A UN Development Programme (UNDP) study published on 7 September found that religion – specifically, Islam – is a key factor in recruitment for violent extremism in Africa. The report, entitled Journey to Extremism in Africa, devoted particular attention to al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in East and West Africa respectively. It revealed that more than half of the 495 respondents who had joined a violent extremist group voluntarily identified religious ideology or belief in a religious leader as the determining factor informing their decision to join. The remaining respondents cited one of 11 other variables, ranging from family circumstances to economic factors to state and citizenship.
This discovery discredits the proposition of those who maintain that al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and all other jihadi groups have "nothing to do with Islam." This conclusion is not helpful, as it concludes the discussion before it has even begun. If jihadism has nothing to do with Islam, this in effect means that religion has nothing to contribute to preventing extremism, and solutions should be sought elsewhere.
As the UNDP study found, economic factors such as poverty and unemployment and family circumstances such as perceived parental neglect and an unhappy childhood may be crucial push factors. But these alone cannot breed violent extremism; individuals need an ideology around which to frame their grievances. Jihadi groups exploit Islam to do that. The dominant lexicon in the jihadi world is that of Islam – or, more appropriately, jihadism's twisted version of Islam. Religious ideology is to the extremist what the heart is to the body. Disregarding the role of religion is a lethal approach to take.
Digging deeper, the study found that 57 per cent of respondents who had joined an extremist group voluntarily were either unable to read Islamic texts or unable to understand what they had read. This shows that dogma and indoctrination, rather than deep religious education, lead to recruitment for violent extremism. The more deeply a person is able to read and understand the Quran and its interpretation, the more immune that person is to recruitment.
This finding counters those who condemn Islam and all Muslims for the acts of violent groups. It opposes the rhetoric that Islam hates the West and that the solution is a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims," as proposed by then US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And it runs against the suggestion that banning the Quran and Muslim headscarves and shutting down mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools) are appropriate responses. These propositions are not only simplistic but also empower extremists by feeding their narratives of enmity between Islam and the West.
A more helpful approach is to first accept that terrorists – or at least, some of them – are motivated by their understanding of Islam to perpetrate their terror. Thus, violent extremism does have something to do with Islam. One should then go further and ask how extremists can exploit a religion that an overwhelming majority of its followers claim to be peaceful. That is what the UNDP report did.
The study concluded that the problem is not Islam but ignorance of it. The answer is therefore not less religious education but higher-quality religious education. This would build community resilience, equip society to critically question teachings, and address the psychological and emotional appeal of extremist narratives. Quality education can also tackle poverty and unemployment and instil in people the etiquette of dealing with grievances peacefully and civilly, rather than through violent means.
Islam can be a sword in the hands of terrorists or a shield to the mainstream and the world. Rather than banning the Quran, as some politicians have proposed, governments and civil society organisations should further empower Muslim religious leaders to interpret and teach the book in a way that promotes peace and pluralism. Experts and policymakers should support mosques and madrassas by helping them to develop and impart quality content, instead of proscribing them. And the international community must empower those inspired by religion to do good to triumph over those who perpetrate evil in the name of religion.
In effect, the world's more than one billion peaceful Muslims must be supported to reclaim their religion from extremists. But this cannot be done by downplaying or inflating the role of Islam in violent extremism. The real role of religion has to be faced and understood.