Retell the narrative of Islam to attack ISIL’s core

The attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait show that it is more essential than ever for the true version of Islam to makes its presence known, argues Sholto Byrnes

Flowers and tributes are left at Tunisia's Marhaba beach near to where 38 people were killed last week in a terrorist attack. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
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Until recently, they both appeared to be normal citizens – both Seifeddine Rezgui, the former breakdancing enthusiast who pitilessly gunned down innocent tourists on a Tunisian beach, and Yassin Salhi, the delivery man being held for decapitating his boss and attempting to blow up a chemicals plant near Lyon, France.

But Rezgui had recently been radicalised and Salhi had been on a watch list in the past. That these massacres, as well as the suicide bombing of a mosque in Kuwait, were seemingly perpetrated in the name of religion, however, only underlines once again that it is more essential than ever that the true Islam – moderate, tolerant and peaceful – asserts itself and makes its presence in the world known more and more loudly.

This is vital. For, while we can repeat again and again that this is not Islam – and it isn’t – we have also to come up with explanations for why these individuals appear to have taken leave of their senses.

If the lure of extremist ideologies is not acknowledged and if they are not properly distinguished from the religion whose mantle they falsely claim, then it is all too easy for leaders such as Britain’s David Cameron to focus on what his former minister, Baroness Warsi, labels “Muslim community complicity”.

Extremist ideologies have always had a unique selling point. Their absolute certainty is attractive to many, especially in unsettling times; even more so to the vulnerable, the isolated and the disaffected, or those who feel an inchoate resentment about how they perceive certain groups to be treated.

And at the moment, ISIL is by far the most active centre of extremism – both through its mastery of media and through the territories it has conquered where it upholds a gruesome rule of law (if it can be called that). No wonder it is attracting followers – and much more widely than we might want to admit.

The New York Times has just published a powerful account of how a young woman in Washington state was radicalised. A Sunday school teacher who lived in the boondocks with her grandparents, she was groomed online and through Twitter, was sent presents, converted and very nearly went to Syria.

The recruiters identified her loneliness and lack of purpose and exploited her vulnerability ruthlessly. “I actually have brothers and sisters,” she posted one night. “I’m crying”.

That is one example of the appeal ISIL can exert. Another speaks of an uncomfortable truth. And it is that in many countries there are young people who see Muslims targeted by western invasions in the Middle East, suffering in Palestine, and as minorities persecuted in Myanmar and accused of being possible “enemies within” Europe and America.

In ISIL, some of them appear to be able to overlook the barbarity – or worse, see it as truly Islamic – because what they see above all is Muslims fighting back, resisting US firepower and the armies of compromised regimes in Syria and Iraq. They see ISIL as triumphant, harsh but fair according to their laws (indeed, the demands of such a code are part of the attraction), as successful, even cool.

This appeal should not be underestimated. At the recent Asia Pacific Roundtable hosted by my think tank, ISIS Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, a chilling example was given by Saifuddin Abdullah, chief executive of the Global Movement of Moderates. This is an initiative of prime minister Najib Tun Razak and it is at the cutting edge of counter-radicalisation work.

Mr Saifuddin and his wife wanted help decorating their house, so they invited round a young interior designer. The daughter of some friends, she was a typical member of the urban, educated classes that have made Malaysia a developmental success story, or so they thought. But when they happened to catch sight of her screensaver, they were horrified to see the black and white logo of ISIL.

Was she about to go and wage jihad? Almost certainly not. But if she even thought it was funny or ironic, that indicates that ISIL has some kind of cachet among her peers. Just as there will be “soft supporters”, there will be smaller numbers who move to “hard support” or are even tempted to participate.

Moderates always find it hard to speak out loudly enough or to emphasise sufficiently that terrorism can never be Islamic.

More should be done to convey how the story of Prophet Mohammed is also one of cooperation between the faiths, of compromise over battle and of constantly seeking peace and justice. A good example is the 2010 fictionalised account of his life, The Silence of Mohammed, by the Algerian writer Salim Bachi, which one cannot read without feeling immense admiration and affection for the Prophet.

In the book, Bachi presciently has him say: “One day, Islam will be as much a stranger as it once was ... They will say false things about my life. They will portray another man whom they will name Mohammed and whom they will brandish when circumstances demand.”

Isn’t that exactly what ISIL is doing?

So standing up – “not countering the narrative, but retelling the real narrative” as Saifuddin Abdullah put it – is more important than ever.

It may be asked why it is the place of someone with such an obviously western name to be so interested in the future of Islam. First, extremism concerns us all, as does the necessity for moderation in all faiths.

Second, it is personal as well. I am the father of two small Muslim boys. And I don’t want them to be even remotely tempted to have ISIL screensavers when they’re old enough to have computers.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia