Terrorism is on the rise

But as ISIS is being beaten back in the East, their operations have only increased in the West. 2016 saw a slew of Islamist atrocities throughout the Western world, from the murder of a priest in Normandy, to the Brussels bombings, to the axe-attack on a train in Wurzburg, to the truck massacre in Nice, to the bombings in New York and New Jersey. 2016’s number of EU terrorist attacks surpassed 2015’s (17), which itself surpassed 2014’s (4) [1].

Furthermore, ISIS’s goal to turn non-Muslims and Muslims against each other seems to be having some success; Muslims in the West are now discriminated against by employers [2] and risk various personal attacks such as having their veils ripped off in the streets [3], having eggs thrown at them [4], having their windscreens smashed [5] and their mosques defaced [6], being shot [7], and being beaten to death [8][9].

The Muslim-rights group Tell MAMA reported a 326 per cent rise in UK “Islamophobic” incidents in 2015, from 146 to 437 [10]. While concerns have been raised about Tell MAMA’s methods, and their numbers cannot be independently verified, the Metropolitan Police concluded that only a fraction of anti-Muslim incidents were ever reported because they were now so commonplace that they had become normalized by victims as well as perpetrators [11].

Fears of Islam have now also begun to alter the West’s political landscape, arguably playing a role in the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and in the rise of Donald Trump as a serious presidential candidate. Across Europe, too, previously fringe far-right parties are now gaining momentum, from Front National in France to Jobbik in Hungary. In May, 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria came within a mere 31,000 votes of becoming Europe’s first far-right head of state since 1945 [12].

Clearly, despite the headway in the military struggle against ISIS, their influence on the world is increasing. Non-Muslims fear being blown up, while Muslims fear being strung up. As a result, the terrorists are successfully doing what they set out to do: terrorizing. Ideas are their deadliest weapon, so we cannot rely on soldiers to stop them. We must address the reason jihadism exists, which is the same reason ISIS continues to inspire lone wolf attacks across the world and recruit new “martyrs” to replace the lost.

So, what is the cause of jihadism? What causes otherwise logical people to commit beheadings and suicide-bombings? Is it religion? Is it politics? Or is it something else?

Determined to find out, I spent a year in the town of Luton, which might just be the most concentrated source of Islamic extremists in the UK.

Through the simple power of obsession, I worked out why people become jihadists. I discovered that Islamic extremism is not simply a product of religion or politics, but of something more bizarre — a phantasmagoria of delusions that we have been unwittingly nurturing in our schools, newspapers, parliaments, and even in our homes.

Here is what happened.


Luton’s history is rooted in the Industrial Age. Originally centered around hat-making, it became in 1905 home to Vauxhall, the largest car plant in the UK. In the 1970s, many people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent congregated to the Bury Park area to work at the plant. Vauxhall Luton closed in 2000, and since then, the mainly Muslim ex-employees have remained in Bury Park, opening their own businesses to keep afloat, and forming a largely self-sufficient, self-contained community [13]. Bury Park is now almost exclusively Muslim.

In recent times, Luton has gained infamy as a hotbed of extremism. It was a stronghold of both Omar Bakri’s extremist group al-Muhajiroun and the hook-handed hate-preacher Abu Hamza. In 1999, Luton man Ghulem Hussein was convicted in Yemen of a bomb plot allegedly financed by Hamza. In 2001, locals Afzal Munir, Aftab Manzoor and Muhamed Omar were killed while fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2004, locals Salahuddin Amin and Mohammed Qayyum Khan were implicated in a plot to detonate fertilizer bombs throughout the UK. A year later, the 7/7 bombers met in Luton before launching their attacks on London’s transport network. In 2007, local Abdul Aziz Jalil was jailed for plotting to bomb Heathrow Airport and the London Underground. In 2009, Luton was the site of the abuse of British soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian regiment as they paraded upon their return from Iraq. The following year, Luton resident Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly carried out a suicide bombing in Stockholm. In 2013, locals Zahid Iqbal, Mohammed Ahmed, Syed Hussain, and Umar Arshad were found guilty of planning to bomb a Territorial Army base by driving a remote-controlled car packed with explosives under its gate. In 2015, Abu Rahin Aziz stabbed a man in the head with a pen for insulting the prophet Muhammad, before skipping bail to join ISIS in Syria where he was killed in a drone strike. In April, Luton delivery driver Junead Khan was caught scouting locations for a planned beheading of US troops at a British airbase. Shortly after, a Luton Methodist church was revealed to be the site of a secret jihadist indoctrination program for 80 men and children, 72 of whom are still at large…

St Margaret’s Church, Luton. Site of the secret jihadist indoctrination program.

It is not only Islamic extremism that Luton has had to deal with. In response to the perceived Islamist infiltration of the town, the anti-Muslim group English Defence League (EDL) was founded. Both it and fellow group Britain First have organized rallies and “Christian patrols” in Luton.

