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Last Updated: 08/01/2014
Islamic spiritual leaders and de-radicalisation
Bianca De Bortoli

The rise of radicalisation has seen States turn to all corners for assistance in the de-radicalisation process. The tentative role of Islamic spiritual leaders remains controversial with many criticising the fine line between their role in the radicalisation and de-radicalisation process. This article will serve to provide insights into the role and subsequent effectiveness of Islamic spiritual leaders in the process of de-radicalisation, before a brief comparison between their influence/effectiveness in contrast to political figures. What remains essential is the point that the reasons behind radicalisation may not necessarily be attributed to ideology or religion, so in this case is there still relevance or a necessity for Islamic religious figures to play a part?

The re-emergence of utilising spiritual leaders in the process of de-radicalisation has proven to be highly effective. However, it has also demonstrated the complexity of the term ‘effective’ and ‘successful.’ There has been great difficulty in maintaining such levels of success, although increased cooperation between both the religious and political counterparts have ensured a greater global impact. As such, the effectiveness of spiritual leaders is part of a multi-faceted process. While, it is clear that states that enhance restrictions upon such leaders are unlikely to see success, countries that are establishing state-supported programs are more likely to be successful, the inconsistent competition between religion and state is only obstructing further progress. Further, the individual’s encounter with the radicalisation process may not necessarily be ideologically (religiously) motivated, thus questioning the relevance of a spiritual leader in the de-radicalisation process. This essay will critically evaluate the effectiveness of Islamic spiritual leaders in the process of de-radicalisation, before determining whether they are more effective than political leaders.

In order to counter such issues as radicalisation, a working definition must be established. Functionally, radicalisation is the ‘increased preparation for and commitment to intergroup conflict. Descriptively, radicalisation signifies a change in beliefs, feelings, and behaviours in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defence of the in group.’1 The psychology behind radicalisation emphasises the disparity between individuals, individual backgrounds etc. In turn, demonstrating the importance in recognising ‘how different people, with different backgrounds, and with distinct routed into and through the terrorist movement, engage with the process in different ways.’2 The multi-faceted nature of the radicalisation process has highlighted the fact that the role of religion may not always be a driving feature in the individual’s thought process. Further, if an individual is a member of a group, it is most likely that there will be a ‘widely dispersed presence of religion-based ideology across the group.’3 Individuals who have a more ethereal focus on existential problems tend to emphasise a greater presence of religious ideology than others. This reiterates the importance of subjectivity when determining how to approach the de-radicalisation process. Due to the dispersed nature of terrorist groups and the rise of self-starting terrorists, individual attention by both spiritual and political figures is vital in the de-radicalisation and reintegration process.

There are multiple benefits in utilising Islamic spiritual leaders in the process of de-radicalisation. The broad terminology contains sufficient elements of antiquity and unnecessary expectations. For example, an ‘Imam can be a person who leads prayer, a scholar, or even a head of state, however for the purposes of this essay will refer to a person who leads prayer and caters to the religious and pastoral needs of the congregation. Other relevant terms that need to be defined before they are evaluated include: A sheikh is someone elderly, but often refers to a scholar and widely used as a title of respect; Alim also means scholar; Mufti refers to a highly ranking scholar who is qualified to make legal pronouncements and verdicts (fatwas).’4 As highlighted through countries containing a Muslim minority i.e. United Kingdom, France, Spain and the Netherlands, such minorities are over represented in prisons relative to the country’s overall population (Spain, Netherlands and the UK by 4 and France by 10).5 The involvement of prison Imams is a relatively new phenomenon and had previously not acquired any interest by governments or political figures prior to 9/11. However, recent developments in the utilisation of Imams, religious language, and motifs have led to increased credibility and have proven to be helpful in combating the re-emergence of radicals in the prison recruitment process. The recent upsurge in interest regarding the prison Imam shows that prison services have understood the significance of preventing extremism and extremists from monopolising the Islamic narrative. Due to the highly disciplined and structured environment, ‘prisons and relevant services also act as a moderating force; de-radicalising ideology.’6 As demonstrated within India, recent developments in counter-terrorism methods have also come to incorporate the use of Islamic spiritual leaders. ‘Dialogues between such beneficiaries and Imams, or other religious figures in order to affirm and emphasise the peaceful nature of Islam, seeks to counteract any ‘brainwashing’ or any other elements which may address both the initial de-radicalistion process and also a post-de radicalisation program established with the intention of monitoring individuals in order to decrease the risk of recidivism.’7 Further, countries that contain a Muslim majority and are non-secular such as Saudi Arabia have also increased their counter-terrorism measures in order to prevent further crises. The Saudi strategy was to emphasise Islam and its tolerance for ‘the other.’ As a result of recent program developments, 3,200 Islamist prisoners have undergone counselling with religious leaders who are all too familiar with the jihadi discourse. Of these, 1,500 have renounced their former radical beliefs.8 By taking on al-Qaeda says General David Petraeus, ‘the Saudi role, both by force and also through using political, social, religious educational tools, is one of the most important, least reported positive developments in the war on terrorism.’9 With this being said, it is clear that despite evident successes, the role of religious leaders within the de-radicalisation process also raises significant issues.

