How to Stop Radicalization: Islamic Literacy Through Liberal Arts

by Karim Dewidar

Counterterrorism efforts by the United States and its partners in the Muslim world over the last few decades have primarily functioned to treat rather than cure the causes of terrorism. The War on Terror has been successful in taking out leaders and key infrastructure of terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. This approach by the United States has been able to disrupt and prevent attacks, as well as diminish the overall capacity of terrorist organizations. However, self-proclaimed Islamic terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda remain a threat and new, more deadly, organizations such as ISIS have emerged.

The counterterrorism efforts most prevalent today will not be successful because they do not address  the lack of “Islamic literacy”, which contributes to the adoption and proliferation of violent puritan ideologies by terrorists under the guise of Islam (El fadl: 200).  More effective counterterrorism measures need to focus on  increasing literacy rates to enable individuals to read Islamic texts for themselves, and ensuring a richer education in the liberal arts to empower young Muslims with the ability to think critically about their faith and identity. Certainly then, fewer people in the Muslim world will believe or rationalize the merits for supporting these violent puritan ideologies that terrorist organizations espouse.

Access to education attainment in the Middle East and North Africa is inhibited by a myriad of factors including: conflict, financial constraints, inefficient bureaucracies, and cultural barriers. Although research shows that Middle Eastern countries have made great strides over the last few decades in education, adequate schooling in this region remains allusive (World Bank: 2014). The millions of children from Syria to Gaza who are affected by war and conflict and cannot go to school, or have to make do with poorly funded schools exemplify the issues surrounding education in the Middle East (UNICEF: 2014; Brookings: 2014) . The same challenges can be seen in Muslim majority countries in South and Central Asia that suffer from terrorism. The case of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban because she wanted to go school, or the millions of Pakistani children that work rather than going to school further exemplify the challenges of those seeking an education in this region of the world (Chaudry: 2012) .

The lack of access to primary education in the Middle East, North Africa,  and parts of Asia have made illiteracy a problem in many Muslim majority communities, where we can see evidence of a link between high illiteracy rates and terrorism. According to data from UNESCO, the illiteracy rate for adults aged fifteen and above is 19% in Tunisia, 33% in Morocco, and 13% in Saudi Arabia (UNESCO: 2016). These countries also happen to be the three largest sources of ISIS’s foreign recruits (Neumann: 2015). Syria and Iraq, the breeding ground of ISIS, have illiteracy rates of 16% and 21% respectively (UNESCO).  Egypt , which since the 1950’s has produced numerous influential radical Islamic groups and figures, including Ayman Al Zawahiri, the co-founder of Al Qaeda, also has a high illiteracy rate of 23%  (UNESCO; Sagemen: 2004). This trend is also true outside of the Middle East, considering that countries where Islamic terrorists are present like Nigeria, home to Boko Haram, and Pakistan, have illiteracy rates of 49% and 45% respectively (UNESCO).

In addition to increased literacy at the primary school level, a greater emphasis on the liberal arts for students in high school and college is needed as part of an effective counter-radicalization process. While the education rates of Muslim terrorists, especially those in leadership positions, tend to be quite high, this only tells half the story since there is little variance in the type of education they have been known to receive. A 2009 study by sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog show that Muslim terrorists are 3 to 4 times more likely to have studied engineering, either obtaining a university degree in that field or undertaking prerequisites to prepare for an engineering degree (Gembetta & Hertog: 2007).  In a distant second place to engineering is Islamic studies (Gembetta & Hertog: 2007). Moreover, about 60% of the 400 terrorists surveyed  had backgrounds in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields (Gembetta & Hertog: 2007). Gembetta and Hertog contend that this phenomenon is unique to Muslim terrorist groups, regardless of geographic location. Even within the sample of Muslim terrorists from Western countries, 60% had backgrounds in engineering (Gembetta and Hertog). The study reveals that  these engineers are not merely  bomb-makers or technicians, but the high-ranking cadres and spiritual leaders of the terrorist organizations.

A literate population with  adequate primary education is a prerequisite to the key component of an effective counterterrorism education initiative: greater exposure to a liberal arts curriculum at high school, and more importantly, at  university. Such a curriculum should include: philosophy, literature, history, sociology, political science, and the arts. These fields of study are important because they cultivate vital critical thinking skills and allow one to express themselves in a way designing an electrical circuit cannot. Engineering and other professional fields have become popular in Muslim majority countries over the last few decades, namely as the countries pursue development initiatives. New curriculums with greater emphasis on the liberal arts should supplement, not replace, STEM-based programs that are popular amongst many Muslim students.

