Why hundreds of westerners are taking up arms in global jihad

The jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria include hundreds of Australians. EPA/Mohammed Jalil

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are attracting many westerners, including young Australians, as jihadi fighters. Last December, Australian intelligence agencies reported that they were aware of at least 100 Australians who had joined the fighting in Syria’s civil war. The latest estimate has that figure at 300, while UK intelligence services claim that 500 Britons have joined the conflict.

The stereotype that these fighters are migrants who have struggled to find a place in their adopted societies is shattered upon viewing YouTube propaganda videos. Young people from the UK, Germany, France and other western countries are prominent in the appeals to fellow believers to join them in the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) to liberate the world from corrupt Western culture and Kafir (non-believer) civilisation.

An ISIL propaganda video appeals for Western recruits.

Eyewitnesses from Mosul report a wide variety of western fighters were among the ISIL forces that captured the city. Their presence complicates the situation considerably while creating serious ramifications for western countries struggling to deal with extreme ideology at home.

Jihad Salafism is a modern phenomenon

The typical portrayal of a violent jihadi is as a brutal group member, wearing sinister ninja-style costumes, maintaining a lifestyle straight from the Dark Ages and determined to drag the world back there.

However, this stereotype is far from reality as Middle Eastern studies researchers Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori explain in their book Muslim Politics. Salafism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, one that materialised the abstract concepts of Islam into an actual political system to be implemented.

ISIL leader Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi is one of many senior jihadists well versed in Western ways and technology. EPA

The prominent theoreticians of current Islamic political fundamentalism – Sayyed Qutb, al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, ISIL leader Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi and many other figures in this movement – came from serious academic backgrounds, which even embraced aspects of western curricula and culture.

Salafists use modern means such as the internet, social media and other technology. Their language embraces modern concepts of freedom, liberation and equality, which are all foreign to traditional Islamic theology and jurisprudence.

Salafists also strongly oppose the traditional Islamic seminaries and institutes. They see these as one of the major barriers to Islamic awakening.

Attractiveness of utopia

Jihadi Salafism promises its followers an attractive utopia that is certain to become reality with the application of strong will and assertive action. They see their battle as a fight for humanity and for a better world where purity and authenticity prevail.

In this regard, they, like other utopian movements such as particular types of socialists and communists, have a clear strategy for changing the world.

The Salafi plan, as outlined decades ago in the writings of Pakistani scholar Abul A'la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, includes three general steps: Eman (to believe in the pure Islam), Hijra (to immigrate to an Islamic society) and Jihad (to fight for establishing a religious state).

This explains why fundamentalist westerners are moving exuberantly to Syria and Iraq. They see this as a historic opportunity to build their long-dreamt-of utopia.

Identity crisis and lack of belonging

As Islam researcher Roel Meijer has written, Salafism has significant potential to offer a distinctive identity to western Muslim youth who have experienced humiliation, oppression and discrimination from what they perceive to be a failing capitalist society. This experience has caused them to feel angry and disaffected. They are looking for an alternative.

Salafism transforms disaffected individuals into a selected group unified in the name of Allah. As a result, these recruits to the cause become better than all people in their society, even those who occupy superior economic or social positions.

Salafism offers them a revolutionary identity, one that makes them feel they can change all the inequality, injustice and corruption engulfing the world.

This identity gives them a sense of belonging to Allah on one hand and to a group of people who share the same belief on the other. Also, it makes them different, distinct and privileged. They are the only people who possess the truth and have been selected by Allah to implement his righteous plan for sacred change.

Can we get rid of them?

Obviously, it is not enough just to stop fighters from getting back to Australia as the prime minister, Tony Abbott, has proposed. This phenomenon must be dealt with more seriously, comprehensively and with more responsibility. This is not just a criminal case that can be eliminated by imprisoning the people who are involved in it.

This phenomenon has been produced and grown because of gaps in Western societies. These gaps have to be recognised and filled.

A connection and dialogue needs to be forged with people who are the target of Jihadi Salafism. Support is required from moderate Islamic leaders and institutions (for example, the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy in NSW. They need encouragement and support in turn to enable them to compete against Salafism.

A fact that cannot be ignored is that religion is a powerful actor even in a secular community. The education system has to be improved. That means children have to learn about religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue and positive relationships between different religions.

The next generation needs to be immunised against extremism in all its aspects. This is because when Jihadi Salafism ends, other kinds of extremism will grow in its place through the gaps in the system.