The Battle For The Minds Of Young Muslims

The Battle For The Minds Of Young Muslims

The Battle For The Minds Of Young Muslims


As small numbers of British nationals continue to be inspired by so-called Islamic State and travel to Syria, Forces TV decided to learn more about what is being done to stop those on the Daesh path to jihad. We spoke in depth to Haras Rafiq from the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation that specialises in de-radicalisation. We started by asking about how they go about their work. 
Quilliam really works in two key areas. There’s the sharp end of what we call Prevent, which includes some counter-terrorism work, teaching the Jihadi war theory* around the world to various people (and) also focusing on individuals and organisations (who have) shown support, sympathy, or even empathy for Islamist terrorists and far right violent extremists as well. (This) can involve direct one-to-one mentoring in order to rehabilitate, (and) even helping people once they’ve been de-radicalised find jobs and activities and various things to do. 

The softer end, which is the larger part, is really based on the mantra where we believe that people who are not breaking the law, with them we should have legal tolerance but civil intolerance, and that’s really around challenging the narratives, challenging the ideas, and the charismatic recruiters so that we actually inoculate and vaccinate youngsters (so that) when they are given extremist ideas and fed the narratives they’ve got the ability to push back. And that (is based) on a whole number of things including identity and dissecting and countering and providing alter narratives. 
*Note: Terms about the Muslim Faith have differing meanings, depending on who is using them and the context. Jihad can mean ‘holy war’ or struggle, including inner struggle. There is also a very important difference between the terms Islamism and Islamic. The former is a radical interpretation of the faith that comes with a belief that the whole of society should be governed by Muslim law. The latter (Islamic) simply means someone or something that is Muslim.



Dealing with the softer end, and specifically with the doctrine, the obvious question for most people is whether or not the Koran actually sanctions violence or if the radicalism comes down to a question of interpretation. Is there a version of, or a way to interpret the Koran, that you advise Muslims to abide by and that non-Muslims could use to interact better with Muslims.


Yeah, absolutely. Some people say that Islam is a religion of war and other people say Islam is a religion of peace. Well first of all Islam is neither, and both. It is a religion and it is what an individual or a practitioner wants to make it. But, in answer to your question, there are three I's that Muslims were taught (three ways that Muslims should be).

The first question (to the Prophet Mohammed) was, “what is it that Muslims believe?” And he said Islam, and from that we got, from the Sunni perspective, the five pillars of the faith (belief in God, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage). 

Then, we got the second I, which is Iman (not blind faith, but faith accompanied by reason). And from that we got the six articles of faith (belief in Allah, the Angels, Divine Books, the Prophets – including Moses and Jesus, the Day of Judgement, and Allah’s predestination).

And then the third question: How is it that Muslims should behave? And from that we got the answer, the third I, which is Ihsan (perfection, or excellence). And when asked to elaborate on that, he said that a Muslim should worship his lord as if he can see him because even though he can’t, his lord can see him. And from that we got the traditional science of how we actually purify the self. 

The real struggle, and the greatest Jihad, if you like, that a Muslim has (this is traditional classical Islam, not contemporary hijacked versions) is the day-to-day struggle that one has (with) the self to do good rather than bad. 

And in Arabic there is the science of Sufism (Irfani in the Shia sect*). That really is the teaching of chivalry, the teaching of manners, the teaching of all the things that one should believe in to, and to practice being, a better human being. Because ultimately at the end of the day, the word Islam really means in submission to one deity (to) attain inner peace, and to spread that peace around the world as well. If somebody wants to look more into these types of beliefs then I suggest that there are many Sufi interpretations of the Koran

(There is also) a clear difference between a translation (from Arabic) and an interpretation (from which you derive laws and various things). A good way to explain that (is with an analogy). I remember doing… Shakespeare (at school)… we read (the plays), and then… there were many different interpretations of the same scene and act written by different people. Similarly, of the Koran and the Bible and the Torah etcetera, there are many different interpretations that can be taken as well. And the Sufi ones, and the ones that are not from Saudi Arabia (or other Wahhabi inspired ones) are the ones that I would recommend that people look at.

*Note: Sunni and Shia sects of Islam divided the faith in two over a question of legitimate lineage following the death of Mohammed. Shia Islam dominates the East of the Islamic world, led primarily by Iran, and Sunni Islam dominates the West, led primarily by Saudi Arabia.