Naturally, I was quite nervous about moving to the town. For the first few weeks after arriving, I just got on with my work (and began writing a book about Islamic extremism, which is pending). Occasionally, I ventured into Bury Park for the exotic food, and was relieved to find that, for the most concentrated source of jihadists in the UK, it was rather dull.

Bury Park’s most distinctive feature is Luton Central Mosque, its minarets dominating the low skyline. From their loudspeakers, the call to prayer (adhan) can often be heard on the breeze. But even without the mosque, the area is visibly Islamic. There are schools, but they are almost all madrassahs. There are newsagents, but they periodically close for prayer. There are clothes shops, but the mannequins are all well-covered. There is a clothing bank, where local Muslims give garments and other goods which are then distributed among the poor. There is a travel agent who only arranges trips to Mecca. Around the corner, there is a police weapons-disposal bin, for locals to give up knives and more under amnesty. A little further, there is a church, its stained-glass windows intact and its vicar (a woman) smiling.

The one time that Luton lived up to its chaotic reputation was shortly after I’d moved here. I was passing through Bury Park on my way to see my new Muslim doctor when I glimpsed a commotion ahead. A group of white people  —  a rarity in the area  —  were shuffling along the pavement, holding up placards and crosses, while shouting. Muslims were gathered on the pavement, shouting back.

As I got closer, I realized I was witnessing a Britain First Christian patrol. These self-proclaimed soldiers of Yahweh were nothing like how they portray themselves in their YouTube videos; they were visibly terrified. I recall one protester, a young man with a shaved head, marching with swagger, doing his best to look strident, while strategically positioning his placard to hide his face from everyone. He almost tripped over.

The police were quick to intervene, and people were led their separate ways.

Since then, I’ve witnessed no more riots or protests. The main sources of tension are not in Bury Park, which is largely monocultural, but outside it. In the town square, one non-Muslim I recently spoke to was concerned that “Muslims keep to themselves” because “their book tells them they’re not allowed to mingle with infidels.” It is indeed rare to see Luton Muslims walking with non-Muslims, and some of this lack of integration may indeed have religious origins: observant Muslims typically avoid places where alcohol is served, or where people mingle freely with the opposite sex, or where sports are played in “immodest” clothing, so they might not get a chance to become part of Luton’s social life.

Another local non-Muslim I approached was angry that Muslims were “forcing their ways on everyone else,” pointing out a decision at the local Inspire Sports Village to segregate the swimming pool and impose a dress code in line with Sharia. The man claimed Muslims get special treatment here, at the expense of everyone else. He also believed violence was justified by the Qur’an. When asked why he didn’t accept the common argument that “Islam is a religion of peace,” he shrugged and said “That’s what they say. But I’ve heard lying is allowed in their religion.” He was referring to taqiyya — a special Islamic rule supposedly allowing Muslims to lie about their beliefs in certain situations, and which has been used by the far-right to paint Western Muslims as a fifth column.

I spoke to Dawood Masood, Head of Administration at the Al Hira Educational and Cultural Centre, and creator of the Not in My Name campaign, which seeks to distance moderate Muslims from jihadists. He was at first cagey, but after I reassured him I didn’t work for the Daily Mail, he eased up and spoke freely. He said that people generally got on with each other in Luton, but there were sometimes tensions, especially when groups like Britain First came to town. He believed both non-Muslims and Muslims were in danger of being taken in by a narrative of hate, and part of his work was to prevent this. As such, he is active on social media, and in the streets with leaflets, trying to show young Muslims that terrorism is haram (forbidden). He also organizes open days for non-Muslims to learn about Islam, and interfaith community activities in which Muslims come together with Christians and Jews to celebrate what they have in common. He said that it was difficult to get his vision of a peaceful and tolerant Islam into the spotlight, because the media were only interested in selling papers, so they would rather show beheadings by ISIS.

He may have had a point: A study conducted by the Cardiff School of Journalism found that nearly two-thirds of all themes of news articles about Muslims involved:

“[E]ither terrorism (some 36 per cent of stories); religious issues such as Sharia Law, highlighting cultural differences between British Muslims and others (22 per cent); or Muslim extremism…These stories all portrayed Muslims as a source of trouble. By contrast only 5 per cent of stories were based on problems facing British Muslims.” [14]

Masood said that the media’s constant conflation of Muslims with terror was what spawned groups like Britain First and the EDL. When I asked Masood what he thought was the main cause of Islamic extremism, he said it was alienation and disenfranchisement among today’s youths.

Around Bury park, there are signs of alienation and disenfranchisement. Although the council has funded anti-extremism initiatives at Luton Central Mosque and other religious centers, the infrastructure itself appears to have received little investment. The grass is overgrown in places, the roads are cracked, and there is often more litter than usual, including objects like car seats.

Metaphor, Bury Park.

The police presence in Bury Park also seems to be sparse, at least ostensibly. Bedfordshire Police operate a policy known as Faith Watch, whereby community liaison officers work with faith leaders to encourage civilian reporting of crimes among local Muslims. This scheme appears to be conducted in the stead of open police patrols, which are notably rarer than patrols in other parts of Luton. It would seem that local authorities are afraid of appearing too oppressive or heavy-handed, which may be shrewd foresight.

