Brussels debate on the factors behind radicalisation and jihadist violence in Europe
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Brussels debate on the factors behind radicalisation and jihadist violence in Europe

A Brussels conference was told that social exclusion should not be used to excuse young Muslim men and women becoming radicalised and using violence as a means of protest. The debate, “Radicalisation and Jihadist Violence,” heard that while discrimination and racism are factors, it is often people from “well-educated, middle class” backgrounds who become involved in Islamist terrorism.

Samir Amghar, a researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, said, “This can seem contradictory and does not fit with the perceived theory but most of those involved are not from working class backgrounds.”

This should not be entirely surprising, he suggested, as other terrorist organisations, such as the Red Brigades, an Italian left-wing, terrorist organisation responsible for numerous violent incidents and murders in the 1970s, had intellectuals and middle class members among their ranks.

The discussion, organised by the European Foundation for Democracy, a leading  Brussels-based policy institute, focused on the “root causes” that drive young Muslim men, and women, to commit atrocities such as those seen in Paris recently which claimed the lives of 130 people.

The exchange of views, on Wednesday, was particularly timely with Brussels continuing to face a terrorist alert in the wake of the recent Paris attacks.

Amghar, an expert on Islamic studies and a Muslim, told the packed meeting that one possible explanation for the ideology that can lead to terrorism is the current relative lack of opportunity in Europe for “Islamic discourse.”

“Muslims,” he said,” do not feel they have the instruments to express political protest and as a result some choose to express themselves in a violent way.”

Ideology was one of “many variables” underlying the apparent appeal of fighting a “Jihad or Holy War,” Amghar told the event at Brussels Press Club.

One solution to the problem, he argued, would be to put in place counter radicalisation programmes that might demonstrate a “more moderate face of Islam” to those at risk of becoming radicalised.

There was “no immediate linkage” to be made between Muslim orthodoxy and Jihadism and even “hard core” Muslims condemn the actions of so-called Islamic State, responsible for the Paris attacks and downing of a Russian commercial airline.

But, even so, he said some apparently “moderate Muslims”, such as the well-known Islamic preacher Yusuf Qaradawi, who has in the past called for Jews and homosexuals to be killed, had an “ambiguous” attitude to violence and who on the one hand condemns publicly some attacks conducted by Islamists (that is 9/11, Madrid, London) and on the other, calls Muslims from all over the world to fight against Bahsar Al Assad, joining jihadists in Syria  (2012).

Amghar also said the authorities, including law enforcement agencies, in Europe also had an important responsibility to ensure that peaceful protest was permitted.

He cited the example of the “Innocence of Muslims,” a controversial anti-Islamic film that sparked debate about freedom of speech and Internet censorship.

Muslims who had peacefully protested about the movie outside American embassies in France were arrested and this, he argued, is the type of response that may fuel radicalisation.

Mohamed Louizi, an independent researcher and author on Islamism and another keynote speaker at the event, related his own experience of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood , in Arabic al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn, a religio-political organisation founded in 1928 at Ismailia, Egypt by Ḥasan al-Banna.

Louizi, who is based in France, was a member for 15 years but had now left what he calls a “very secretive organisation” and has been highly critical of its teachings, practices, structure and sources of financing.

He read lengthy excerpts from texts written by al-Banna but based on traditional Islamic doctrine which, Louizi pointed out, glorified self-immolation and martyrdom, which explicitly includes killing Christians and Jews.

“It tells Muslims to fight the infidels and for the cause of Allah or be condemned to Hell,” he said.

He pointed out that such texts are currently being taught across France at mosques and “educational centres” run by the Muslim Brotherhood and was also the doctrine spread by the orthodox schools of Islam.

Louizi suggests that exposure to such teachings provides a fertile ground for recruitment to violence and terrorism and is another root cause of Islamic radicalisation.

A person who even challenges such doctrine, he says, is considered to be an apostate, or someone whose beliefs have changed and who therefore no longer belongs to a religious or political group.

He drew on his own experience to highlight the sometimes “unforgiving” nature of such ideology, saying, “If, as a former member of Muslim Brotherhood, I did anything that would attack the structure of that organisation, such as expose their financing, it would seek to destroy me.”

In the question and answer session, Louizi also spoke of intellectuals in Egypt who, said, had been prosecuted in court or were victims of extrajudicial killings for expressing liberal views on Islam.

“Islam as with all religions,” he argued, “should be subject to criticism. You should not avoid it but, rather, encourage discussion about your faith. After all, there is no single Islam religion but different interpretations of it. The Muslim Brotherhood needs to realise that it is not the only legitimate voice for Muslims in the world.”

There was also a worrying trend, he noted, for public debate on Islam and jihadist violence to be perceived as “Islamophobia” and for confusion to persist among the general population between Islam – the religion – and Islamism – the ideology.

“Again, this is wrong,” he said.

Louizi, who is also a former member of Islamist groups in France and Morocco, said that in order to explore why they appear to be so attractive to some people, it was necessary to question the financing of Islamic State and other such groups.

He cited the example of French President Francois Hollande who met Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, shortly after the Paris attacks, supposedly to discuss the issue of radicalisation and Islamist terror.

“But,” he said, “Qatar is one of the places that is providing the finance for IS.”

Closing a lively, two-hour discussion, EFD Executive Director Roberta Bonazzi said that she was surprised at the level of political and media debate in the wake of the Paris attacks.. For more than 10 years, she said, the Foundation has been bringing Muslim academics, scholars and grassroots activists from around Europe and the MENA region to meet officials and politicians in Brussels to discuss the ideology that can lead to radicalisation and ultimately to recruitment to terrorist organisations. Officials didn’t want to hear about that and the EU and national governments continue, still today, to support large, structured well-funded organisations that are linked to Islamist groups, she said. It is a scandal, she added.

She said, “This is not about Molenbeek, or about Brussels or about Belgium” adding that Europe is facing structural problems on these issues in several other cities in France, The Netherlands, the UK, Sweden, Germany and Spain. They share very similar problems as well as – failed – short-sighted and politically expedient policies, adopted either out of negligence and naiveté or as political expedients to win votes from within local Muslim communities. In the past 20 years we have seen a growing presence of organisations managed or inspired by radical preachers sent to Europe – including Belgium – from Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular. “The massive injection of funding, the lack of understanding of the Islamist ideology (as opposed to Islam the religion), the multi-layered networks active at community levels, combined with the aspiration for social peace of politicians and local administrators, are all elements that have contributed to the situation we are facing today”, she concluded.

By Martin Banks