Radicalism 101: The Airplane Plotter and the Thin Line Between Dissent and Terrorism

One of the many data points analysts are looking at is the fact that Christmas-day bomb plotter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is reportedly the fourth president of a London area Islamic student society to face trial on terrorism related charges in the last three years. Others with distinguished UK university links have been involved in some well publicized events and plots over the last decade. While London's bookstores, mosques and universities have been critical refuges where dissenting youthful perspectives can be examined, they have also been places where suicide bombings and violent conflicts with the West have been glorified, excused and celebrated.

A Small Number of Accomplished Youth Turn to Violence
Many of these young people are bright and talented with impressive records and ample opportunities for future conventional success. One of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's convicted killers, Ahmed Omar Sheikh, had attended the London School of Economics. Two King's College students were involved in a plot to attack the American embassy in Tel Aviv in 2003, before one bombed Mike's Place Bar nearby, killing three. Two of those involved in a 2006 plot to bomb international flights studied at the University of Portsmouth. A third, Waheed Zaman, 25, was acquitted of plotting to bomb trans-Atlantic flights, but still faces trial for conspiracy to murder. Zaman led the Islamic Society of London Metropolitan University, where he dreamed of being a doctor.

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This is not just a phenomena limited to high achievers from British institutions. One of five DC area young people recently arrested in Pakistan is a well-liked dental student from Howard University. The 2006 Glasgow Airport SUV bombers included a native born British physician, apparently educated elsewhere and an engineer, both in their 20s.

Radicalism Across The Spectrum Can Attract Young Adults
Radicalism at universities is hardly new, nor is it something that is limited to only one faith or political orientation. For decades modern universities have played crucial roles in the evolution of sincere peaceful dissent about wars, the environment, civil rights and international policy. A small, but dangerous by product of this legitimate dissent and vigorous debate has emerged over the decades. It is a doctrine, shared across a variety of movements, that actively promote violence as a means to protect vulnerable people and interests against a vast diabolical network of actors and institutions. Colleges played a role with movements as diverse as the Weather Underground and the Jewish Defense League in decades past and with environmental extremists today.

For some young people extremism is an attractive intoxicant that makes sense of the myriad choices they face during their first foray into adult independence. While extremism is a sociological phenomena, it is also something that fills a uniquely personal need as well. The exposure to new social and political perspectives, introspection on life aspirations, boredom, personal disappointments and the desire for a sense of community and peer validation can make young adults susceptible to affiliating with extremists. Extremism, particularly religious extremism, offers ordered answers that make sense not only of societal unfairness and deficiencies but also of one's unfulfilled aspirations and conflicts. Abdulmutallab's apparent Internet postings about his loneliness and struggle to adhere to faith seem to bear this out.

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Attitudes Across Faiths Offer Both Hope and Concern
Among the macro factors influencing student attitudes are their views relating to the characteristics and requirements of their faith as well as international and domestic conflicts where Muslims are suffering. The only comprehensive UK poll of both Muslims and non-Muslims students offers cause for both hope and concern. A 2008 Centre for Social Cohesion survey of UK students found that a plurality of Muslim college students: 43% said Islam is compatible with secularism, while 28% contend the two are incompatible. A significant majority, 78%, however, maintain that it is possible to be both Muslim and British equally. In addition 68% thought Islam is compatible with Western democracy. Two thirds of those polled said they lost respect for the British government due to the Iraq War. Most reject the notion that killing in the name of religion is justifiable, but 60% of active members of campus Muslim societies said that it could be.

Twenty percent of Muslim student respondents said their respect for UK society overall had declined. A 2007 Pew Survey of British Muslims found only 17% believed the Arabs committed the 9/11 attacks, while 40% of American Muslims did. Of non-Muslim student respondents in the 2008 survey 9% had little or know respect for Muslims, while 50% said Islam was fairly or very incompatible with democracy.