Even so, the failure by authorities to invest or intervene in Muslim quarters can lead to problems, as evidenced by a recent report suggesting electoral fraud has gone ignored in some Muslim communities due to political correctness [15]. But could the lack of government investment also be to blame for terrorism? Could disaffection among Muslims in places like Bury Park lead them to seek enfranchisement elsewhere?

Inevitably, some social misfits are attracted to ISIS for the sense of belonging it offers. As barbaric as the group is, their claim to be an unbreakable ummah (sacred community) unbound by race, location or class (as long as you’re male) has a certain familial appeal to those who might not feel they fit in their home countries.

Except, ISIS doesn’t just appeal to loners, vagrants and outcasts. The Islamists I once knew at university, and with whom I often debated, were not poor, or forsaken, or socially immobile  —  they were middle-class, well-to-do university students with rich social lives (I saw them at every bar and night-club).

This fact is not just anecdotal; while researching his book Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman found that the majority of active jihadists (between two-thirds and three-quarters) were middle-class, well-educated professionals within stable social circles [16]. This finding has been confirmed by numerous studies conducted since, most thoroughly in Alan B. Krueger’s recent book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Clearly, if Islamic extremism is appealing to the well-fed, well-read, and well-cared, then it isn’t solely an issue of alienation or deprivation. There has to be some kind of intellectual appeal to it.

I decided to begin my investigation in the obvious place; with the claims by local Britain First supporters that terrorism is justified by Islam.


In my inquiry into Islam, I began with the central text, the Qur’an (the version I used can be found at Quran.com). From my six-month study of The Qur’an, I identified the book’s central themes as discipline, harmony, and compassion. It has many verses that preach such things, such as this one:

“And the slaves of the Most Beneficent (Allah) are those who walk on the earth in humility and sedateness, and when the foolish address them (with bad words) they reply back with mild words of gentleness.” (Qur’an 25:63)

And this one:

“And they [the righteous] give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive, [saying], ‘We feed you only for the countenance of Allah. We wish not from you reward or gratitude.'” (Qur’an 76:8–9)

For most Muslims, the Qur’an’s authority is matched only by one other source: the example of the life of Muhammad, known as the Sunnah.

The Sunnah is articulated primarily from the ahadith (singular: hadith), or hagiographies of Muhammad, each of which is carefully graded by Islamic scholars on the reliability of its chain of transmission. I will quote only from those ahadith that are generally regarded as sahih (trustworthy) or hasan (generally sound). The translation of the ahadith I used can be found at Sunnah.com, unless stated otherwise.

When one reads through these ahadith, it becomes clear that there are things to admire in Muhammad’s story. He went from lowly merchant to ruler of his own empire in a matter of years. He also had some ethical standards that were remarkably progressive for his time. For instance, he was anti-racism:

“O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness.” (Musnad Ahmad bin Hambal 6:22978)

On this issue, he practised what he preached, freeing the ridiculed black slave Bilal ibn Rabah and making him his muezzin (chief prayer-caller)  —  a revolutionary act at the time.

Muhammad was apparently also a great believer in generosity. As he preaches in a hadith:

“When you make broth, add more water and give some to your neighbour.” (Sunan ibn Majah 4:29:3362)

So, both the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two sources of earthly authority for Muslims, preach peace and compassion to all.

Except, sometimes they also preach death:

“And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:5)

This passage, part of the infamous “Sword Verse,” seems to be calling for the deaths of polytheists, and though the second sentence has been used by some Muslims to mitigate the severity of the first, it really only changes the verse’s meaning from “slaughter the infidels” to “slaughter the infidels unless they convert to Islam.”

Furthermore, some of the Qur’an’s verses seem to sanction the taking of sex-slaves from among prisoners of war:

“O Prophet, indeed We have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have given their due compensation and those your right hand possesses from what Allah has returned to you [of captives]…” (33:50)

Muhammad lived by this philosophy, when, for example, he took sex-slaves from the conquered Banu Qurayza tribe, including the Israelite Rayhana bint Zayd, who was forced to make love to Muhammad as her family was executed. She was one of the lucky ones; a leader of Rayhana’s old tribe, Kinana ibn al-Rabi, was tortured by having his eyes put out and a fire kindled on his chest so he would reveal his tribe’s treasure to Muhammad. The prophet then had him beheaded, and took his widow as a sex-slave [17].

So, when Muhammad went to war, he was very different from the one who professed unconditional compassion. And, even when not at war, he prescribed punishments that are at odds with general notions of mercy and compassion, like stoning:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death — the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife.”

Except, the passage I just quoted is not from the Qur’an; it’s from the Bible (New International Version), specifically Deuteronomy 22:23–27.

And here are the Old Testament’s rules of engagement:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labour and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.” (Deuteronomy 20:10–15)

The Biblical God, Yahweh, also sanctions slavery:

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” (Leviticus 25:44–46)

Deuteronomy, a particularly bloody book of the Bible, also has rules that suggest the writers had bad personal experiences:

“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11–12)

Furthermore, if we are going to talk about the wartime atrocities committed by Muhammad, we cannot ignore the savageness perpetrated by the biblical prophets. Moses, for instance, instigated the mass-butchery of the Midianite males and the enslavement of their women and children, while David enslaved and massacred tribes like the Moabites, and even arranged the death of an ally (Uriah) whose wife (Bathsheba) he took a liking to.

A recent study by Tom Anderson, using special textual analysis software that he created, concluded that the Old Testament contained more than twice the number of violent passages as the Qur’an [18]. Although it didn’t account for the relative sizes of the books, it will be clear to anyone who examines both texts that the violent verses in the Old Testament are often more brutal even than those in the Qur’an (they were, after all, written over a millennium earlier).

Tom Anderson’s diagram comparing the perceived emotional content of passages in the Qur’an and Bible.

So, if the Old Testament has verses as barbaric as any in the Qur’an, and if Moses butchered captives and took sex-slaves just like Muhammad, why do Christian or Jewish extremists not make the headlines? Why, when we see reports of terrorism, sex-slavery, and honour killings, do we immediately think of Islam?

We sometimes hear of Christian extremism: abortion clinic bombings in the US, various atrocities committed by Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army or India’s National Liberation Front of Tripura. Furthermore, Tony Blair’s and George W Bush’s Christianity may have informed their decision to invade Iraq [19][20].

In addition to the occasional Jesus-loving terrorist, we also sometimes hear of Jewish extremists, such as the Zionist demagogue Meir Ettinger, who tried to bring about an Arab genocide, and the Israeli terrorist Amiram Ben-Uliel who perpetrated the Duma arson attack.

Historically, both Jews and Christians have shed just as much blood for their faith as Muslims. But Judaeo-Christian extremism is gradually vanishing from the civilised world. Islamist atrocities are on the rise.

Perhaps the difference originates in the fact that the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, clearly states that warriors get preferential treatment:

“So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory — We will bestow upon him a great reward.” (4:74)

This great reward is described in the ahadith as entry to Firdaws, a paradise within paradise, a kind of celestial VIP lounge:

“‘There is also another act by which Allah will elevate the position of a (pious believing) slave in Jannah to a grade one hundred degrees higher. And the distance between any two grades is equal to the distance between heaven and earth.’ He asked the Messenger of Allah what it was and he replied, ‘Jihad in the way of Allah; Jihad in the way of Allah.'” (Muslim 12:1301)

Even though “Jihad” in this context refers explicitly to violent warfare, and not a spiritual inner struggle (as will be made clear to anyone who reads the whole passage), I still had trouble believing offers of paradise were a sufficient explanation for the inordinate number of Islamic terrorists. After all, the Norse Eddas tell of fallen warriors entering Valhalla or Folkvangr, the Viking paradises, where they will feast on the finest boar and beer alongside voluptuous Valkyrie forever. But we don’t see many Nordic suicide bombers. (Islam may be far more popular than Norse paganism, but Odin’s word is not objectively less credible than Allah’s.)

I also wondered why jihadists ignored the verses that stated they had to be compassionate to non-Muslims in order to reach paradise, such as this one:

“The Prophet said, ‘Whoever kills a mu‘aahid (a non-Muslim living under Muslim rule) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its smell is perceived from a distance of forty years.’” (Bukhari 4:53:391)

And, this one:

“The Prophet said: ‘Spread peace between yourselves. By the one in whose hand is my soul, you will not enter Paradise until you are merciful to others.’ They said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, all of us are merciful.’ The Prophet said, ‘Verily, it is not only mercy between yourselves, but rather it is mercy for everyone.’” (Sunan al-Kubrā lil-Nasā’ī 5760)

One argument that I heard from one EDL member was that the violence in the Qur’an is far more radicalizing than the violence in the Bible because it is interpreted using a different set of rules that leads to validation of warfare.

Let’s see if there is any truth to this.


Anyone who flicks through the Bible or Qur’an will see that they’re filled with contradictions. This is not a controversial point: religious scholars will be the first to admit it. In fact, much of their work involves trying to resolve the contradictions. The most common tool by which they do this is known as abrogation.

The concept of abrogation is something most Christians will be familiar with. According to Biblical exegesis, different periods are given for God to apply different laws. These periods are known as “dispensations.” A clear example can be found in the New Testament’s abrogation of the older Mosaic covenant, as summed up in Hebrews 8:13:

“In that he saith, a new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”

The general rule in all three Abrahamic faiths is that later passages abrogate earlier ones. Thus, the relatively peaceful New Testament abrogates much of the more violent Old Testament, and it gives Christians one reason not to murder their children for talking back (as Deuteronomy 21:18–21 commands).

