The Rise of Violent Extremism in Europe

The Rise of Violent Extremism in Europe

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Radicalization and Extremism

Ed Husain, senior advisor and director of strategy at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, discusses the political, economic, and ideological drivers of radicalization in light of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Ed Husain

Senior Advisor and Director of Strategy, Tony Blair Faith Foundation


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program & Outreach at CFR. Thank you for joining us. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio will be available, as well as a transcript, on our website,

We’re delighted to have Ed Husain with us to talk about the roots of violent extremism and the recent terrorist attacks inEuropeand elsewhere. Mr. Husain is senior advisor and director of strategy at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. In 2008 he founded the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, Quilliam, and he’s advised government leaders and policy makers around the world.

He is a former senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies here at CFR, where his final CFR policy memo led to the creation of a $200 million global fund known as the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, designed to help communities combat extremism. Formerly an activist of a Muslim Brotherhood front organization in the U.K., he is now a strong critic of extremism and Islamism. Mr. Husain is the author of the bestselling book, The Islamists.

Ed, thanks very much for joining us from London. It’s great to have you back. We obviously saw the tragic attacks last week in Brussels on the heels of Paris, and other terrorist attacks. And can you just talk about why they happen and what is going on?

HUSAIN: Irina, thank you. And it’s great to be back—always a pleasure to assist CFR in the great work that you and the Council does.

But it’s sad that we’re talking of these difficult times again. And I remember back in 2007, when I wrote the book The Islamists and I was warning against the rise of Islamist extremism and the belief in a caliphate and the mindset of confrontation, one was often dismissed as being an alarmist for trying to sow problems here in Europe among Muslim communities when there was no problem.

And I speak as someone who was and remains a committed Muslim, but I worry deeply about the trajectory of extremist activist organizations in our midst here inEurope. And what happened inBrusselsand previously in Paris in November of last year, and prior to that the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, is all part of a trend not just inEuropebut across the world. But inEuropethere are particular reasons for why this happened, and I think the best answer would be, Irina, to be both totally honest about the nature of the problem but also look at it from two different levels.

One is, at a macro level, what we have are real problems among young Muslims. Approximately, I think Europe is now home to twenty-two million Muslims—the European Union is, at least—and, writ large, Europe is home to 44 million Muslims. What we’ve got is a situation among young Muslims here inEuropethat don’t know whether they’re Europeans or whether they’re Muslims; is there any way in which they can marry both of their identities together? So the first problem is a problem of identity. Are they Europeans? Are they Muslims? Are they both?

And, you know, based on my time in America, it’s often hard for Americans to understand this because Americans are patriotic but they’re also pious, observant Christians, Jews, Muslims, or people of no faith, but there’s no contradiction. But here in Europe there seems to be a feeling that somehow Muslims don’t belong here, that Europe, despite being a secular continent, is essentially a Christian continent that won’t let the Turks orTurkeyjoin the European Union. And many millions of children of immigrants are led to believe that somehow, someday, in some way, they’re going back; they’re only guest workers andEuropeis not their home.

So there’s this problem of identity on mainland Europe that continues to fester that gives extremists—whether they’re ISIS, al-Qaida, or nonviolent extremists such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and others—a sense of injecting a sense of identity to these young Muslims.

The second macro problem is one of integration. In other words, if you don’t have an identity that resonates with Europe, what do you integrate into? Now, here in Europe we have this entire Brexit debate going on, whether Britain will exit the European Union or not, which then poses to bigger problems—or points to bigger problems as to what is Europe?

Is it a continent that can absorb and integrate its minorities, or is it a continent that doesn’t know the direction of its own travel? Is it a continent that can solve its economic problems and welcome refugees, or is it a continent that wants to outsource its refugee and migrant crisis to others? Is it a continent that has a footprint on foreign policy questions around the world, or is it a continent that wants to “free ride,” as Barack Obama put it, on the big questions of the day on the American muscle and strength? And amid this identity crisis that Europe has, it cannot integrate its many Muslims, who now sadly find themselves, in large numbers, in prisons, which I will come onto in a moment.

And the third problem on the macro level, in addition to identity, integration, and questions of belonging, and feeling a sense of belonging for young Muslims but also for Europe at large, is—in the absence of identity and in the absence of a strong European integration policy you have extremist organizations that are able to offer a very strong ideological, theological purpose to young Muslims.

So in France religion isn’t talked about openly—läicité, an extreme form of secularism. In Germany and Belgium and in other countries you have a situation where there’s a belief that Muslims are somehow going back to, quote, unquote, “home” countries, which allows for extremists to offer a theological, ideological narrative of creating a caliphate, of believing in a perennial state of jihad, of advocating ideas such as al-Wala wal-Bara, that loyalty is only to fellow extremist Muslims and Muslims must be distant from the government.

They advocate the violent removal of Muslim governments and their allies, which is where Europe and its various governments come into. And by the way, those who argue that it’s only foreign policy, well, Belgian foreign policy has zero footprint in Muslim-majority countries and yet Brussels was attacked. And there’s a strong anti-Semitic element to this ideological offer that here in Europe or, by extension, America, quote, unquote, “Jews control the world.” And therefore, attacking Jewish interests such as synagogues and kosher stores is part and parcel of this extremist violent mindset.

So those are the theological components and the political outlook on which this ideology offers a sense of belonging and a sense of identity and purpose to young, lost Muslims at a macro level.

But in the micro level—and I’ll finish my comments by highlighting the micro challenges by using Britain as an example of where we have problems on four different fronts, a problem of radicalization and the spread of this violence that leads to extremism, because it’s the other way around; the problem of this extremism that leads to violence. It’s too often I think we make the mistake of framing this as CVE, countering violent extremism, and it’s my contention that it’s too late when it reaches violence. You’ve got to contend with the extremism before it becomes violence.

There are four broad areas at a micro level where this extremism is rising that then leads to violence. And we saw this play out in Belgium recently because many of the—two of the three guys that were involved were petty criminals radicalized in prison. The one guy who escaped, Abdeslam, from Paris in November gained cover and immunity from state prosecution since November until now because of the protection he’s enjoyed from radicalized jihadi gangsters, a new phenomenon now here in Europe.

But the first theater of operation at the micro level, if you like, is inside prisons. Here in Britain the prison population for Muslims has increased. The prison population in France and Germany of young Muslims has increased. Now, they go into prisons not because they’re Muslim. They go into prison for delinquency and drugs and petty crime, but they come out often as extremist violent Salafi radical Muslims with connection to radical outfits around the world.

And a parent put it to me best, Irina, recently when he said: My son went in as a drug dealer who was holding up people at knifepoint for cash to feed his habit. He’s come out of five years in prison now as a Salafi radical Muslim who calls people to go to prison, wants to ban—sorry, calls people to go to the mosque, who wants to ban music, wants to impose a dress code on Muslim women, and broadly supports the narrative of Muslims confronting Western governments. Which son am I to prefer, the son that’s a radical Muslim who’s calling people to a Salafi form or Islam or a son who’s holding me and others up at knifepoint for cash? That’s the kind of dilemma that Muslims in communities are sadly facing here in Europe.

So at a micro level we have this problem of extremism festering in prisons because the authorities aren’t sure how to handle this religious dynamic of religious preaching on Fridays, of providing for halal food, of providing for ablution and prayer facilities, all of which is right at its basic level, providing for religious freedom and human rights, but the Salafis, an extreme form of Salafism, exploits that.

And we’re seeing that, where conversion rates are increasing in the U.K.’s and other European countries’ prisons because prisoners want a form of atonement, want a form of salvation, and extremists often fill that void effectively within prisons by providing them networks and supports that trump those of gangs previously, but offer outside of prisons, providing them, again, with access to new ways of being that gives them an international “cool” factor of terrorism that cannot rival what was yesterday’s “cool” factor—i.e. gang cultures in prison. So that’s the first micro problem we have growing in our midst, that of prisons.

Secondly, university campuses. We have a huge challenge on university campuses across Europe where—and forgive me for sounding political on this—there is a mindset among university professors who grew up in the 1960s exposed to Marxism, thinking that a bit of anti-Americanism, a bit of calling for boycotting, divesting and sanctioning on Israel, the BDS movement, or a counterculture, counter-establishment, counter-government, anti-government, anti-establishment attitude is no bad thing. After all, we went through it in the ’60s as university professors. A new generation is now going through it on campuses as Muslim extremists.

The problem is they don’t understand that this is not Marxism. This is not just advocacy of anti-establishment and redistribution of wealth. Islamist extremism, in the form that I highlighted earlier, leads to terrorism, leads to a belief in suicide bombings that can be heaven in the afterworld. So that mindset needs to be challenged, that this is not heaven but it’s hell. I think that Sheikh Yusuf Hamza Hanson, America’s great Muslim scholar, was the first to say after the 9/11 attacks that, you know, the terrorists are not going to heaven but they are going to hell; suicide bombing doesn’t lead to reward but leads to punishment.

That mindset isn’t yet popular, so what we see on university campuses is the spreading of extremism that goes unchallenged from many of our university managers and university authorities and professors because it’s somehow glorified as something that’s noble, and it’s not and it shouldn’t be. So university campus as an exposure of young Muslims to a new kind of politics on universities is a second theater on the micro level.

A third is what’s going on online. I think it was interesting to hear Donald Trump’s remark that he wants to build walls around America, particularly on the Mexican border. And we’ve heard similar remarks here. And I think Hillary Clinton’s response was interesting and robust that, how tall does the wall need to be before the Internet can creep in?

And I think that’s where we are here in Europe with online radicalization leading to, in a country like Belgium, 500 people leaving. Across the European continent we have got 7,000, and growing, young Muslims who have gone to join ISIS. Several hundred have come back trained as fighters now. So the Internet, with its social media—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—has proved to be a huge radicalizing force in this micro problem that we’re now having to contend.

And finally—and this is worth noting again because people such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have advocated surveillance on mosques and Muslim communities—two points. One, American Muslims, by and large, are the most integrated, most patriotic of Muslim communities in the West. And, two, radicalization doesn’t often happen in mosques, even here in Europe.

Mosques tend to be open spaces. Most mosques tend to have cameras already in them. Most mosque imams tend to be the strongest voices against radicalization. And we’ve seen that it’s religious literacy that—religious illiteracy that leads to extremism. Most extremists and violent extremists tend not to have religious awareness. No surprise then that Islam for Dummies was a book that was found on suicide bombers who went off to fight in ISIS-held territory.

So, that said, some mosques, especially those who reject other mainstream mosques—and that’s normally the indicator. Those who reject mainstream mosques tend to be hubs for extremist Salafi jihadists, and those mosques are a problem. Now, we have difficulty in discerning which mosque is what, and that’s where the challenge lies in educating governments and policy makers on the different dimensions of Islam.

And I’ll finish by saying that yes we have a problem within Islam of extremism that leads to terrorism, and yes we have a problem that is theological and political, and yes we have a problem that’s led in part because of poor governance in large parts of the Muslim world, but the problem to Islamist extremism lies within Islam.

And the best evidence for that is the work done by noble Muslim scholars around the world, not least Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the outfit that he leads now heading out of the United Arab Emirates, but hundreds of his students around the world, the work done by Ali al-Sistani in Iraq. And I can go on naming many, many clerics around the world who are the leading voices. And it’s worth remembering that the responses to those often come from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph, because the message that they give annoys and irritates extremists because they’re competing on the same space, i.e. that of scripture.

And with that note, I think I’ve said enough and I’ll hand back to you, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Ed, thank you very much for your analysis.

Let’s open up to questions from the group, and comments.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.

BENTSMAN: Hi. Thanks so much for your talk.

I’m wondering about this last point that you just brought up about clerics being the leading voices and competing on the same stage as that of scripture. I’m wondering if these voices and these arguments on the basis of scripture are able to be heard by the young idealists or those who are caught up in prison and being radicalized in prison, and whether that seems like it can be a ripe starting ground for those young people to begin to see another way out of radicalization.

HUSAIN: Thank you, Michelle. That’s an important and highly relevant question.

In prisons, what’s going on at the moment is that young people have a lot of time on their hands, and that time isn’t often filled by literature from the kind of clerics and religious leaders I have in my mind. I mean, one of the things that we should be doing, certainly in Europe, is to be flooding prisons with material, whether they be from the great Muslim scholars such as Ghazali and Rumi and Ibn Arabi and others throughout history, because there’s something about the Muslim mindset, even the extremist mindset, and that is where the modern West looks to the future for inspiration, most Muslims look to the past for validation and to the future for inspiration.

So there is that mindset that we often don’t fully grasp, that even the future has to be validated by looking at the past. So in that sense, why I refer to scholars going back 10th, 11th and 12th centuries downwards is because it confirms to extremists, but also confirms to most of us normal Muslims, that we are on a continuity. So yes, you’re right that we should be using that material more in prisons and elsewhere, but no it’s not happening.

And I’d add two more points. One is, one of the reasons why extremists are most successful in recruiting from prisons—at prisons and elsewhere is that they inject this complete sense of certainty, religious certitude—in Arabic known as yaqeen—in their pursuit. So they’re pursuing a caliphate. They’re using jihad as a means to it. They’re confronting Israel and Israel’s allies. They’re trying to undermine America and the West. And they’re trying to change Muslim governments to create their own kind of Sharia state—literalist application of Sharia as opposed to the maqasid, or the kind of more broad-stream aims of the Sharia.

Now, in that pursuit they’re totally convinced that they’re on the right path, capital “T” Truth. The only way we undermine that is through citing religious scripture to say that the yaqeen is not fully right and that there are other ways of doing this, and that they could be wrong and therefore the assessment of the majority of Muslims is that they are definitely wrong and they are, in the next life, heading towards hell and not heaven. Now, that kind of undermining of the yaqeen happens through credibility of scripture but credibility of Muslin voices.

And the second point I’d make is this is not just experimentation. This has happened successfully in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria, where Muslim governments—we can criticize them for other issues, but on this one they exposed extremists to mainstream, pluralist Islamic traditional learning and have done so with some degree of success in de-radicalizing and moving extremists away.

And we should bear in mind that no one who is an extremist today will overnight become a non-extreme individual. What happens is they go through multiple stages. So first they decommission from violence, and then they de-radicalize, and then they become counter-extremists. So there is that journey to be undergone and it’s something that needs to be started, in all seriousness, in European prisons. And I think religious voices are certainly one of the most important in this, but they’re not the only voices. There are other voices that we ought to consider, but the religious voices are certainly one of them.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joel Meyers with Rabbinical Assembly.

Sir, please go ahead.

MEYERS: Hello? Thank you very much.

My question comes from something that Tony Blair has written a couple of days ago in a long piece confronting Islamic terrorism. And what he seemed to write is that it’s this—what is happening is not an ideology not interested in co-existence but dominance, and therefore, in his words, it cannot be contained; it has to be defeated.

And in his piece he went on to say this requires a total approach, not only what you have said—that is, in terms of confronting the ideology—but, in fact, confronting the evil itself all over. And I was wondering whether you would please talk to that as well, because what Tony Blair in this piece said was, in fact, currently the free access to Europe does in fact create a security risk for Europe. And we have a serious dilemma all over the world concerning the radicalization of Islam. How are we to approach this other than what you have suggested, which is a very long-range approach of having other Islamic scholars speaking out against the radicalization?

HUSAIN: Thank you, Joel.

This is a long-term problem. I think the British prime minister has spoken about it in the same way that the former prime minister, Mr. Blair, has spoken about it, as a generational struggle. There are no short-term quick fixes.

Mr. Blair is absolutely right in there has to be a military component to this. Those who are holding guns to your hands, you can’t quote theology and scripture and walk your way out of that situation. And jihadists often understand that language of physical response because they have to make physical calculations of survival and the holding of the territory that they currently do in what’s called the caliphate between Iraq and Syria. So there is certainly a military component to this. And without a military component, don’t let us kid ourselves for a minute that they will somehow give up their arms.

But my point is that we’ve successfully eliminated Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the radicalizer out of Yemen who was an American citizen, but that hasn’t removed extremism and terrorism in our midst. In fact, you could argue that Israel killed Ahmed Yassin hoping to decapitate Hamas. What’s led to happen is Hamas has become ever stronger and controls Gaza. We killed Osama bin Laden assuming that the situation with al-Qaida would become weaker, and we’ve seen a situation where now we have an entire caliphate facing not just Middle Eastern governments but calling other governments into that conflict there. And so killing, while short term is necessary, long term, without an ideological and theological response to this, what we are creating is a second tier of extremists that rise to the challenge of facing governments.

And I’m not just kind of talking about this randomly. I mean, we’ve been conducting research here at a think tank outside Mr. Blair’s foundation, outside—within the foundation called The Center on Religion and Geopolitics. So it’s run from the foundation. And we’ve done research that proves that 68 percent of jihadists at some point have been through prison. Twenty-five percent of those went in as petty criminals and came out as jihadists.

So there’s something going in our prisons with this ideology and theology. The same goes, as I said, for university campuses, some mosques, and online that needs to be attacked, disrupted, decimated. And unless we do that, we will continue to feel—find there’s oncoming traffic, which is arguably the result of various conflicts, poor governance, drone attacks, perceived and real injustices. Now, whatever it is, there’s an ideology out there that’s radicalizing people in the name of Islam, and that’s got to be disrupted.

So yes, we must take short-term military measures, but the long term is equally important, and unless we address the long term we will continue to be on the defensive.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Eide Alawan with Islamic Center of America in Michigan.

ALAWAN: Salaam alaikum.

HUSAIN: Thank you. Salaam.

ALAWAN: The question I have is of the Shia—I’m of the Shia tradition and I don’t think most people understand that most of this frustration to Muslims are coming from the Salafi or the Sunni side of the branch of Islam. How do we go about letting people know that this is not a dual situation between Shias or Sunnis, but coming from Salafis from a division of the Sunni tradition?

HUSAIN: I think you’re absolutely right. The evidence points to the fact that it is a subsection of Salafism, i.e. Salafi jihadism, which is the main driver of global terrorism. But we should also be candid that we have two other terror threats that come from within Shia Islam. One is the Iranian regime and its supports for militia fighting inside Syria and elsewhere, not least Bahrain and Pakistan, but we also have Hezbollah fighting out of Iran, so—forgive me, out of Lebanon, confronting those who opposed its interests, but increasingly involved in the conflict inside Syria.

So yes, the bulk of extremist terrorism in the name of our faith comes at the moment from Salafism and Salafi jihadism, a subset of Sunni Islam, no more than probably 3 percent according to the Aal al-Bayt Society in Jordan. But also we have this situation from the Iranians as well as from Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization. So Shia Islam sadly isn’t as immune as we’d like to think it is from this extremism derived from a theological and political reading of the modern world.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Charles Strohmer with Wisdom Project.

STROHMER: Oh, hi. Thank you, Ed, for your work and for taking time with us on the call today.

So I was fascinated by a comment you made earlier about the worldview of the Marxist intellectuals in the ’60s. I can relate to that. I’m not of that ilk now, but—it seems to me it gets to the religious root of a problem. You know, this is not that, what’s going on today. And there just seems to be—I mean, I hear a lot of foreign policy analysts and foreign policy advisors talking about—they’re sort of downplaying the religious root of the radicalization that goes on that accounts for a lot of the terrorist attacks these days in Europe and elsewhere.

And I wonder if you could comment on how wise or not you think the downplaying by some foreign policy people of this religious root of the radicalization is in the sense that, you know, the foreign policy people will talk about, you know, the security interests, their high-level national interests and tend to politicize it more. And I think the religious roots gets really pushed in the background, a lot of times farther than it should be, and that I don’t know what would be a proactive way to get around that but I look forward to hearing your thoughts on that, and thank you.

HUSAIN: Thank you for that very thoughtful question.

You’re absolutely right, it does get downplayed. And yes, there are other factors such as, you know, poor governance and economic considerations and whatnot, but my response is always that those situations in terms of material analyses apply to a whole range of conflicts in multiple countries and yet it doesn’t lead to the kind of extremism and then linked to the subsequent terrorism that it does in large parts of the Middle East in several, sadly, Muslim-majority countries, because there is a religious component to it.

Now, in France, because of the strong laïcité culture there, the religious component can’t be addressed, can’t be understood. In the USA, because of the constitutional amendments, if the religion and its religious roots are accepted by the U.S. government, that then means there are policy ramifications for that, and thereby a compromising of the U.S. Constitution.

But in mainland Europe I think the problem is deeper than just a constitution or French laïcité concerns in the case of France, and that is we have a situation here in Europe that the vast majority of policy makers don’t understand their own religion—i.e. Christianity—never mind understand a third religion, in this case Islam, and then never mind understand the intricacies that the previous gentleman alluded to, the Sunni-Shia divide, and then a subset of that divide—i.e. Salafi jihadism.

So we’ve got multiple layers here that need to be understood in order to understand what it is that drives extremism. And I think one of the reasons why Mr. Blair has been so effective in understanding and then articulating the religious roots of this problem is his own religious background. So when you see politicians and policy makers who have a grasp of their own faith—and I say this from many conversations with leaders around the world, is that when you have a leader who understands their own religion, whichever faith it is, or has been raised in a religious tradition, they can more easily grasp the theological and scriptural justifications used by Salafi jihadists.

Now, in the absence of wider religious literacy in mainland Europe, what you have is a generation of policy makers who went to university with no grasp of religion. In their own life there is no observance of faith. And this obsession that somehow Christianity and Catholicism was to be blamed for all the ills of the West and, now we’ve got that out of the door, we can give Islam a similar treatment, the problem is that there’s now a group of people, a young generation who sees the world in different terms and wants to question that past.

But to have that conversation, what I often find is those of my friends who are observant Christians or Jews, they’re better equipped to have a conversation with jihadists and extremists because of the common veneration for scripture. And then the perversions of scripture at the hands of jihadists, because of the absence of context, because of the absence of pluralism, and because of the absence of nuance and metaphors, it’s easier to have that conversation with religious extremists by those who have a sense of what religion is all about.

So that’s why I think it’s absolutely vital that policy makers grasp why it is that in Muslim countries, especially in prison programs or those who have a religious background in the Muslim-majority lands, that they are more effective in tackling extremism and terrorism when it comes out into the public domain.

So you see in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in Libya, in Algeria, and indeed in Turkey that religious leaders or others in the public domain who have a familiarity with scripture are able to handle references that jihadists make to the Quran and the hadith literature of the prophet and either correct the extremists or at least warn off the mainstream majority with references to religious literature in way that we’re not able to do in the West, especially here in Europe because in the public domain somehow discussion of religion is seen to be somehow odd and weird and done by peculiar types.

So there is this broader problem that we have in Europe, not just about Islam but religion in general, that helps breed extremists because they take it underground and they talk about what can’t be talked about in the public domain, i.e. God and faith and the afterlife.

But one of the reasons why, when extremism does raise its head in the public domain in the Middle East, that they can be more successful is because they can deal with it in the open. The problem in the Muslim world is that in the large parts where extremism does strike—i.e. the bulk of the Middle East—openness is not a trait of those societies. So extremism thrives because of the lack of openness. And it is then given succor in the underworld and in the underground of banned—banding in banned organizations that continues to feed extremism. And that’s another debate, another set of problems.

But the problem here is the not-openness. The problem here in Europe is this vibrant, rabid, French-style secularism that refuses to allow for religion and religious pluralism to find harmonious existence side by side with a British style or an American style secularism where, you know, society isn’t secularized. The state is secular but individuals in society can be pious but not impose their piety or their reading of religion onto the state.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Maha ElGenaidi with the Islamic Network Group.

ELGENAIDI: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I’m actually working out on a bike right now because it’s only 8:30 in California, but I wanted to call, so forgive me for the—if this doesn’t make any sense.

I’m really struck by what you said about the religious roots of Islamic extremism. I’ve always understood it as a geopolitical problem or having roots in politics instead of religion, because if it was religion, how come we’re not seeing more terrorism by Shia groups, by Iranians?

The other question that I have is the scale of Islamic extremism in the country. Well, you’re talking of course about European extremism but I’m interested in American Islamic extremism, if it exists and what’s the scale of it, and what’s the scale of it around the world? I’ve always been concerned about hate groups in this country, and I’m more concerned about white supremacist extremism than I am of Islamic extremism, and I wanted to get your comment on that.

And then also, I think that you’re the founder of Quilliam Institute in the U.K. I’m not sure if that’s correct or not, but that organization has always been viewed by some Muslims as being Islamophobic. However, I agree with a lot of your thinking. I’m one of your Facebook friends and so I follow you, and if you can comment about that.

In fact, I actually agree with some of what some of them have said, or the critiques that they’ve had of Muslim societies and of Islam. And I’m just wondering, as a, you know, hijab-wearing mainstream Muslim who is quite active in the community, you know, there’s a tension there, because I want to address some of these issues but some of the sources are considered to be problematic in the Muslim community. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thanks, Maha.

Ed, over to you.

HUSAIN: Thank you, Maha—lots of questions.

On Quilliam, I mean, yes, I was one of the cofounders. And yes, I was with Quilliam until I think very early 2010, when I left America and joined CFR, and I’ve since come back and I work with Mr. Blair in his organizations. Quilliam, I think, is an important organization that does difficult work. And for some of it, it takes a lot of flak.

I don’t agree with some of its positions. I’m not as inclined towards, say, partnering with atheists and whatnot, but that’s—I’m no longer there so I can’t really comment on what it does other than to say I was there until 2010 and I can be held to task for what it did when I was there. I mean, I’m no longer with it.

But moving to your other questions on America and American Islamist extremism, and also the scale of the problem and the religious roots or, otherwise, of global Islamist extremism, I mean, I’ll quickly say the following:

Firstly, I think American Muslims are the shining example for Muslims here in Europe. And I say that as someone who’s lived in the United States of America for four years recently and traveled back often. And I have had the good pleasure of meeting lots of American Muslim leaders, not least the leadership of the Islamic Society of North America, not least having some degree of familiarity with America’s leading theological schools, especially Zaytuna Institute and others.

And I have nothing but admiration for the great work that both ISNA and Zaytuna and others continue to do, and that is because American Muslims are, one, deeply patriotic, unlike most Muslim community activists here in Europe; two, they are rooted in their faith but also in America’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence and loyalty to the U.S., but also serving in the armed forces in a way that is not the culture here. And three, as a result of the first two, American Muslims are much more integrated, and do so on the basis of no contradiction between Islam and being an American in a way that that debate—it’s not even a debate in America but that debate hasn’t even been settled here in large parts of the activist community here.

So there are big differences. So I wouldn’t say that America has an extremism problem at the level in which we have here. But, that said, America is not immune from the Internet, not immune from prison problems, and not immune from some presence of extremist Salafi. And I say Salafi—extreme Salafis, not all Salafis, because of Saudi funding, because of issues related to some mosques in the past in Virginia, presence of Anwar al-Awlaki in the past. But, that said, America by and large is in a much healthier space.

Now, is the problem of extremism geopolitical or is it religious at its roots? I think it’s a combination of the two, but the geopolitics is something that’s moving and fluid and will continue to change. But the geopolitical problems in the Middle East, whatever they may be and however we think they’re deep, if you look at the tensions with North and South Korea and what’s going on in other parts of the world—i.e. East Germany, West Germany, challenges in Latin America, issues around poverty and conflict and migration patterns in Sub-Saharan Africa—I mean, whatever problems we can point to in the Middle East, those problems, by the way, are also present in South Asia, Southeast Asia. The Middle East is not unique with these problems.

The question then is, why is it that in the Middle East—or why is it that on a micro level in European cities, the problems that are faced by Catholics or the white working class or others, when young Muslims face those same problems it leads to extremism and terrorism? And I think that’s a serious problem that’s worth contemplating on, that why is it that someone who’s, you know, Italian and Catholic and faces unemployment—if someone is from Bradford and faces unemployment, allegedly, and has a Muslim background, that one leads to extremism and belonging to extremist networks and terrorism and the other worst-case scenario leads to drugs? Because there’s something going on, and I’m not trying to reduce it to just Islam. I’m saying it’s a certain kind of Islam that most Muslims find repulsive.

So you, as a hijab-wearing lady—God bless you—you would be the first to be exposed to that kind of extremism and terrorism because, to that mindset, wearing hijab, covering your hair is not enough. To that extremist mindset it’s got to be covering the face. Then that isn’t enough. They’ve got to be wearing gloves. And then that isn’t enough. They’ve got to be at home. Then that isn’t enough. They’ve got to accept all kinds of conditions on their—and it’s that kind of extremist Salafi, Saudi-ized jihadist mindset that I’m talking about has now become a problem even for the Saudi government.

So we’ve seen positive moves on the part of Saudi Arabia over the last decade in trying to cast off this extremism in their own midst. And that’s the kind of Islam that’s not—it doesn’t even work to—3 percent of the world’s Muslims. But that’s where it is, that it’s socially problematic, politically problematic, theologically subversive, that does have religion or a perversion of it at its core. And unless we recognize that, I’m afraid no amount of geopolitical economic fixing of problems will lead to the appetite of the extremists being fulfilled.

And that’s why I think one of the previous callers, alluding to the article that Mr. Blair published this week that you can’t appease that mindset, you can’t reach a compromise with that mindset because it seeks domination—I mean, it’s absolutely right. And we’re seeing it play out in multiple Muslim-majority countries, that there is this hunger to want to dominate, to kill, to impose their reading—and it is their reading of Sharia. It is not a mainstream nor a historic reading. It’s a perversion, it’s a minority, and yet it is designed to impose that reading of Sharia as state law.

And I’ll end this answer by saying the following, that historically, for most Muslim governments—and you can see this in the 1850 Tanzimat reforms of the Ottomans. Especially I cite the Ottomans because it’s documented history in modern terms, if you like, modern—in early modern historical times. So in the 1850 Tanzimat reforms, or if you look at what the Mughals did in India—halal and haram, in other words what is forbidden and what is allowed for a Muslim.

So for me, you know, as a Muslim there are some things that are haram, forbidden, and most things are halal, allowed. That was for me, as a Muslim—if I committed haram, if I committed what’s not right for me or what’s religiously forbidden for me, I had a problem in my own conscience, a problem perhaps in my family at most, but ultimately it was between God and me and I would face the consequences of the haram in the afterlife. But what Islamists do, and extremists take to a violent conclusion, is haram, whatever I—alcohol or consumption of pork or theft, all of that is not only just haram, it becomes state law. In other words, it’s not just between God and me. I must be punished for it in this life.

So blasphemy laws in Pakistan are a reflection of that mindset that attacking Muslim minorities or Christians in countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan observing their faith, which is then seen as blasphemy maybe by Muslim governments, isn’t just a question of conscience, isn’t just a question of individual rights, but it becomes something for the government to get involved in.

And that’s why this creation of the Sharia literalist state is a problem because, A, it’s historically not the Muslim norm; B, it kills pluralism; and, C, when we see it appear—i.e. Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS, or previously Afghanistan and Sudan—is that it kills minorities and it wants to impose its form of religion and does not tolerate dissent or pluralism or even upholding the mainstream Muslim norm.

So that’s why it’s such a cancerous growth within Islam, because it wants to undermine Islam itself. So I’ll say this, that this is not a threat just to the West. It’s a threat to Islam and Muslim itself. And they kill more Muslims than they kill anyone else. So you, as a Muslim, shouldn’t feel that the finger is being pointed at you. If anything, it’s an attempt to try and help Muslims such as Maha and others to stand up to this threat in our midst.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Inamul Haq with Elmhurst College.

HAQ: Yes, my question is that when we are facing this phenomena, on the one hand we are seeing that the people who are attracted to it are the, earlier what you said, the religiously illiterate and sometimes pretty criminal. On the other hand, we see that it is also very sophisticated ideology which is giving people an alternative vision of modern society, a kind of very illiberal society but they are quite sophisticated the way they build that argument.

So what is this relationship between this sheer ignorance which is attracting people and this rather sophisticated religious theological construct of a caliphate, an Islamic state?

HUSAIN: Excellent question. Thank you, Mr. Haq.

I think on the religious illiteracy point I would defer to two or three top-rate American Muslim scholars who have articulated this problem most. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson comes to mind and Dr. Abou El Fadl comes to mind. He has done a lot of work. Most recently I think some of his works online have started to appear now, but his work The Great Theft would be a point of reference for those of you who are interested in reading more. He explains and illustrates this religious illiteracy point most effectively.

Now, having established that they don’t understand the mainstream pluralist Islam of the past as understood by the vast majority of Muslim scholars since the beginning of the seventh century down until the end of at least Ottoman times, you’re absolutely right. The sophistication tends not to be on understanding of scripture. The sophistication tends not to be an understanding of history or context or content, or understanding the way in which Muslim theology, jurisprudence, and hadith literature evolved. Their sophistication, as you rightly highlight, tends to be political, tends to be worldly, and sadly tends to be strategic.

They have the long game in mind, whereas we in the West, or Muslim-majority governments that are democratic, are beholden to five-year or four-year cycles. So most governments in the West can’t think beyond the next election, whereas extremists and terrorists among them have the benefit of looking at the long game because they know in four years’ time there will be a change in government. So our strategies are short term. Theirs are often built in—I mean, there’s a reference to the Belgians being Crusaders. That’s the way ISIS refers to it in its victory videos about the attack on—attacks on Brussels being attacks on the Crusaders. So in their minds they’re still looking a thousand years behind but they’re also looking a thousand years ahead.

And in that worldly sophistication and in that worldly appeal—by using English-language magazines, by building the sophistication, mirroring the difficulties in escaping prison and escaping government attacks, I think just what happened in Afghanistan, the help that they were given by, I confess, Western governments and Saudi Arabia and the government in Pakistan but also the CIA and others in fighting the Soviet Union, then transferring that skill set to avoiding the Saudi government’s repression on extremists in Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan, then avoiding repression in Egypt but occasionally facing it, then their experience now in fighting after the Arab Spring, I think that gives the degree of institutional memory to both al-Qaida and then ISIS that leads to the kind of sophistication that is mostly worldly and mostly strategic that you rightly highlight.

I think we’ve got about seven minutes left, Irina. Should we take more calls—more questions?

FASKIANOS: Yes, we should. We have several queued up so let’s go to the next one.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Sheryl Olitzky with Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

OLITZKY: Thank you for your very educational and really helpful talk this morning. I appreciate it.

HUSAIN: Thank you.

OLITZKY: The question I have for you is you mentioned what’s going on on university campuses. One of the areas that we are very concerned about is, are we able to reach the younger generation, since that’s our future? And I was wondering if you could help to provide me with some examples of what has worked on university campuses.

HUSAIN: If you wouldn’t mind just repeating the last bit, what—something on university—

OLITZKY: Examples that you have seen that have been successful—

HUSAIN: Ah, got it. Right.

OLITZKY: —in countering what’s happening on university campuses.

HUSAIN: Sure. Sure. Sure. Thank you, Sheryl, for that question.

Firstly, one of the reasons why extremists were successful on university campuses here in the U.K. but also on mainland Europe is they often used to go unchallenged. In other words, you know, extremists would be invited onto campus. They would speak and they would, in American references, talk about hate speech, and students would sit there and listen out of deference and that would go unchallenged.

What we’re seeing slowly beginning to emerge in several campuses here is that university managers—not just academics but university managers have taken it on themselves to ensure that, yes, extremist speakers, as long as they don’t call for violence and stay within this side of the law, are allowed to come and speak, but they will be challenged.

So bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, misogyny, hatred for America, hatred for the British government, if all of that is legal and expressed in a nonviolent oral manner then, fine, express it, but we will challenge it by having someone else on the panel or by having students in the audience who challenge it, reject it, mock it, discredit it, and ultimately reject it. So that needs to be organized, and that hadn’t happened until somewhat recently. So that’s something that’s working positively on campuses.

Secondly, on the Muslim Students Association front, especially in America, I hasten to add that most universities, in the U.S. at least, are not an extremism problem, but what we do see is this mindset emerging of wanting to boycott Israel. And to me that’s an important sign of extremism, that here is a member of the United Nations; however much you may have a problem with its foreign policy, it wants a two-state solution. Most Palestinians want a two-state solution and we should support a two-state solution. But those who call for boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israel, I think if not anti-Semitic are definitely borderline anti-Semitic, and that should be challenged. And in the U.S. context, that’s something that needs to be highlighted.

And I think what we’re in need of both on this front but also on countering Islamic extremism in the U.S. front is for flooding campuses—just like we’re trying to do with prisons—with literature. If you go into most university prayer rooms here in Europe, what you see is literature from problematic countries or from extremist organizations. That needs to be reversed so literature from mainstream pluralist organizations is present and not that from extremist organizations.

And thirdly, a very quick example is what we saw play out on university campuses here, is the gender segregation, that men would sit on one side and women would sit on another side. To me that’s—you may say that’s not extremism but I think it encourages a sense of separatism that leads to extremism. So in terms of snipping the problem in the bud and uprooting it from its very—I mean that sort of literalist application of Sharia that’s no longer adhered to by most Muslims.

And most university campuses in Muslim-majority countries tend to be mixed and respectful of the opposite gender as just that, a fully paid member of the human race. So we shouldn’t be segregating against women in that sense, and we’re seeing an end to that happening on university campuses here.

So ending gender segregation, opposing anti-Semitism, but also opposing the extremist ideology in its various manifestations, and not giving it a kind of unchallenged platform would be a set of practices that I’ve observed beginning to happen here and should be accepted and endorsed and popularized elsewhere.

FASKIANOS: I’m just going to see if we can sneak in one last question, but please let it be brief.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mohamad Elsanousi with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.

ELSANOUSI: Yes, thank you so much. I’m glad to get this last question. Thank you. It’s always great to hear your expertise and critical analysis for these issues. My question actually is in relation to the ideology and theological aspect that you mentioned and the chilling action within Islam when it comes to ideological and theological issues.

We know that currently there are teachings in the Muslim world that contribute and also basically fuel the extremism, but yet there is an absence of mechanism in the Muslim majority countries for a dialogue between those who are promoting peace, like Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, who you mentioned earlier. You know, he’s doing his part but there is no systematic dialogue.

Particularly we know that still you can find in some of these countries some Salafis that condemn what ISIS and extremists are doing, but in the meantime there is no basically discussion on those teaching who are still continuously actually fueling such extremism.

HUSAIN: Great to hear your voice again, Sheikh Mohamed.

For those of you who don’t know, that’s Sheikh Mohamed Elsanousi, a prominent Muslim American voice.

But very quickly to respond to your question, I think the answer lies within the way in which you frame the question, Sheikh, because what you have is the absence of dialogue, but it’s the closing down of societies and spaces to allow for institutionalizing of dialogue. And one of the things you see is the lack of openness and the lack of pluralism allows for the extremism to fester, and it fosters itself.

So I couldn’t agree more other than to say that if there’s anything those of you on the call who think you can assist in the instituting of dialogue in those societies, because—and I’ll end the call where I started it, in the point that it’s undermining the religious certainty, the capital “T” Truth that extremists, especially the radical Salafists, they alone possess.

The only way you do that is by introducing them to a richer, diverse, and more deep tradition of questioning, of injecting doubt but renewing your faith but within a more pluralist, open, dialogical way. And that can be done, I think, by, as you say, instituting dialogue but also establishing it in societies in which sadly it doesn’t exist, which allows then for extremists to exploit and go unchallenged.

So we’re running out of time, I think, and I don’t want to kind of keep you any longer than I’ve already taken time other than to say thank you very much. Thank you very much for your time. Thank you very much for your interest. And thank you, Irina, and thank you to CFR to hosting this very important conversation that I think needs to be amplified and taken much further. And CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program plays an important part in doing so.

I’ll hand back to you, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Ed, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today, for your valuable insights. We miss you here at CFR but look forward in continuing to work with you at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

You can follow Ed on Twitter @Ed_Husain. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.

Thank you all again for today’s informative and important discussion.