Increasing literacy rates through access to primary education, and fostering critical thinking skills through a more holistic liberal arts education in high schools and colleges will work to address the lack of “Islamic literacy”, a root cause of terrorism. In his book The Great Theft, Islamic Scholar Kaled El Fadl articulates the problem well: “many Muslims are woefully ignorant of their own religion” (El Fadl 112). Terrorist organizations and their spin-doctors exploit this. In their writings and propaganda efforts they  purport to quote things from the Qur’an, the Hadiths, and various sources of Islamic jurisprudence. But often, their “material” is invented, misconstrued, or given without consideration to historical context (El Fadl). Many of the group leaders appear to be religious scholars; they look and act the part. Once these figures gain some prominence they are treated as Imams and command respect from their followers even if they do not have any formal religious education.

So how does a literate society schooled in the liberal arts fight terrorism? Being able to read and more importantly to think critically are essential to counteract the process of recruitment. It is not about learning the “right” interpretation of Islam or being offered “an alternative to radicalism” as many people like to argue. It is also not about reforming or modernizing Islam. Individual Muslims must read and carefully consider the Qur’an for themselves. Ideally, one should also look at the Hadiths and Qur’anic exegesis—Tafsir, on important and controversial  issues such as “jihad.” Literacy will allow people to read the Qur’an for themselves and ascertain what their religious duty is instead of having people like Anwar Al Walki, the infamous Al Qaeda propagandist, tell them what it is.

Various efforts for offering “alternative narratives” to extremists or attempts to “win heart and minds” have failed because they are patronizing and perpetuate feelings of disempowerment. “Moderate” Muslims, although well intentioned, are no better than terrorist propagandists when at the behest of various governments they attempt to sell young Muslims  on the “right” interpretation of Islam. No person or entity has the right to say what Islam means and what constitutes the “right” narrative. Similarly it is not a “Western” education that is needed. As history has shown Islam is not an anathema to intellect or creativity. Much of what we regard as “Western” in terms of art, music, literature, philosophy, etc. is derived from Muslim civilizations in South Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Thus, this can be seen as return to “Islam’s Golden Age,” where students can engage with the wealth of culture and knowledge that Arab and Muslim societies have been producing for millennia.

Young Muslims, many of whom feel disenfranchised and voiceless, yearn for agency. This education initiative will give them a way of expressing their identity in more constructive ways. It will allow them to define themselves as individuals, rather than just Sunnis or Shias in these often atomized societies beset with externally imposed social categories.

A richer education in the liberal arts will empower young Muslims to discover on their own that the ideologies of these terrorists are antithetical to the life and revelations of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, if governments in the Middle East are serious about addressing terrorism they should  make education a priority. Certainly, the United States and other Western governments must put pressure on the governments they fund or have influence on to increase literacy rates and incorporate a liberal arts curriculum in high schools and colleges.   

The frontline for the battle against Islamic-based terrorism is not some desert or sleepy village, but the hearts and minds of young Muslims. It can only be eradicated if they stop interpreting their faith as an endorsement of violence to redress social, economic, and political grievances.  The right to an education is not just a human right, but it is a tool that will empower young Muslims and ultimately degrade terrorists. Malala Yousafzai showed how important education is in the fight against terrorism; an educated and independent minded young person scares Islamic terrorists more than any war plane.

Works Cited

Chaudry, Serena. Millions Pushed into Child Labor in Pakistan. Reuters. February 1 2012.

El Fadl, Khaled. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. HarperOne, San Francisco, 2007.

Gambetta, Diego and Steffen Hertog. “Engineers of Jihad.” Department of Sociology University of Oxford: 2007.

Neumann, Peter. “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s.” International Center for the Study of Radicalization. January 26 2015.

Sageman, Marc. Understanding Terrorist Networks. U of Pennsylvania, 2004. Print.

United Nation Children Fund. No Lost Generation: The Protecting of Futures of Children Affected by the Crisis in Syria. 2014.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. International Literacy Data. 2013.

Watkins, kevin, et al. The Destruction of Gaza’s School and the Future of Palestinian Children. The Brookings Institution. August 4 2014.

World Bank. Education in the Middle East and North Africa. January 27 2014.


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