It is important to acknowledge the complexity of involving community religious leaders. There are multiple platforms for evaluation that will be examined in order to determine what is more effective in the de-radicalisation process. In recognising the ambiguity in terms such as Imam, with this, there is a greater risk of being overrated and subsequently being the recipient of harsher criticism. There are a small number of cases in which ‘radical Imams’ have gained access adding a layer of increased difficulty in one’s ability to control external drivers of radicalisation; forces which are often, historically, known to conflict.10 This raises the question as to the degree of overall success of implementing such forces. Post 9/11, there has been increased governmental suspicion about Imams. Each country remains subjective, which increases the difficulty in establishing a solid foundation. This has been particularly difficult within Europe due to the increase in accessibility for both physical and ideological material used in radicalising individuals. Further, there is also the concern of Imams gaining credibility and utilising religious language and motifs in order to establish influence and subsequently recruit followers. While the enthusiasm has led to a role expansion, this has also resulted in increased expectations and individuals being deemed as ineffective due to the convoluted expectation to be an expert in radicalisation and de-radicalisation, an interlocutor between the prison authorities, provider of services in spiritual care, while also working as counsellors and social workers. Through the institutionalisation of and professionalization of such roles it prompts the concern of implementing a ‘state-sanctioned’ form of Islam.11 Such processes of institutionalisation and professionalization as demonstrated within France and the Netherlands have become state-funded Islamic Prison Chaplaincies and in the United Kingdom (UK): Muslim Advisors. This has also increased the level of caution by prisoners subsequently affecting the overall level of both prisoner compliance and effectiveness. It is also evident that despite Islamic spiritual leaders upholding a collaborative effort with political figures, the perception of their work according to society may be inaccurate. Such an effort to create a moderated form of Islam involves monitoring Imams in order to ensure that they are not encouraging or glorifying terrorism.12 Further, governments have also reiterated their position by deporting Imams demonstrating radical tendencies at an accelerated pace. In 2004 alone, 12 Imams were allegedly deported,13 signifying the ‘crack-down’ and lack of cooperation between European governments and spiritual figures with over 20 times more suspects being arrested than that in the United States.14 Amongst other issues, the partnership between politics and religion become irrelevant when the involved state isn’t secular. It is then when a neutral body needs to be established in order to combat the risk of further radicalisation and also recruitment of other vulnerable individuals within the prison environment. This offers a platform for alternative solutions or recommendations to address the complex process.

There are a number of alternative solutions that need to be considered in the further development of de-radicalisation process in order to ensure the continuation of success. It is clear that one needs to distinguish between those that are religiously motivated and those that have become radicalised due to political dissatisfaction.15 Further, it is important to acknowledge the need for ‘more contextualised Muslim leadership in particular throughout Europe.’16 While concerns of ill-equipped communication often drive a political form of leadership, the challenge of dealing with transformation of religious traditions i.e. continuity vs. change and engagement with modernity remains prominent.17 The recourse to radical forms of political Islam, as evidenced particularly by young people, is often the expression of a lack of political representation and participation by those who are excluded and socially and culturally discriminated against. If there is a sufficient and ongoing effort at addressing ‘grass root’ issues, the minimised issue will therefore allow such partnerships between religious and spiritual figures to solidify bridges and thus focus on the individual and their own pastoral/political needs. The potential for success is exacerbated by the separation of religion and the state. Through this, the Imams can focus on the individual and their wellbeing, while political leaders can maintain their primary focus on state prosperity in conjunction with observing de-radicalisation programs. Without a cooperative effort, the likelihood of individuals trusting what may appear as ‘state-initiated’ religious figures is diminished. Through the promotion of such a partnership, the role of religious figures can be accentuated with political support, despite previous accounts of Imams being involved in the exacerbation of further violence i.e. Hamza in the UK, Kaplan in Germany. Within the prison environment there also needs to sufficient surveillance and restricted access to external factors that may contribute to the re-emergence of radicalised prison groups or recruitment of previously unexposed individuals. It is through the acknowledgement of de-radicalisation as a non-sequential process that will ultimately allow each involved figure to achieve their relevant objectives. Further, Imam training including faith, social and inter-generational will provide spiritual leaders with the ability to spot vulnerability within individuals and improve relations between individuals and the political/social sphere.18

To ensure future success, the programs will be dependent on the level of support available to both the individual and the level of sharing protocols between state officials and prison imams.19 Through the establishment of an evaluation criteria, and relevant terminology, the pressure placed upon spiritual leaders can be reduced.

Overall, the relationship between political and religious figures, in this case, is paramount. The partnership of mutual beneficence must ensure cooperation in order to achieve a greater level of success. While the nature of de-radicalisation remains a fluid non-sequential process, the commitment and willingness of all involved needs to remain the driving force in the protracted method. Through states acknowledging the expertise of fellow community members, the support from a political force can act as a catalyst in the progress of what potentially could be a ground -breaking discovery in both counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation. Although there will always be unsuccessful cases, it is vital that those that are successful are capitalised on, in order to establish a blueprint that can be implemented on a global scale; individual circumstances still remaining a top priority. While political figures remain important in such a partnership, the role of spiritual leaders as demonstrated throughout the time of their application has proven to be invaluable. Despite the odd cases where religion may be irrelevant, the role of spiritual leaders does not necessarily have to be about addressing religious needs, but instead act as a moderating force who caters to both the congregation’s spiritual and social needs. In summation, the role of Islamic spiritual leaders in the process of de-radicalisation is effective to a great extent.

1 McCauley. C, and Moskalenko. S, 2008. Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways toward Terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence 20:415–33.

2 Bjorgo, T (2005). Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward. United Kingdom: Taylor and Francis. p.50-51.

3 United States Government (2009). US Government Counterinsurgency Guide. United States: Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. p.6.

4 Institute for Strategic Dialogue. (2010). Development of Religious Instruction and Institutions: Imam Training in Europe. PPN Working Paper, p.8.

5 International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. (2010). Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 Countries, p.33.

6 Gerges, F.A (2006). Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy. United States: Harcourt Trade Publishers. p.58-59.

7Hearne, E.B (2012): Re-examining India's Counterterrorism Approach: Adopting a Long View, Strategic Analysis, 36:4, 535-536

8 Abdullah F Ansary, Combating extremism: a brief overview of Saudi Arabia’s approach, Middle East Policy, 15(2) (2008). p.118

9 Fareed Zakaria, The jihad against the jihadis, Newsweek, 12 February 2010, 3, (Accessed 12 Ocotber 2012).

10 International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. (2010). Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 Countries, p.2.

11 Blitt, Robert C., Springtime for Freedom of Religion or Belief: Will Newly Democratic Arab States Guarantee International Human Rights Norms or Perpetuate Their Violation? (2012). University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 195. Available at SSRN: or

12 Haddada, Y.Y & Balz, M.J. (2010). Taming the Imams: European Governments and Islamic Preachers since 9/11. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. 19, p. 215-235.

13 Whitlock, C.French push limits on fight on terrorism; wide prosecutorial powers draw scant public descent. Washington Post, 2 November

14 Savage, T. M.Europe and Islam: crescent waxing, culture clashing. Washington Quarterly, 27(3): p.25–50.

15 Boubekeur, A . (2008). Time to Deradicalise? The European Roots of Muslim Radicalisation. The International Spectator. 43. p.99.

16 Institute for Strategic Dialogue. (2010). Development of Religious Instruction and Institutions: Imam Training in Europe. PPN Working Paper, p.6

17 Van Bruinessen, M (2003). ‘Making and unmaking Muslim religious authority in Western Europe.’ Paper presented at the 4th Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, Florence

18 Institute for Strategic Dialogue. (2010). Development of Religious Instruction and Institutions: Imam Training in Europe. PPN Working Paper, p.5

19 Ibid. p.6

Bianca De Bortoli is a current student with the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.