Some Campus Societies Include Extremism in Their Mix
Depending on their leadership, history, funding and composition campus religious societies can be fora where heartfelt little heard dissent can be aired and discussed. Some use these opportunities as a gateway into peaceful change through advocacy, scholarship and political involvement. Some of these societies can also be a refugee and counterweight to Islamophobes who also are part of the campus speaking circuit.

However, some campus societies, like several in London and California, network with each other and go out of their way to include within their mix of speakers those who promote ideologies that glorify violence, justify terrorism, bigotry, death for gays, hatred of the West, or support for false conspiracy theories. Some speakers are connected to controversial hard-line British religious organizations like the now disbanded al-Muhajiroun and the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which have been tied to terrorists. These groups seek a world-wide Islamic state. In the United States, speakers like Abdel Malik Ali and Imam Musa speak of implementing an Islamic state in North America, glorify suicide bombers (Ali) and promote 9/11 conspiracy theories that implicate the United States and/or Jews in the plot. Speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have approved of death or contempt for gays.

Harsh Critic On The Campus Circuit Spoke at 2 Terror Defendants' Events
Among the most interesting, if not controversial, college commentators connected to the campus speaking scene is a somewhat more moderate and sophisticated firebrand named Yvonne Ridley. Ridley was advertised to speak at events involving British extremist defendant Zaman, and Northwest Airlines plotter Abdulmutallab. Ridely, a British convert and journalist now with Iranian government's PressTV is listed as having spoken at events sponsored by campus organizations including Abdulmutallab's 2007 "War on Terror Week" which also included a lawyer, a former detainee, and Asim Qureshi, on Jihad and terrorism.

Video from another event.

After his 2006 arrest Zaman's sister told the Daily Mail: "As the head of the university's Islamic Society he has a very good rapport with people like Yvonne Ridley and George Galloway." The University of California, Irvine's Muslim Student Union is currently under investigation by American authorities for fundraising at a Galloway event last May that is alleged to have been funneled to Hamas- a charge the group contends is politically motivated.

Ridley, who was a member of Galloway's Respect Party maintains that she is a blunt wordsmith, opposes violence, is involved in humanitarian aid and is unfairly criticized for her positions that target powerful interests.

Ridley, who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and converted to Islam after her release has spoken at campuses in the United States, including ours where she was advertised as a journalist. In addition to her lengthy observations of the handsome looks of her Taliban captors, laudable condemnations of Islamophobia, she also frequently offers biting criticism of America not only for invading Iraq, but Afghanistan as well on the premise it never had a real to chance to turn over bin Laden. Formerly married to a Palestinian Fatah commander, she also offers virtual total loathing of Israel's existence, as well as carefully worded doubts about who really perpetrated 9/11--positions that while controversial, are not particularly uncommon on campuses and not terroristic in and of themselves. She does, however, redirect the focus for terrorist acts away from the immediate perpetrators and on to the West and the leaders of governments in the Muslim world.

She has a rhetorical style similar to that of American conservative commentator Ann Coulter. It is not so much her criticisms of governments and policies however, that make her stand out, but rather her blunt manner:

On Abu Hamza al Masri, the incarcerated hook handed radical cleric who celebratated the 9/11 attackers as the "Maginificent 19" outside the Finsbury Park Mosque and approves of killing non-Muslims:

Quite sweet, really.

I don't have a problem with him. I think the media has created this monster and the Muslim community go along with it. In fact I've criticised various Muslim leaders for criticising him.

As a Muslim, I don't think it's constructive to criticise other Muslims.

On British Muslim Leaders Who Criticized Abu Hamza al Masri:

To those traitorous [Muslim] leaders who are betraying the Ummah with their servility to the Establishment, I promise you one thing: I will never backstab any one of you - because when the knife goes in you will see the whites of my eyes ... metaphorically speaking, of course!

On her capture by the Taliban:

Thank Allah I was captured by the most evil brutal regime in the world and not by the Americans.

On the 2003 Jordan Hotel bombings that included a Muslim wedding party:

That isn't to say I wasn't upset by the images which came blasting out of my TV. I mean we can not simply shrug our shoulders at the deaths of 61 people. But let's have a closer look at those who perished:
* Five of those who died were Iraqis who were working closely with America? in other words, collaborators. One Saudi,
Indonesian and three Chinese intelligence officers were also wiped out. Shame, but those who live by the sword .....?
* And then there was the wedding party. OK, so the guests were part of Jordan's upper echelons of society, others had
flown in from America and were known for their close ties to the monarchy. But that still doesn't mean they should be punished for their status in life.
Interesting though, that the bombers chose the bars serving alcohol for their martyrdom operations in two of the hotels. Now while we know alcohol is strictly haram, it's an Islamic ruling which the King of Jordan chooses to openly ignore, and in a Muslim country.

On the mastermind of the Beslan School Massacre:

Basaev led an admirable fight to bring independence to Chechnya and resorted to targetting Russian civilians in the latter years of his struggle to try and bring the plight of the Chechen people to the wider world. He will probably be best remembered for masterminding the siege of the Moscow Theater and then the taking hostage of the children at a school in Beslan which sent shudders of revulsion around the world when both plans went tragically wrong. On both occasions there were scores and scores of civilians deaths and injuries, but the overwhelming numbers of civilian killed actually died because of the actions of Russian troops who bungled rescue raids on both operations.

On the United States:

The metaphor was blindingly obvious. The young, defenseless maiden is almost certainly Palestine, but if you want you can substitute Palestine for Iraq or even Iran. Those gathering around at the table are obviously the belly-dancing Arab leaders to which I often refer, who dance and sway and entertain America while delivering whatever tasty morsels are demanded on a plate to the US. The cartoon is obscene, but it is compelling because it is simply telling the truth -an awful, horrible analogy of the situation in the Middle East today. The rapist, by the way, is dressed as a US soldier.

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On her evolution:

I was even given several books by the notorious Sheikh Abu Hamza Al-Masri who I spoke to after sharing a platform at an Oxford Union debate. 

This latter snippet was seized upon by some sections of the media in such a ridiculous fashion that outsiders could be forgiven for thinking I was going to open a Madrassah for Al-Qaida recruits from my flat in Soho. 
It earned me a place on a 'Watch on Terror' website in America, so I'm probably now classed as a subversive by those incompetent spooks from US intelligence agencies. 
I have also listened to and spoken with Dr. Muhammad Al-Massari and had a very enlightening lunch recently with three sisters from Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Is There Responsible Dissent?
College students rightfully are allowed to invite whoever they want to encourage the free airing of ideas, even those many may find offensive. As the Supreme Court said in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949):

Accordingly, a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, supra, pp. 315 U. S. 571-572, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment..."

However, it is also important for society to be aware of the words that are included among protected dissent about injustice and respond rhetorically when it crosses ethical lines. There are those who exploit conflict to sow seeds for further division, and sometimes even violence. If we are going to counter these influences we must both listen and be able to challenge them. Those who promote violence, anti-democratic notions, and even bigotry should not be censored, but they should not be ignored either. This also includes Islamophobes who use bigotry to draw broad-brush conclusions to defame all Muslims or the faith in general. We all have a stake in ensuring the airing of a broad array of ideas, particularly ones that may be uncommon.

As we enter a new decade the problem is somewhat more pronounced for Muslim radicalism, not because the religion is inherently violent or because extremists represent sweeping proportions of Muslims overall as ignorant Islamophobes would argue, but rather because:

  1. There is a small, but active transnational terror movement that seeks to ensnare and weaponize young extremists in the West, and
  2. There are various interconnected partisan struggles that continue within many parts of the Islamic world where the West take sides that involve the suffering of innocent people,

While many plausibly point to unfair policies and a lack of focus on suffering in the Muslim world as a root of radicalism, so too are those who stealthily target youth's fists as well as their hearts as solutions to the problems they seek to resolve.

Prof. Levin was a contributor to an International conference and book on Islam in 2005 and 2006 entitled Roots and Routes of Democracy and Extremism, National Academies/ Aleksanteri Institute of Univ. of Helsinki.