Extremists and Islamophobes alike have attempted to paint violent factions within Islam as the true expression of the faith. But a new study gives credence to what countless Muslim leaders, activists and scholars have argued: that groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State are Muslim in name alone.
A group of German scholars at the Universities of Bielefeld and Osnabrück analyzed 5,757 WhatsApp messages found on a phone seized by police following a terrorist attack in the spring of 2016. The messages were exchanged among 12 young men involved in the attack. The attack itself was not identified in the report.
Deutsche Welle noted that the timeframe suggested it may have been a bombing at a Sikh temple in Essen carried out in April of that year by a group of German teens with reported links to Islamic extremism.
Researchers conducting the study said the young men’s conversations demonstrated little understanding of their professed faith and that the group constructed a “Lego Islam” to suit their purposes.
Bacem Dziri, a researcher at the University of Osnabrück and co-author on the report, examined the messages from an Islamic studies perspective and concluded: “The group had no basic knowledge about Islam.”
The scholars published their study as a book exploring the “violent Salafist youth scene in Germany,” according to the Amazon blurb, referencing an ultraconservative strain of Islam with which the young men were allegedly affiliated.
The Brookings Institute defines Salafism as “the idea that the most authentic and true Islam is found in the lived example of the early, righteous generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf, who were closest in both time and proximity to the Prophet Muhammad.” The movement has historically been apolitical and nonviolent, wrote researcher Mohammed Alyahya in a column on The New York Times. But Brookings notes that a smaller offshoot faction, called Salafi-jihadists, do promote violence as a “divine imperative” and include groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.
As one case study, the Amazon blurb highlights, the WhatsApp chats offer “insight into the group-internal dynamics of young Salafists” and their “radicalization processes.”
One thing that stood out, Dziri said in an email to HuffPost, was the extent to which the men had distanced themselves from local mosques and seemed confused about things as simple as how to go about conducting Friday prayers.
At one point in the exchange a young man asked if the faith permits cheating in school, the researcher said. “The answer was, that it is allowed to do everything with the unbelievers. And since nearly all other people are unbelievers, you can do everything with everyone,” Dziri said.
Another man admitted in the messages he didn’t have a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy text. And the others agreed that they needed to purchase one. Dr. Rauf Ceylan, a professor at the University of Osnabrück and one of the study’s co-authors, said it was “striking” that the discussion about obtaining a Quran occurred well after the group had been established.
“All religious conversations conducted up to this time were only content that has been learned from hearsay and rumors,” Ceylan told HuffPost.
When the group’s self-appointed leader called for a meeting, one participant fretted that he didn’t have any Islamic clothing. The leader responded: “You can also wear sweatpants or something like that. If you want I can loan you something for the day.”
The report is just a case study from one group of individuals, and its conclusions might not apply in all circumstances. But it echoes the conclusions of many Muslim scholars and activists who see little resemblance to their religion in such militant groups.
Ceylan and Dziri also noted that the 12 men involved in the WhatsApp chat appeared to have received little “religious socialization” and isolated themselves from other Muslims in their community.
“One of the main points for us is that these young radicalized people come mostly from a family which is remote from religion and they do not radicalize themselves in mosques,” Dziri said. “With a profound knowledge of faith, it would be impossible, or at least considerably more difficult to radicalize in that way.”