Radicalization & Religious Education

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Khujand, Tajikistan — Today’s meetings concluded with a lengthy discussion on the evolution of Central Asian Islamist movements with a historian from Khujand State University. Like my other interviewees, he argued that groups like IMU and HuT tended to attract younger followers—particularly those with high levels of unemployment and low levels of religious education.

Each of these factors influences recruiting in different ways. For those with limited prospects, a movement’s mission provides an outlet for unrealized ambitions. For those with unanswered questions, a movement’s ideology helps reduce complex questions to a simple (and presumably moral) doctrine. Taken together, the result is a mutually-reinforcing paradigm that gives wayward young men both a sense of place and a sense of purpose.

These patterns parrell similar developments in other regions. As my colleague Jill Hazelton at Harvard’s Kennedy School noted in a recent exchange, research on radical recruitment reveals that many would-be militants in European also lacked much in the way of Islamic education. This may have something to do with the fact that religious study tends to endenger an appreciation of nuance, complexity, and (above all) human frailty. More significantly, religious education tends to ground younger people in a community with defined norms, expectations, and institutions.

Against that backdrop, it should come as no surprise that movements like al-Qaeda tend to espouse a narrow, politicized, and often radically deconstructed account of Islamic scripture. Nor it is surprising to see militant laymen like an al-Zawahiri adopt the mantle of religious scholarship, despite their lack of formal religious education. The less nuanced and complex the world appears, the easier it is for alienated followers to condemn and destroy.