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The Lesson of Roshonara Choudhry's Radicalization

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Every so often, British Members of Parliament -- MPs -- go back to the constituency that voted for them and have a surgery. Like a doctor's surgery, it is an opportunity for them to speak to their constituents, listen to their problems, and keep their ear to the ground. Last spring, a young girl, Roshonara Choudhry, went to the surgery of her local MP, and took the opportunity to try to murder him.

Her case has been in court over the past month, and she has recently been sentenced to a minimum of fifteen years.

She was, it transpired, a wannabe Islamic extremist terrorist, who believed that her actions were vengeance for her MP's vote for the Iraq war. She had been motivated by watching online videos of a man she described as a scholar, Anwar al Awlaki, who had also helped to motivate, directly or indirectly, the US Army Psychiatrist who killed thirteen people, the young Nigerian student responsible for the Christmas Day bomb attempt, John Walker Lindh, the man known as the "American Taliban," and two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

I believe that this story can teach policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic a very valuable lesson about how to prevent radical Islamic extremist violence.

The most salient fact about al Awlaki is that for all his rhetorical and revolutionary bravado, he is not actually a Muslim scholar at all.

He studied engineering, education, and human resources, but somehow never got round to Islam. When challenged about his Islamic education by a questioner on his own website, he responded that his Islamic education consisted of a few months' study here and there with various scholars, and some light reading and "contemplation." He did not claim to have any qualifications from an Islamic seat of learning, nor even claim to have any from a secular academic institution's course on Islam.

And yet, online, nothing stops him being seen as either a scholar or as speaking for Islam. In this way, his reputation has spread. He is invited to speak to student Islamic societies and radical mosques worldwide, and his videos are available online for wayward people like Ms. Choudhry to see.

In short, Awlaki is a fake. He is not a scholar, he is a dangerous attention seeker. He is to Islam what Terry Jones, the self-styled pastor who did not burn the Koran this year, is to Christianity. (Reportedly, Jones' only qualification is, lest we forget, an honorary degree from an unaccredited school of theology, and he was found guilty by a German court of falsely claiming the title of "doctor' in 2002.)

But this is not an isolated case. In fact, it is highly representative.

The vast majority of violent Islamists have never actually had any Islamic education either. Nearly 90% of violent Islamists have actually had no religious education at all. For example, none of those who carried out the 9/11 attack on the United States or the 7/7 attack on London had received any education in what Islam actually says about such violence.
And even al-Qaeda's leadership lacks credibility. Osama Bin Laden never attended a religious seminary and has no formal religious training. Most of its leaders have backgrounds in medicine, engineering, or business.

And if you look at what the instigators of violence such as al-Qaeda regard as the biggest threat to their influence, it is authentic Islamic education.

Quite simply, they fear that their followers will look at authentic Islam, and discover that it doesn't teach violent jihad at all. The biggest danger to their long-term recruitment, motivation, and longevity, is the idea that young people might begin to see that authentic Islam actually condemns the violence they espouse.

And the reason that authentic Islamic education works to prevent the motivation to radicalize, is that extremist groups like al-Qaeda have nobody qualified to respond.

Other countries understand this and have started to act on it. They send Islamic scholars into prisons to speak to those convicted, and show them that they have been hoodwinked by a perversion of Islam which justifies violence. The tactic of undermining the intellectual conditions which foster radicalization has been used by governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for many years. In these cash-strapped times, it is a way to keep us safer which is cheap or free.

The Solas Foundation in Scotland has already begun to do that in Britain. It offers genuine, authentic Islamic teachings which put the history of Islamic thought in its proper context. Rather than aiming to cure radicalization, it aims to prevent it, by quietly changing young minds to cut off the attraction of radical discourses.

It is programs like this which will solve the problem of radicalization which lie at the heart of sorry stories like that of the MP and Roshonara Choudhry.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

Follow me on Twitter (@AzeemIbrahim)