I was going to ask you about Saudi Arabia because… there was (a) 60 minutes report early last month in the U.S. about possible involvement by Saudi Arabia in 9-11. We don’t know at this point what’s in the missing 9-11 pages, but we do know that even though the monarchy there has been quietly modernising things, the religious clerics still have tremendous power and although it isn’t the only form of violent Islamism, the Wahhabi brand of Islam coming out of Saudi Arabia does seem to be the root cause of a lot of Islamist and religious intolerance. So how do you think the U.S., and the U.K., and their allies should be dealing with this Saudi interpretation of the doctrine?


Well, first of all, the Saudi interpretation is a contemporary interpretation. This interpretation is really from a guy called Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who was around a couple of hundred years ago and the house of Saud took on this version and it really started spreading after Saudi Arabia was created and oil was discovered. You’re right to say the Wahhabi strain (which is sometimes called Salafism as well) is really what gives the religious justification to Sunni inspired Islamist extremists and terrorists. It is a doctrine based on hatred, it is a doctrine that was really created to topple, 200 years ago, what Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wuhhab called, the colonial Ottoman empire. And it needs an enemy, it can’t exist without an enemy, and the enemy can be made to be anybody who’s not of the same belief as them. And that includes primarily, initially, other Muslims, then everybody else. 

The only way we’re going to fix this problem is to open up, to encourage Saudi Arabia and its allies in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), to open up a free market of ideas and beliefs within their societies. Create these elements of pluralism and then let civil society take on this challenge and this debate because if our ideas… are better, (those societies), eventually, will pick them up.

But it’s going to be difficult because there is a mandate in place, an agreement in place, between the House of Saud and the House of Wahhab, that says that the House of Saud will continue to govern and the descendants of Mohammed ibn Abd ibn al-Wahhab will continue to create the religious theocracy. It’s going to be difficult, but that’s the only way we’re going to fix the problem of the Wahhabi doctrine that’s coming from the region.


Religious_Leaders,_World_Economic_Forum_2009_Annual_Meeting might be a bit small
(From left) George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1991–2002), Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi (UK), Mustafa Cerić, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Jim Wallis, Evangelical Christian and Editor of Sojourners Magazine; 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland


Is it also a case of trying to adjust a Muslim’s outlook to someone who is outside the faith? Like when I was in university, I learnt that there are three responses (a believer can have) to outsiders: the Exclusivist (response), which is, we’re right, everyone else is wrong and should be converted; Inclusivist, which is, we think our way is the best but we can tolerate others; and then Pluralist, which is, all ideas are sort of valid and equal. Is there an element of that involved in what you do, trying to draw them more towards inclusivism and pluralism, which are, of course, the only things that make sense in a multi-faith world?


Absolutely. I think if we look at the definition we have of extremism, and that is somebody who has these exclusivist views and then imposes them on other people, by force, by intellectual reasoning, by bribing, or whatever… that really is the closest definition to extremism that we have as an organisation…. you’re absolutely right, one of the only ways that we can help challenge this doctrine is to help promote… not just… more inclusivist, but more pluralistic (ideas). (And) the Koran, I believe, does that as well. As a Muslim I believe that very very firmly. 

First of all… yes, (the Koran) does, in some cases, say that Islam is the best way, (but the Koran also says) there is no compulsion in faith or religion. There’s a difference in the word kaffir as used now, and as it was used when the Koran was written 1400 years ago. The word kaffir means, literally, someone who is hiding and covering up the truth. So the traditional classical interpretation of the word kaffir was somebody who KNEW the truth, but then through things like haughtiness, or greed, or pride, or other things, covered the truth and rejected it. 

The Koran does not regard people of the book, people who are Jewish, people who are Christian, or even people who haven’t covered the truth knowingly, as kaffir. A more correct translation and understanding of the word, rather than unbelievers, is disbelievers. And that’s how it was regarded for centuries, until, obviously, we saw the Wahhabi strain recently. 

The Koran also, as does the Hadith, recognises other people of the book, like Christians and Jews, and people from other traditions where books have been passed down as well, as people who have a very high status.

Let me give you an example of that. A Muslim man, for example, can marry someone who is Christian or Jewish, without that person having to change their religion. And, in the UK now, I’ve also seen it the other way around as well, where imams are marrying non-Muslim men to Muslim women as well. The question that one needs to ask then is, if these people were really so detested by the Koran, would God have allowed somebody to marry somebody of the other faith without having to convert? The answer is no, therefore, I think the interpretations that people are now using for exclusivism, especially the exclusivist interpretations, are not within the spirit… of what the Koran and jurisprudence has been teaching throughout the last 1400 years. 


Right to Debate: Quilliam Founder Majid Nawaz debates with radical preacher Anjem Choudry on Newsnight


In terms of then, finding people to get these messages across to, I mean, your organisation, I know, keeps the location of its office secret, for security reasons, so Islamists can’t just walk in, if they’re willing to reform, they can’t walk in and find you, and surely the most salient aspect of someone who is a hard core Islamist is that they’re hostile to these outside ideas, so how do you actually go about finding people, and finding communities, and engaging with radicals?


There’s a number of ways. First of all, there are things that are sort of open, such as universities. If you look at some of the reports over the last several years, both in the press, and in some of the governmental reports as well, they’ve highlighted that there are a number of hate preachers who have been travelling around universities, unchallenged, indoctrinating vulnerable young minds. So we’ve organised a campaign called Right2Debate. It’s only been going for about two or three months now, and already 19 universities have taken that on. 

Right2Debate, basically, is that, some universities have adopted the policy that if someone who is a hate preacher who hasn’t broken the law is invited onto the university campus, there needs to be an equal and opposite viewpoint aired at the same meeting. So that’s one of the ways we do it. 

Another way is that, more and more now we’re getting parents and family members who are contacting Quilliam through emails or through telephone and actually asking for help and assistance. 

We (also) have constant discussions about these ideas on social media. It used to be many years ago that these ideas were discussed (only) in community centres and in mosques, now more and more they’re being discussed in the open, which is a good thing. So we have a very active social media team that focuses on finding these people and challenging them (online). 

We also have mentors as part of the government’s official Channel program, which is the official de-radicalisation program. I myself was involved in 2007 or 8, on the steering committee that actually put together this initiative in the first place.

And then, (using the analogy of vaccination and inoculation), if… we can reach people before they become extremists (then) we can build… resilience. (This is called primary prevention). That’s something that we do in schools and in various places on an on-going basis.


‘Collateral damage’ is an ever-present risk from drone strikes


How does the issue of legitimate grievances affect your work? I mean whether it’s Britain, France, and the U.S., I think the quote was, “Cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake” at the end of World War One, or the recent Iraq war, which didn’t exactly go well, people in the Islamic world do have legitimate reasons to be angry, don’t they? So how do you deal with that obstacle?


Well first of all… these types of grievances on their own don’t actually cause somebody to go out and become an Islamist terrorist. A million people marched against the Iraq war in the UK, okay, why aren’t there a million terrorists in the UK? If foreign policy, and these types of grievances, or any grievances, such as racism, on their own, were the sole reason that drove somebody to become a Jihadist, how would these foreign policy grievances make somebody, a Muslim, travel thousands of miles to Iraq or Syria and want to kill other Muslims and take Yazidi sex slaves? Surely they would be carrying out more attacks on people they felt these legitimate grievances were being driven from. 

If we look at the radicalisation process, every single person’s radicalisation process is unique, but there are some very very common pathways, if you like. And if we look at the pathways there are three parts. 

We’ve got the lens in the middle, and within the lens we’ve got the ideological, the intellectual, the social, the emotional, and the spiritual, which is where I bring in the doctrine (the religious), and it’s these aspects of the narratives and the conditions that help to create this lens, this world view. 

If we look to the left of the world view, there are three types of grievances. There are genuine grievances, there are partial grievances, and there are perceived grievances. 

Islamist lens terrorism
The Lens of the Islamist world view consists of the ideological, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual/religious ideas that make up an Islamist identity. Grievances outside the lens are what can drive a more moderate person into the lens

genuine grievance can be racism, I mean our chairman Maajid Nawaz blames racism as one of the grievances he had, for driving him into this lens (before he reformed). Or it could be something else, like the leader of the 7-7 bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, it wasn’t foreign policy, it started because he fell in love. He wanted to marry his girlfriend from university, and his father wanted him to marry his cousin who he’d only met a few times from Pakistan. He had a genuine problem, a genuine grievance, and he was looking for a solution, and he found people within this lens who helped him. 

Then we have the partial grievances, and the partial grievances are a grievance such as aspects of foreign policy, you’re right, which are based on a partial truth, but it doesn’t give you the full picture. People talk about British or American foreign policy, doing things out in the Middle East etcetera, maybe the Iraq incursion, but they don’t tell them about the fact that these same countries (Britain and America) helped to save Muslim lives in Kosovo with their intervention (in the late 90s). So it’s a partial truth and it’s very very difficult to refute. And that can drive people toward the lens. 

Then we have the perceived grievance, which is not really a grievance on its own at all. An example of that (is) a guy we helped to de-radicalise who tells (this) story: When he was on a train one time, he saw a young woman, she was wearing the hijab, so clearly he identified her as being Muslim, she had a young child with her and she was reading a newspaper story and on the front page there was a story about somebody, a celebrity, who’d committed paedophilia. He, at that moment in time, realised that she must subconsciously be thinking about this so he went and engaged in a conversation and basically convinced her that the Western society is so immoral and so corrupt that the only way she was going to find protection for her child as the child… was to… come into the lens. 

