"Muslim Radicalization" : In the Eyes of the Beholder / Raymond Ibrahim

September 1, 2011
Because the phrase "Muslim radicalization" has become increasingly popular in American discourse, it behooves us to establish once and for all what it means. Without an agreed upon definition, it may be that we are each talking about different things—or worse and more likely, nothing at all.

Most dictionaries define "radicalization" and "radicalize" as "to make radical." The word "radical"—especially in a socio-political context—means "extreme," "fundamental"; as a noun it means "a person who holds or follows strong convictions or extreme principles; extremist."

For our purposes, then, a "Muslim radical" is someone "who holds or follows strong [Muslim] convictions or extreme principles."

This definition, which is likely what most people mean by "Muslim radicalization," is fraught with problems and loaded assumptions. For example, who decides which Muslim convictions or principles are "extreme" or "radical," and which are not?

Yet some Westerners talk about "Muslim radicalization" as if there was a base of normalcy that all people are agreed to—that there is a line that, once crossed, both Muslims and non-Muslims agree is "radicalized" behavior.

But is that the case? Is there a universal standard that all people—Muslim and non-Muslim, Westerner and non-Westerner—adhere to? In fact, while there are certain commonalities, so too are there extreme—that is, "radical"—variations inherent to each culture or civilization. The notion that "radicalization" refers to something universally agreed to fails to take into account that much of what people believe is good or bad, right or wrong—and, yes, moderate or extreme—is a product of their culturally-induced worldview, a product of their epistemology.

As any anthropologist can attest, there are entire cultures and societies that engage in what we would term "radical" behavior, even though to them such behavior is quite normal. Indeed, if we agree that "radicalization" refers to extreme views or practices, to many cultures, the West—from its gender neutrality to its secular humanism—is "radical."

Let us agree, then, that radical behavior—to a Muslim, Western normalization of homosexuality, to a Westerner, Muslim killing of apostates—is in the eye of the beholder. Once this view is adopted, the inevitable becomes clear: "Muslim radicalization" is simply another way of saying "distinctly Muslim principles."

Consider Saudi Arabia. Its entire worldview and culture—from totally veiled women to draconian punishments such as stoning—is "extreme" by Western standards. Yet, to the average Saudi, such behavior, built atop millennium-old Sharia principles, is not only normal but moderate (the late Osama bin Laden used to boast that Sharia is the most "moderate" system). Simultaneously, Saudis look to the Western life style and see it as corrupt, debauched, or, in a word—radical.

Many may argue that "Wahhabi" Saudi Arabia is an anomaly and not representative of the average Muslim's worldview or culture. But there are important rebuttals to this mainstream view.

First, buzz words such as "Wahhabism" (and "Salafism") are somewhat misleading: they imply a new aberration in Islam. Yet Wahhabism's message—that Muslims need to return to purely Islamic principles—has existed centuries before Ibn Wahhab walked the earth in the 18th century. One example: the classic and influential Muslim jurist Ibn Hanbal, who lived in the 8th century—one thousand years before Wahhab—insisted on the same exact "radical" teachings.

Moreover, the Wahhabi/Salafist worldview permeates Muslim thinking around the globe, if for no other reason than that Saudi-produced religious literature and programming—part and parcel of Saudi funding—saturates the Muslim market and media, including in Europe and in America. Such is the double-whammy: while Saudi literature "radicalizes" Muslims in America, Saudi "donations" help undermine America's knowledge of the threat.

Yet we continue to hear Western politicians casually talking about "de-radicalizing" Muslims. This is no different than, say, Chinese politicians casually talking about "de-radicalizing"—de-Westernizing—Western peoples, so that they can stop thinking and acting in a distinctly Western way.

Therefore, rather than arrogantly brushing aside Islam's centuries-old worldview—which at root is behind any talk of "de-radicalizing" Muslims—Western leaders would do well to take the time to learn the particulars of the religion.

Raymond Ibrahim, an Islam-specialist, is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.


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