As with Christianity, abrogation is also essential to understanding the Qur’an:

“We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except [unless] We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it.” (2:106)

Now, here lies what critics of Islam might regard as a central problem of Islamic scriptural violence: the Qur’an differs from the Bible in that it becomes chronologically more violent, not less, as Muhammad goes from a meek merchant in Mecca to a mighty warlord in Medina.

The notorious Sword Verse (9:5), which calls for death to the unbelievers, is also among the last verses chronologically. Noted hadith compiler al-Tabari claims Muhammad received this revelation in the year 631, a year before his death [21]. Al-Tabari’s claim is backed up by another approved scholar, al-Bukhari, who states that surah (chapter) 9 was the last revealed to Muhammad [22].

So, unlike the Bible, the Qur’an’s violent verses are newer than its peaceful verses, and thus take precedence. Or do they?

The rule of naskh, which stipulates that newer Qur’an verses abrogate older ones, is an invention of medieval scholarship, reaching its peak popularity at the hands of the 14th Century scholar ibn Kathir, who wrote at a time when Islam was at war with Christendom.

Thus, naskh would be valid only to those who hold to a medieval version of Islam, such as Wahhabism  —  the sect followed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and others  —  which seeks to return Islam back to the “purity” of the 7th Century, when it was untouched by worldly innovation.

Most Islamic terrorists are Wahhabis, but most Islamic scholars are not. And there are plenty of ways scholars have construed the Qur’an’s violent verses besides the medieval interpretation offered by the extremists.

One liberal reading goes like this: abrogation does not exist in the way we understand it. Instead, it is determined by context. The violence perpetrated by Muhammad was necessary because in his medieval desert environment it was kill or be killed  —  resources were low, danger was everywhere, communities were constantly on either the offensive or defensive  —  and to survive, they had to be ruthless. Muhammad was bound by the brutal exigencies of his time, just as he was (mostly) bound by gravity, because although he was a paragon of men, he was still only a man. He conquered in self-defence. He took concubines because he was a product of his time. He made mistakes, for us to learn from. And with the onset of a relatively modern, peaceful age, the ruthlessness with which he established his religion is no longer necessary  —  Muhammad today would be a benevolent peacekeeper, not a wrathful warlord  —  and one would be free to practice Islam’s central creed of order and harmony without any need for brutality.

Thus, the Qur’an’s warlike verses are descriptive, not prescriptive  —  they serve to illustrate the world in which Muhammad existed, not the world as it should be. The rules Allah gave Muhammad were exclusively for medieval desert warfare under a very specific set of circumstances, and the peaceful, compassionate verses are for all other times. This view generally falls under the umbrella of “Islamic modernism,” and it was the one taught and studied by most Muslims I spoke with in Luton, including at Luton Central Mosque.

But is this just cherry-picking? Should we not just take the Qur’an’s words at face-value, like the Wahhabis? After all, how nuanced can the sentence “Kill the disbelievers wherever you find them” really be?

Quite nuanced, it turns out. As I researched deeper and deeper into Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), I found my head hurting. The Qur’an, like the Bible, is an immensely complicated book. It is not read like a normal text; instead, every sentence is analysed and cross-checked and interpreted around a wider context constructed from analysis and cross-checking of companion works. The concepts of hadith-grading and abrogation are just the tip of the iceberg; the Qur’an has a surface message (zahir) and a cyphered message (batin); each of its passages also have to be considered mukhamat (having one clear meaning) or mutashabihat (having many meanings); and this is before we even get into the deeper exegesis of working out what those meanings are, and how they interact with each other and the ahadith.

It took Muslim scholars years, even decades, of Qur’an and hadith study to gain any real understanding of Islam, and even then they were often in debate with one another. It didn’t seem plausible that the terrorists had grappled with such nuances and complexities.

Masood told me that the vast majority of Luton’s young Muslims had almost no knowledge of the Qur’an, and it was these people who were most likely to become extremists, because they were more susceptible to ill-informed, superficial readings of the Qur’an’s apparent justifications for violence — readings that made them seem clearer-cut than they actually are.

Masood’s statement was confirmed by leaked ISIS files, which show that 70% of new recruits had next to no knowledge of the Qur’an let alone the ahadith [23].

It seemed that although some tenets of Islam could be interpreted to justify violence, they alone could not account for radicalisation. Rather, deeper knowledge of Islam seemed to be linked to less violence, not more.

And, after all, if it really was as simple as the Qur’an justifying terrorism, why were only a fraction of the world’s one and a half billion Muslims terrorists? And why were some young people drawn to Wahhabism in spite of the general scholarly consensus that regarded it as simplistic and outmoded?

There had to be something else besides theology that was attracting young Muslims to Wahhabism. I wondered if it was political.

Earlier in my stay in Luton, I encountered an activist dressed in traditional Islamic attire, handing out leaflets. The leaflets apparently showed the mutilated child-victims of a drone strike. They were entitled, “This is democracy.”

I asked the activist what he thought about ISIS. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know them personally.” I asked him if he agreed with their aims and actions. He prevaricated, and when I pointed this out, his breathing became stertorous, like a furnace bellows.