In the lens, there are seven key aspects of motivational change that are generated (by in-group members) to provide solutions:

1). The first one is otherisation, that the people within the lens are one group, and the people outside of it are not part of their group;

2). The second is collectivisation, that everybody outside of the group is the same; 

3). Then there’s the oppression narrative, that everybody outside of the group is oppressing the group, or the gang;

4). You’ve also got the collective guilt, that everybody who is outside of the gang is complicit in oppressing the gang by the very fact that they’re not actually doing something about it. (These are other Muslims primarily in the Middle East and in other places, and in the west it’s usually governments and people who pay taxes).

5). Then you’ve got the supremacist narrative, and that is that everybody in the gang is better than everybody outside the gang.

(And up until this point, it doesn’t always necessarily become violent). 

6). Then there’s the self-defence narrative, that the group have to retaliate, to defend themselves;

7). And the final one is the idea of violence, that violence is the only way. 

Key ideas inside the islamist lens

And this drives really four types of solutions if you like, for people. And the first one is that the only way they can find real answers is to struggle, to fight, or whatever they need to do for a utopian Islamist state, which will help them, because they believe in this concept now as part of this gang. 

The second one is that they get the theological justification, (with Sunni inspired extremism, provided by the Wahhabi or Salafi theology). The theological justification for extremism says “God wants you to be part of this gang… and you’ll be rewarded.”

Then we’ve got this issue now of revenge. We’ve had the War on Terror now for about fifteen years, we’ve had drone attacks, etcetera, and there have been collateral damage and, you know, there are people who know people, who are… part of this collateral damage.

And then, the final one is that these guys actively try to provide solutions for mental health issues. There are a number of videos that actually focus on providing solutions. There’s (a government I worked with in Europe), and they identified that 40 percent of their convicted Islamist terrorists suffer from Asperger’s syndrome. 

radical islam islamism

This is not any different from other cults and other gangs, and grooming, and other things that people are doing. The only difference is that this has been done systematically over a number of years without being challenged, and that the consequences of people joining this gang and coming up with solutions are a lot worse than say somebody joining a hippy gang or a hippy cult. 


Muslim praying


Your founder, Maajid Nawaz, has said “Islam is what Muslims make it” and also that there “should be an active drive toward creating an inclusive civic identity by all members of society,” which hopefully would counteract this isolation that some of these people feel. You’ve certainly indicated that this is something the whole community should be working on, are there any additional things, just before we finish, that you would recommend people could do to help you, or that they could do as individuals to help with this process.


Absolutely. I talked about legal tolerance, civil intolerance. When somebody gets to the point where they’ve internalised violence and they’re supporting violence, then that’s a job for authorities. But within the lens that I just talked about, and the primary prevention work, this really is a job for civil society. For the first five stages anyway. And we’ve developed a toolkit called TerRa, and we’ve done that with the EU that highlights this and that uses Professor Moghaddam’s staircase model. 

What we need to do as a society is, first of all, not to look at this purely as a religious problem. I’m a Muslim, and many other Muslims like me, are not Islamists. We need to define what we’re challenging. You know, President Obama made a great speech last year where he said there’s an evil ideology at play, but then, as Maajid (Nawaz) has said in the past, you know, almost like something from a Harry Potter book, like Voldemort, he who shall not be named, didn’t name what the ideology was. We have to name it, and then we have to challenge it, because if we don’t, then other people will. 

And in the (United) States, we have this whole argument where it’s become very sort of Islam is good or Islam is bad, Muslims are good or Muslims are bad. The reality is… somewhere in the middle. Some Muslims are good, some Muslims are bad, just as there are in any other cultures or any other religions. 

We have to name the ideology as Islamism and then differentiate it from Islam the faith (practised by many people around the world in different ways), whilst recognising that the faith has been hijacked.  Islamism is a distinct political ideology, and it wants two things: 1) to set up a utopian Islamist state and enforce a version of Sharia as law; 2) to spread that around the world. This is no different to other totalitarian fascist ideologies that we’ve seen in the past and we need to treat Islamism in the same way that we treat racism, fascism, and communism, and homophobia. The ideas need to be challenged from a human rights perspective, and that is something that we need help with from the rest of society, and we are starting to get that.

For more information about Haras Rafiq’s work please visit the Quilliam Foundation’s website.