters flowing from other countries to participate in the conflict.
As we have seen in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria, the world cannot afford to continue to watch as destruction and chaos reigns in those countries – the consequences will visit us far beyond those lands.
Dr HA Hellyer is associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer