The relation between extreme religious ideas and violent behavior has been largely debated over the past few years. While one group of experts stresses the importance of extreme religious beliefs in creating the conditions for being drawn to terrorism, another group has insisted that terrorism does not arise from the radicalization of Islam or extremist interpretations, but from the Islamisation of radicalism. Just like the youth who turned to left-wing violent groups in the past, some youth today have found a way to somehow root in Islam the paradigm of their revolt.
Egypt after the ouster of the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, offers a more complicated picture.
Based on my research, most Muslim Brotherhood youth who joined violent groups after 2013, adopted extremist religious ideas only after they had been already radicalized due to other political and social conditions.
The removal of Mohammed Morsi from power in July 2013 led to a split within the Muslim Brotherhood between the historical leadership, which has insisted on using non-violent means to resist the regime, and newer leaders who supported the choice of some Muslim Brotherhood youth to use violence in their struggle against the Egyptian security forces. The case of the Muslim Brotherhood branch that decided to take up arms offers a case in point.
Constructing a religious frame to justify the use of violence was only done after many of its young members had been already radicalized since July 2013. The increasingly violent activities carried out by some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s angry youth led their new leadership to draft an ideological frame to organize this wave of violence. The text titled The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup, came only in early 2015. More than 18 months after the ouster of the Brotherhood from power.
However, while religious ideas in this case played a secondary role as a driver to violent radicalization, these same ideas play a primary role in shaping the form of violence, its aims, strategies and target audience. Even if many of them might be driven to the violent path by similar social and political grievances, following one set of religious ideological interpretations or another would have a major impact on their behavior, and would be likely to lead them to different, sometimes even contradictory, paths.
Egypt offers a suitable case to verify this statement. the spectrum of violence in the country has developed over the last seven years to include different groups, each with its own religious ideological interpretation framework to justify the use of violence. These competing groups can be divided into three main categories: those affiliated with ISIS, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, and those emerging from, or somehow inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliated groups follow variations of the Salafi Jihadi doctrine, which relies on five doctrinal pillars: Jihad (holy war), Tawhid (the oneness of God), Hakimiyya (Islamic governance), al-Wala wal-Bara (Loyalty to the divine truth), and takfir (excommunication).
Groups emerging from, or somehow inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, however, follow a religious frame that underlines the religious concept of Dafa’ al- Sa’el or Repelling the Assailant, which according to The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup, is equivalent to the modern concept of the right to self-defense. This ideological framework is distinct from the Salafi Jihadi doctrine, as it does not excommunicate members of the security forces and insists that they should be resisted not because of their faith (or lack thereof) but for their actions.
Goals, strategies and audience
These different ideological frames have shaped the goals of these groups differently. While groups affiliated to either al-Qaeda or ISIS call for the establishment of an Islamic state based on the rule of God, those inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood don’t adhere to a concept of Islamic governance beyond much symbolic rhetoric. Rather, they argue that it is up to a nation to decide how to govern itself, while assuming a free nation of Muslims will govern itself in accordance with Islamic values, which is open to interpretation in any case. While they do question importing a specific model of western democracy, they reject at the same time the establishment of a despotic religious rule that the ISIS model advocates.
Religious ideas have also shaped the strategies these groups resort to in order to achieve their aims. ISIS groups in Sinai and mainland Egypt target both state officials and civilians, and attack mosques and churches alike. Groups emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood, however, refuse to target civilians or religious minorities.
Seeking to disrupt extremist religious ideas will not put an end to political violence, but it may cause many of these youth to doubt this path
In its statement after the ISIS suicide attack against a chapel adjoining St Mark's cathedral in Cairo in December 2016, one of these groups insisted that its resisting strategy does not include attacking civilians, regardless of their personal political attitudes or religious affiliations.
Lastly, religious ideology also determines the audience of these groups. While Salafi Jihadi groups only speak to a deeply religiously conservative audience, or what they call “true Muslims”, the Muslim Brotherhood inspired groups seek to address a more diverse audience. Their target audience includes all the revolutionary forces, from the Left to the liberals, that oppose the current political regime. Unlike the case of the movement’s historical leadership that still looks suspiciously to both liberal and leftist groups, these violent groups play down these ideological differences. Based on my research, I have noticed that they are opening up to other political movements, such as the Revolutionary Socialists and the 6th of April movement, as long as they share their political agenda.
They have been also sending messages to other groups within the society that usually fear the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Copts. In its statement following the ISIS attack against the Church in Cairo in December 2016, one of these groups warned the Copts of the regime’s attempt to use this attack in order to increase sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians, , framing their struggle as that of all Egyptians, including the Copts, against the political regime. One of these groups even addressed foreigners in Egypt after the US embassy in Cairo warned of a possible attack by the group. The statement came in English and read “We are the resistance and we are not terrorists. There is no need to worry; we are Muslims, not killers.”
Understanding these different religious ideas and how they impact the goals, strategies and audience of violent groups is crucial when considering strategies to address such violence. The debate about such violence often focuses on addressing the socio-economic and political grievances that lead to it. While these are indeed some of the root causes of vigilante violence in the Middle East, changing socio-economic and political realities in the region seems nearly impossible, at least on the short term.
Seeking to disrupt extremist religious ideas will not put an end to political violence, but it may cause many of these youth to doubt this path, and whether it is religiously permissible. Although, religious ideas are not the main reason why many young people decide to take up arms, formulating an ideational response to these different ideologies adds an additional barrier to violence, by depriving these angry youth from a normative frame that justifies their use of violence.