My War Within

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
National Post (Canada)
Nov. 27, 2009

My series of articles this week has focused on homegrown terrorism, a phenomenon I have studied for the past two years at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (and for several years before that). There is a personal dimension to my interest: During the 1990s, at a time when I had a very different view of the world, I worked at the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF), a massive international charity headquartered in Saudi Arabia with countless ties to the jihadi movement.

Between 2002 and 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department named 13 branches of AHIF specially designated global terrorist entities. Many reasons were given, including that the Kenya and Tanzania offices were involved in planning the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. The Treasury designations connect AHIF not only to al-Qaeda, but also to such groups as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, Lashkar e-Taibah and Hamas.

During the time I worked at AHIF, I personally subscribed to some of the extreme views held by those within the jihadi movement. My involvement with radical Islam was not as deep as that of some others who have told their stories in recent years, nor did I take the additional step of breaking the law to support the cause. Nevertheless, a decade ago, I reluctantly came to conclude that my Muslim faith was in conflict with the society in which I had been born and raised.

I converted to Islam in college, following a period of intense illness that almost killed me. It is not uncommon for people to “find God” after brushes with death, when they feel the need to ask deeper questions about the world. I felt that Islam answered my spiritual questions, and practiced a moderate, progressive version of the faith. It was by chance that I ended up at Al Haramain; the charity had established its U.S. headquarters in my hometown of Ashland, Ore., and I was encouraged to apply for a job after attending Friday prayers there in the summer of 1998. During my time at Al Haramain, I progressed from holding liberal ideas about Islam to a conservative practice, and ultimately to militancy.

Intense peer pressure was a factor in my transformation: Early in my time there, I was reprimanded for responding to an email from a non-Muslim inquiring about female genital mutilation. I explained that it was important to distinguish between true Islam and cultural practices. Not only did Islam not prescribe female genital mutilation, I wrote, but that practice was brutal. My superiors at Al Haramain told me that I should not try to issue rulings on “complex areas of Islamic law”: Questions about the propriety of female genital mutilation should be referred to a committee of scholars in Saudi Arabia.

The peer pressure was not just related to the ideas that I held. There were rules pertaining to virtually every aspect of our lives. I could eat using only my right hand. I could never pet a dog or shake hands with a woman. I had to roll up my pants legs above the ankles. On the other hand, shorts on men had to extend below the knee. Over time, I came to believe in all of this and more. I believed that listening to music was a transgression.

I was an Islamic novice, learning from people who were not only older, but who had been Muslims their entire lives. This produced a feeling of uncertainty, a feeling other converts have told me they also experienced.

When I first became Muslim, I had a modern, Westernized view of religion, that it was about forging a relationship with God that was sensible and comfortable to me. Over time, I came to see religion as deeper than that. If God believes it wrong to shake hands with a woman, who am I to argue?

It is in this context that a legalistic practice of religion makes sense. Far from being a silly preoccupation with obscure rules, it is a statement of humility in the face of the divine.

This framework for understanding the world opened the door to extremism. I remember reading an essay by Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, The Call to Jihad in the Koran, which was included as an appendix in many of the Koranic translations that Al Haramain distributed. Bin Humaid’s argument was simple: Though there are peaceful and violent verses in the Koran, the proper way to determine which ones govern is by examining the chronological order in which they were revealed. This idea is known as abrogation.

Tracing the Koran’s view, bin Humaid argued that warfare was forbade during the early part of Muhammad’s prophethood, then made permissible under certain circumstances, and finally, pursuant to Koran verse 9:29, warfare was made obligatory — not just in response to oppression, but against Christians and Jews who refused to pay the jizyah (a tax that would allow them to continue practicing their faith but would function as a visible sign of their subjugation).

At the time, I didn’t like that conclusion. It conflicted with my own moral inclinations. But what did that matter? If you have one view, and God has another, wouldn’t you change your mind rather than expecting God to change His?

When I distanced myself from Al Haramain and went to graduate school more than 3,000 miles away, I was able to rethink where I stood.

Unhappy with where I had ended up religiously, I spent one long summer trying to reconstruct my theological views. Eventually, I moved away from Islamic radicalism, and indeed from Islam altogether.

This is not to say that I returned to a Westernized, modern understanding of faith. Muslim extremists are not alone in rejecting religion-as-philosophy as too shallow and inauthentic. Conservative Muslims who reject militancy also approach their faith as based on real, revealed truth. Christian theologian Michael Horton similarly wrote a 2008 volume condemning what he describes as “Christless Christianity.”

Philosophical maturation was important in my rejection of radicalism. Like communism before it, the jihadi movement proposes a utopian solution to contemporary problems. Moving away from the seductive hold of utopian thought was important to my own deradicalization.

And I am not alone in finding utopian thought vital to jihadis. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, a nominally non-governmental institute that receives significant backing from Jordan’s monarchy, recently published a volume entitled Jihad and the Islamic Law of War that (among other things) attempts to refute the religious views of bin Laden and his ilk. The document compares his thinking to Vladimir Lenin’s statement, “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” and insists that Islam does not countenance utopian ideology. “When one can justify any act in the name of a worldly utopia,” it warns, “then one has passed into pure utilitarianism.”

There is always a temptation to draw too many inferences from one’s own personal experiences. Certainly, my experiences with radicalization are not the only way people are drawn to Islamic extremism. This is one reason I have emphasized quantitative methodologies in my studies of radicalization.

But neither should personal experiences be disregarded or buried. My experiences with jihadism, though relatively short, have given me a useful lens for understanding people within the movement. And I have spoken to a large number of other converts to Islam who were drawn to extremes within the faith in a similar way, in particular through community pressures that robbed them of their sense of moral agency. As one woman put it to me recently, “Instead of being this intelligent, inquisitive critical thinker that you were when you entered into Islam, you feel unintelligent and lost.”

My experiences also showed me the persuasive force that the pernicious ideology of jihadism can have, something that people trying to combat it would be remiss in failing to understand. Indeed, understanding how jihadism can be persuasive, even seductive, is one of the keys to preventing future Fort Hoods.

- Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice-president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a PhD candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. His time working for the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation is documented in his book My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin, 2007).