Surprise? Study Shows Islam Plays Key Role in Motivating Individuals to Become Foreign Fighters for Jihad

The reasons were "largely moral and religious in character, more than explicitly political.”

BY Bruce Cornibe · | September 12, 2016

The media and those on the political left oftentimes reiterate inadequate and biased theories on why individuals likely leave their friends and families to join the cause of jihad – typically concentrating “on social, economic, and psychological ‘push’ factors.” However, one recent study that’s part of The TSAS Working Paper Series called Talking to Foreign Fighters: Socio-Economic Push versus Existential Pull Factors by Lorne L. Dawson, Amarnath Amarasingam, and Alexandra Bain reveals how “religiosity (i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox) is a primary motivator” for individuals to become foreign fighters. Some of the specifics of the study include:

From mid-December 2015 to February 29 2016, interviews were conducted with 130 people: 40 foreign fighters, 60 family members, friends and associates, and 30 online fans, recruiters, and potential fighters. These interviews were largely face-to-face. But those with fighters in Syria and Iraq took the form of extended social media dialogues.

Because of “space and time limitations and the inherent complexity of the material,” the report includes just “the initial analysis of 20 interviews with foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.” Since other studies of radicalization seem to focus on negative “push” factors – this leads people to believe that foreign fighters/jihadists are driven by a lack of economic opportunities, lack of education, marginalization, resentment with how life is going for them, among others.

The authors of the study realize that many people throughout the world experience these types of struggles (“push” factors) but relatively “few become involved in violent oppositional activities.” If these “push” factors were primary drivers for radicalization we would be seeing a lot more people joining ISIS coming from places like Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, etc. When we examine more of the “pull” factors (ex. religion) it allows us to see “the positive benefits of being jihadists[,]” and the underlining issues that motivate these individuals. In addition, we should be able to see that the global jihadist ideology unites people from around the globe for jihad, and the implementation of Sharia.

Even though the twenty foreign fighters interviewed gives only a small sample to analyze, and further interviews may produce different outcomes – the results thus far reaffirm the view that religious/Islamic beliefs drive jihadists. Some interesting findings from this group of jihadists include:

About half our sample reports at least going to university and a third mentioned graduating with specific degrees. Many of these individuals only fully radicalized after graduating.”

“None of our sample indicated coming from familial situations of poverty or marginality. On the contrary, many indicated they had fairly happy and privileged, or at least comfortable, childhoods.”

“Reports of the religiousness of the parents vary widely, but about half of the group received some formal religious education as a child (i.e., Quranic studies and Islamic schooling).”

“Overall our findings conform with many of the conclusions reached in the research literature on the process of radicalization to violence (Hafez and Mullins 2015). The process started in early adolescence, it involved a small group of friends, and the internet and social media played a fairly prominent role.”

“All, with some consistency, calmly reiterate their desire to achieve martyrdom, and celebrate the martyrdom of others. But they scrupulously asserted that their fate is in the hands of Allah.”

“…most of the fighters we interviewed provided justifications for being a foreign fighter that were largely moral and religious in character, more than explicitly political.”

“…the interactions we recorded are laced with comments about the need to be strict in observing the differences between true Muslims and others.”

Some people don’t realize how close jihadists and Islamists are in ideology – one jihadi saliently reveals these commonalities (authority of Quran and Sunnah, implementation of Sharia, the Caliphate). “When asked why he had undertaken jihad,” the jihadi gave this answer:

We are motivated by our religion, by our Qur’an and Sunnah and we are not ashamed of that. We left the convenient world to establish khilafah on the path of Prophethood so I really don’t see what is the issue with some hypocrites who cave down to the kuffar. We are not motivated by politics, wealth, the love of this world. We are willing to die as shuhada in the path of Allah and that is to establish shariah in the land of the khilafah. We have declared it clearly and loudly that Islam will dominate the world. We know this fact from the Sunnah and hadith of our Prophet, prayers be upon him.

How is this statement much different than your typical rhetoric from a radical Islamist group like Hizb ut-Tahrir? There’s not a lot of variance indeed. Martyrdom is not only glorified in the Quran – it is also encouraged by the Islamic prophet Muhammad:

So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory – We will bestow upon him a great reward. –Quran 4:74

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, “By Him in Whose Hands my life is! Were it not for some men amongst the believers who dislike to be left behind me and whom I cannot provide with means of conveyance, I would certainly never remain behind any Sariya’ (army-unit) setting out in Allah’s Cause. By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Al1ah’s [sic] Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred. –Sahih Bukhari 4.52.54

So far, this working paper confirms how ideology/religion play a major role in driving individuals toward jihad. Furthermore, much of the media and the political left want to make these foreign fighters out to be anything but Islamic – oftentimes labeling them as ‘mentally unstable’ individuals who are ignorant, impoverished, among others.

Furthermore, many people want to paint a lot of these foreign fighters as isolated individuals that get radicalized over the internet. Even though the internet may play an influential role in the process of radicalization for some, there is usually a larger network at play.

For example, this study reveals “that Canadian foreign fighters have largely left to join the fight in ‘clusters,’ and so presumably they had radicalized together as well.” This reaffirms that a lot of these individuals actually have a network of radical influences such as family, friends, those in the Muslim community, etc. So, just policing the internet won’t stop a lot of these aspiring jihadists.

Many don’t want to believe that rational people could leave a decent life in the West to join a violent group in Syria or Iraq, but ignoring this reality will not solve the jihadist problem. Jihadists and Islamists are fighting for a cause, and yes, it is religiously motivated. We must ultimately counter their cause, which is the implementation of Sharia law.



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