He then employed the fallacy of relative privation: “What about what the West did in Iraq and Afghanistan, what about dropping bombs on babies — isn’t that terrorism? What about what the Zionists are doing in Palestine, how come we never hear about that? The West are the true terrorists. It was the West that spread terrorism everywhere.”

Every sentence the man said was factually incorrect. Except the last one.


I once knew a man who told me, “it won’t be guns or bombs that defeat the terrorists, but ordinary shopping.” In his view, Islamic extremism will end when late capitalism has saturated the Middle East, and people are perpetually distracted by shiny things. He may well be right. But it should be noted that shopping also played a significant role in the spread of modern jihadism.

Wahhabism is named after the 18th century preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who eked out an existence among the barren and sun-baked wastes of Najd in Saudi Arabia, where life was short and brutal. Given the region’s inhospitability, the creed didn’t initially spread far.

But Wahhab was extremely fortunate in his friendships. He first formed an alliance with ibn Saud, the conqueror of Arabia and head of the House of Saud, and convinced him to help spread his puritanical religion. Saud agreed and, in line with Wahhab’s violent ideology, his forces swept the desert, butchering rival tribes and taking sex-slaves, until he had much of Arabia in an iron grip.

In the 1940s, the US paid the House of Saud hundreds of billions to access its oil. The Saudis spent much of this money to further Wahhabism, by printing books and pamphlets, creating propaganda campaigns, offering scholarships for the right academics, and building hundreds of Islamic universities and mosques. This “Petro-Islam,” as it came to be called, spread Wahhabi ideas across the Middle East and South Asia.

At the onset of the Cold War, US policy-makers decided that the Wahhabi ideology could be exploited to serve their ends. In 1954 the US began an aid program to Pakistan, at the expense of India, whom it regarded as too cosy with the Soviet Union. It poured billions of dollars into the development of Pakistan’s military, hoping to create a bulwark against South Asian socialism. Decades later, the Pakistani military had become so powerful it staged a coup, and General Zia-ul-Haq became its dictator.

Zia initiated a reactionary Islamic reform of Pakistan, in which liberal elements were purged and puritanism was enforced. He gave many seats in his government to members of Jaamat e-Islami, a Wahhabi Islamist organisation that would later participate in the Bangladesh genocide and spread its poisonous ideology across South Asia.

US policy-makers came to see Zia as a useful asset in the fight against the Soviets. Under Operation Cyclone, the Reagan administration funnelled $3 billion dollars through the Pakistani ISI to the Afghan Mujahideen, a jihadist group fighting against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Further funds came from the US’s other Wahhabi ally, Saudi Arabia. The investment paid off; thousands of new Jihadis joined the war from across the Middle East and North Africa. Among the holy warriors lauded for heroism in Western papers was a man named Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden praised in the Independent, 1993 (license: Creative Commons)

In time, the US got what it wanted; the old liberal and socialist movements of the Middle East had been purged into obscurity, the puritanical thugs had annihilated the secular intellectuals, and total power now resided with reactionary Islamist governments.

There was of course a price; the religious fervour stoked by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia didn’t end with the war. The Mujahideen fractured into hundreds of lethal shards — including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Haqqani Network. These groups needed a new enemy, and they quickly found it, in their biggest patrons.

And that was when the bombings began.

One would think this Frankensteinian lesson would’ve sobered both Western and Eastern governments out of support for jihadist proxies. But, it hasn’t.

In 2011, Hillary Clinton oversaw the armament and funding of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Libya in an attempt to oust then-ruler, Muammar Gaddafi [24]. And within the last few years, the US has directly or indirectly supplied jihadists fighting against Iran’s secular satrap, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria [25]. Furthermore, the US and UK are now providing materiel and support to Saudi Arabia and its jihadist proxies so that they can better slaughter the pro-democracy Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen [26].

Recently, the West has found yet another authoritarian Islamist ally in Erdogan’s Turkey. In August 2016, the US effectively retracted support for secular democratic YPG and SDF Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Jarablus and Manbij, so that it could get behind Turkish forces and their jihadist proxies such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and al-Zenki. These groups are hostile to secular democracy, and are known to have committed atrocities such as beheading children, but are not designated as terrorists by the US [27][28].

So, clearly, the US and its allies have done much, and are still doing much, to propagate jihadism. But are they, as the Bury Park activist told me, actually responsible for terrorism?

Firstly, no one can ever be responsible for terrorism except for terrorists. To say otherwise is to deny certain human beings agency; to effectively see them as unable to make their own decisions. This is a typical fallacy of the left — seeing brown people as not being able to reach the same standards of responsibility as whites — and is so common that it has even been given a name: the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Fortunately, blaming terrorism on Western foreign policy is not only bigoted, but also false. Jihadism has existed long before the West’s interference in Muslim affairs, from Muhammad’s massacre of the Banu Qurayza, to the bloody atrocities committed by the Moors, Mughals, Barbary pirates, and Durrani Empire — all of whom claimed to be acting in accordance with their religion. Even after the West had taken an interest in Muslim countries, it played no role in the 1915 Armenian genocide or the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, both of which involved ruling Muslims slaughtering and defiling their non-Muslim subjects, drawing apparent justification from the Qur’an.

