Why we need to fight terrorism intellectually

The rising threat of homegrown terrorism to Canada and its G8 and NATO allies was dramatically underlined by Wednesday's terror-related arrests in Ottawa. But in addition to arresting those who actually plot such mayhem, we need a strategy for fighting the ideas that lead to it, delegitimizing terrorism among vulnerable groups in the population before it becomes a matter for law enforcement.

We are not just in a fight. We are also in an argument. And we must win it. It's no good denying the problem. Since 2001, far too many cases of Islamist terrorism in Europe, North America and Australia involved naturalized immigrants, residents, and/or citizens of the targeted countries.

To call this terror "homegrown" is not to suggest that it has no foreign entanglements. alQaida, Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers have long relied on diaspora communities for support. And while Westerners have also travelled overseas to join such organizations, a disturbing new counter-trend is international terrorist organizations recruiting in the West, training Westerners abroad, and sending them back to wreak havoc.

Such threats become a police and intelligence problem. But it is also important that we seek to delegitimize violent Islamist ideology abroad and at home. It is customary to denounce terrorism as "criminal, inhumane, unjustifiable ... and repugnant" as the G8 does. But it's no good preaching to the choir. We need to find a way to take this argument to those who need it most: potential recruits. We need a counterterrorism plan that actively criticizes the legitimizers of terrorism and offers a counter-narrative. We must fight the war of ideas as if it were a real war. Because it is.

It is not strictly true that, as one analyst wrote, "terrorists lack moral strictures against the use of violence". In fact they have moral strictures in favour of it. Groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaida rely on religious decrees to justify and sanitize suicide, otherwise blasphemous under Islamic jurisprudence. But the vast majority of Muslims reject this interpretation. We need to use this rejection of terrorism in our fight for hearts and minds.

Fortunately, Muslim leaders have lit the path ahead, issuing edicts against terror. Notable examples include Tahir ul-Qadri's religious rejection of Islamist violence (2010), the 2 Canadian Imams' fatwa against terrorism in North America (2010), Sayyid Imam Sharif's treatise shunning political violence (2007/8), and former Jemaah Islamiyah leader Nasir Abas' total rejection of terrorism (2005).

So what should we do?

  • Reiterate and publicize the personal and community-level consequences and general human suffering that result from terrorism.

  • Promote and expand anti-terrorism norms developed from within the Muslim community.

  • Promote ideological competition and dissension within the jihadist community by advocating anti-terrorism voices.

  • Disseminate fatwas, recantations, and rejections of terrorism within the G8 community and beyond.

  • Coax Western media outlets into more thoroughly covering the Muslim anti-terrorism movement.

  • Ensure related information is easily accessible online.

The core of my message is straightforward: Islamist radicalization is the linchpin of homegrown terrorism in the West.

We can fight the results through military and police methods. But an ounce of intellectual prevention is worth a ton of military cure in this area.

And since the core of radicalization is the internalization of a set of beliefs, world views, and assumptions that legitimize violence in the name of a given cause, prevention must accomplish the opposite from within the same intellectual framework.

When Islamist terrorist organizations lose their religious justification, legitimacy and popular patronage, they will be seen as thugs and heretics by the communities in whose name they purport to act. When that happens, foreign terrorists will have a harder time locating and recruiting Westerners. And we'll all be safer.

This article was originally published in The Vancouver Sun.