For the last 20 or so years since the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam, violent extremism, or terrorism for that matter, has been associated with Islam.
This is because a number of militant groups such as al-Shabab, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have carried out various attacks and claimed to have done so in defence of Islam.
For example, on 7th January 2015 at about 11:30 local time, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. Armed with rifles and other weapons, they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to the militant group al-Qaeda branch in Yemen and said the attack was in revenge on Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons that caricatured and disrespected the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
Because of this, majority, if not all, counter violent extremism (CVE) initiatives have almost exclusively targeted Muslims. This may have had the unintended consequence of profiling and scape goating of Muslims as terrorists.
However, while definitions of violent extremism employed in academia, media and policy discussions usually emphasise the phenomenon’s religious ideological character associated with Islam, the 15th March 2019 attack on the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand where 50 people were killed and 50 others injured has served to change perceptions of violent extremism.
The main suspect in the Christchurch attack was and remains Australian national Brenton Tarrant, a non-Muslim. New Zealand authorities promptly described the mosque attack as an act of “terrorism”. Weeks before Mr Tarrant’s attack, a man had threatened to burn copies of the Qur’an outside New Zealand mosques in what community leaders said was one incident in a long list of threatening behavior against Muslims.
Be that as it may, the question is—isn’t time for decision makers to expand the scope of CVE to include that violent extremism that is not associated with Islam? The answer to this question is, certainly, in the affirmative.
After the Christchurch attack, there are genuine fears that more people outside Islam will be radicalized and follow the example of Brenton Tarrant to attack, not just Muslims, but other religious groups as well.
For example, the October 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting where a gunman attacked the Tree of Life – or L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 people and injuring seven others while Shabbat morning services were being held, is an example of the expanding scope of radicalization into violent extremism beyond the phenomena associated with Islam.
Research findings suggest there is no single pathway to violent extremism, and the involvement or engagement in violent extremist organisations should be understood as a complex psychosocial process. In Kenya, militant groups like al-Shabaab exploit perceived or real historical, social and political grievances and draw on extreme interpretations of Islam to craft propaganda narratives.
However, understanding what makes an individual susceptible to recruitment and radicalisation towards violence should take into account his or her social environment. Structural marginalisation, the breakdown of family and community structures, the proliferation of criminal gangs, youth unemployment and corruption, human rights abuses, individual and collective trauma, among other factors, merge in different ways to create environments conducive to the spread of extreme ideologies, especially among vulnerable youth. This occurs via one-on-one contact between a recruiter and an individual but is increasingly occurring over social media platforms.
Investigation reports indicate that main suspect in the Christchurch mosque attacks, Brenton Tarrant, also seems to have had a preoccupation with Austrian history relating to the Battle of Vienna in 1683 which is often cited by historians as the point where the Ottoman advance on Western Europe was stopped—the turning of the tide in the Muslim/Christian struggle for the control of Europe. As such, it is a date celebrated by the far right, including, it seems, the Christchurch suspect, who is a self-confessed anti-Muslim white supremacist.
According to the reports, one of the words daubed in white on a gun magazine used by Tarrant was “Vienna”. The suspect’s clothes and weapons were covered with writing and symbols, particularly a string of names of historical figures, including that of Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, the military commander of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of 1683. It is important to note that, Starhemberg and his company of 20,000 men defended the city against the 120,000-strong Ottoman army, which was eventually defeated by the combined forces of Poles, Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire.
In this regard, it is becoming abundantly clear that as militant groups use violent extremist narratives to radicalize Muslim youth against other communities, the same is also being used by non-Muslim extremist groups to radicalize their rank and file against communities they perceive as the “enemy”. This, therefore, calls for the expansion of the scope violent extremism beyond the usual stereotypes.