ISIS, in its propaganda magazine Dabiq, claims that Western foreign policy, while a source of anger, is not the main reason for its hatred of the West:

“The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.” [29]

Jihadists may not be fond of Western democracy, or the laissez-faire capitalism that fattened them, but it’s not why they fight.

So what is the real reason?


This is the first part of Gurwinder Bhogal’s report. His second part, coming soon to Areo, contains the conclusions of his research and begins as thus:


From my research thus far I had concluded that jihadism was not strictly social, political, or religious, but was influenced by each of these factors. The social explanation didn’t explain why so many jihadists came from stable families and well-to-do backgrounds. The political explanation didn’t explain the prevalence of Islamic extremism prior to Western interference in the Middle East, including at times of relative peace and prosperity. The religious explanation was also lacking; almost all Muslims are peaceful. Sure, the Qur’an and Muhammad can both be construed to be violent, but so can the Bible and most of its prophets. And Islam is far too diverse, complex and nuanced to be owned by the literalists, both Wahhabi and far-right  —  neither of whom have the patience to understand exegesis.

I tried to work out the fourth element, some kind of connective tissue for the different explanations…


[1] Europol. “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2016,” pp 10, 22.

[2] Roger Dobson. “British Muslims face worst job discrimination of any minority group, according to research.” The Independent, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/british-muslims-face-worst-job-discrimination-of-any-minority-group-9893211.html

[3] Paul Wright. “Islamophobia in Britain: Muslim woman ‘has veil ripped off in racist attack’ outside London university.” International Business Times, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/islamophobia-britain-muslim-woman-has-veil-ripped-off-racist-attack-outside-london-university-1548063

[4] Lisa Fernandez. “Instagram Post Shows Woman With Hijab Egged, San Leandro Police Investigating.” NBC Bay Area, 2016. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Instagram-Post-Shows-Woman-With-Hijab-Egged-San-Leandro-Police-Investigating-386674061.html

[5] Barney Davis, Ben Morgan. “Brexit hate crimes: Muslim assaulted with crowbar while driving in Leyton.” Evening Standard, 2016. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/crime/muslim-attacked-with-crowbar-while-driving-in-alleged-post-brexit-hate-crime-a3284446.html

[6] Rachel Revesz. “Nice attacks: Rhode Island mosque vandalized and windows smashed in ‘hate crime’ following France deaths.” The Independent, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/nice-attacks-rhode-island-mosque-vandalism-windows-smashed-potential-hate-crime-cair-a7139321.html

[7] Mukhtar Ibrahim. “Victim: Shooter made disparaging remarks about Muslims before opening fire.” MPR News, 2016. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/06/30/university-area-victim-says-shooter-made-disparaging-remarks-about-muslims

[8] Anon. “Drunken racist yob who beat Muslim grandfather, 81, to death as he walked to morning prayers is found guilty of murder.” Daily Mail, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3462652/Drunken-racist-yob-beat-Muslim-grandfather-81-death-walked-morning-prayers-guilty-murder.html

[9] Bethania Palma Markus. “Muslim man beaten to death with shovel by construction worker he hired: police.” Raw Story, 2016. http://www.rawstory.com/2016/02/muslim-man-beaten-to-death-with-shovel-by-construction-worker-he-hired-police/

[10] Harriet Sherwood. “Incidents of anti-Muslim abuse up by 326% in 2015, says Tell MAMA.” The Guardian, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jun/29/incidents-of-anti-muslim-abuse-up-by-326-in-2015-says-tell-mama

[11] Vicky Kielinger & Susan Paterson. “Hate Crimes against London’s Muslim Communities: An analysis of incidents recorded by the Metropolitan Police Service 2005–2012,” p9. Metropolitan Police, 2013. http://www.report-it.org.uk/files/hate_crime_against_london_highres_print_final.pdf

[12] The Economist Data Team. “The Rise of the Far Right in Europe.” The Economist, 2016. http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/05/daily-chart-18

[13] Sarfraz Manzoor. “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ’n’ Roll.” Bloomsbury, 2007.

[14] Peter Osborne & James Jones. “Muslims Under Siege: Alienating Vulnerable Communities,” p19. Cardiff School of Journalism, 2008.

[15] Peter Dominiczak. “Election fraud allowed to take place in Muslim communities because of ‘political correctness,” report warns.” Daily Telegraph, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/11/election-fraud-allowed-to-take-place-in-muslim-communities-becau/

[16] Mark Sageman. “Understanding Terror Networks,” pp 73–75. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

[17] Ibn Ishaq. “Biography of Muhammad.” The Internet Archive, circa 750 CE (original), 2016 (retrieved). http://web.archive.org/web/20040625103910/http://www.hraic.org/hadith/ibn_ishaq.html

[18] Tom H. C. Anderson. “Text analysis answers: Is the Qur’an really more violent than the Bible?” Odintext.com, 2016. http://odintext.com/blog/textanalysisbible2of3/

[19] Jonathan Wynne-Jones. “Tony Blair believed God wanted him to go to war to fight evil, claims his mentor.” Daily Telegraph, 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/5373525/Tony-Blair-believed-God-wanted-him-to-go-to-war-to-fight-evil-claims-his-mentor.html

[20] Ewen MacAskill. “George Bush: ‘God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.’” The Guardian, 2005. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa

[21] Michael Fishbein (translator), al-Tabari (original). “The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 8 — The Victory of Islam: Muhammad at Medina A.D.,” pp. 160–87. SUNY Press, 1997.

[22] Al-Bukhari (compiler). Sahih al-Bukhari, 6:60:129. http://www.sunnah.com/bukhari

[23] Aya Batrawy, Paisley Dodds & Lori Hinnant. “‘Islam for Dummies’: IS recruits have poor grasp of faith.” Associated Press, 2016. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/9f94ff7f1e294118956b049a51548b33/islamic-state-gets-know-nothing-recruits-and-rejoices

[24] Jeffrey Scott Shapiro. “Secret Benghazi report reveals Hillary’s Libya war push armed al Qaeda-tied terrorists.” Washington Times, 2015. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/feb/1/hillary-clinton-libya-war-push-armed-benghazi-rebe/

[25] David E. Sanger. “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria.” New York Times, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/15/world/middleeast/jihadists-receiving-most-arms-sent-to-syrian-rebels.html?_r=0

[26] Finian Cunningham. “West’s Proxy Jihadist Terror Network Uncovered in Yemen.” Strategic Culture, 2015. http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2015/09/19/wests-proxy-jihadist-terror-network-uncovered-in-yemen.html

[27] Yusra Ahmed (translator). “Ahrar al-Sham, Zenki say will not take part in ‘North Army’.” Zaman Al Wasl, 2016.https://en.zamanalwsl.net/news/15874.html

[28] Anon. “US-backed militants’ beheading of Syrian kid stirs outrage.” Press TV, 2016. http://www.presstv.com/DetailFr/2016/07/20/476121/Syria-Aleppo-terrorists

[29] Anon. Dabiq, issue 15, p33. ISIS, 2016.

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  1. “Is it religion? Is it politics? Or is it something else? Determined to find out, I spent a year in the town of Luton, which might just be the most concentrated source of Islamic extremists in the UK.”

    This summarizes the disingenuousness of this article. ISIS surely is a problem in the world but the focus on this one extremist group as what the people in places like Luton, or in the West generally, is knowingly false. Surely the author of this article is not so naive as they seem throughout this piece.

    Is it religion? Yes. Is it politics? Yes. Is it cultural? Yes. Just because a place isn’t constantly being bombed doesn’t mean it can’t be destroyed. We in the West have all manner of conversation about the evils of colonialism; about imposing our culture, or values, or laws in other places in the past but on this topic the West is committing suicide by allowing about culture to colonize it.

    People in the West don’t want sharia courts, regardless of whether they only operate in Muslim communities. They are extralegal courts incompatible with our sense of law. Western people don’t want impositions of modesty in attire, or cuisine. We don’t want segregated communities. We don’t want different rules for men and women. All of these things are incompatible with our values, our culture, our society.

    The other thing that we have in the West is the inability to really see things from other points of view. We seem to be unable to believe that people really and truly believe the things, even the nonviolent but fantastical things, written in the holy texts of another culture. That they motivate and modify behavior in a way we don’t experience. We just assume that everyone treats their religion like we do: as a la carte rather than something that has everyday impositions that have implications for eternity. Just a few centuries ago the West existed this way. Witch hunts, inquisitions, and pogroms were things that were commonplace. The cultures that developed with these kind of beliefs were inextricably linked. They were inseparable. We moved, for the most part, away from this. Not everywhere else has.

    The culture of the Islamic world exists in some ways as the West did when it was part of what was called ‘Christendom.’ There is no separation of church and state. Laws and supernatural belief exist side-by-side. That is what now exists in places like Luton, and of course extremists are going to keep coming out of that culture.

    Yes, extremists scare people but the problem isn’t that extremists are conjured from thin air. The problem is the common culture of the Islamic world, which is tied directly to the traditional practices of the religion of Islam, being a culture which must impose itself on any other culture it comes into contact with whether by force, coercion, or in numbers. That is written throughout its history and texts, and it is happening in front of people’s eyes, in their towns and neighborhoods, and those people are being treated as if they are the problem rather than the colonial culture imposing itself on them.

    If Muslims want to demonstrate their religion to be one of peace, they should go willingly to the places that would conform to their chosen lifestyle, and leave us in peace. Otherwise, they have to choose the societal benefits of living in the West over the lifestyle prescribed in Islam. That is the only way peace prevails.

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