Can being smarter about Islam help Muslims reject terrorist appeals? Maybe.

Editors’ Note: There is a popular misconception that the serious study of Islam is a step on the road toward radicalization and terrorism. But a heartening finding indicates that knowledge is good, and that those who know more about Islam are more resistant to extremist appeals. This post originally appeared on Lawfare.

The tragicomedy Four Lions (2010) tells the twinned tales of four bungling British Islamist terrorists plotting coordinated suicide bombings in London and of incompetent British law enforcement authorities trying to find them and preempt the attack. British law enforcement efforts focus upon the terrorist’s brother and his associates because they wear traditional dress and engage in the study of Islam. Meanwhile, the cosmopolitan terrorist leader escapes notice until it is too late. The film discomfits, because it hits upon popular perceptions of who is a “dangerous Muslim.” While such fears exist in countries like the United Kingdom, where Muslims are a minority, they also exist in terror-riven Muslim countries like Pakistan, where more secular-inclined citizens fear their more observant citizens, and the latter view the former as traitors to the faith and nation. A Pakistani film entitled Khuda Ke Liye (2007) wrestles with many of the same questions as Four Lions, albeit in a Pakistani context. Inherent in this securitization of a person’s pursuit of Islamic education is the assumption that those who engage in the acquisition of knowledge are security risks. However, there has been no empirical support for the contention that the pursuit of knowledge of Islam correlates with support for terrorism.

In a research note forthcoming in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, my co-authors and I investigate this putative relationship by formalizing several propositions of Quintan Wiktorowicz, a scholar of Islam who also played an important role as a U.S. policymaker. Wiktorowicz contends that due to the heterogeneous nature of Islam and the lack of a central authority in exposition of Islamic tenets, most people will take “cognitive shortcuts” in evaluating the credibility of religious leaders, focusing on their reputation. He found in his study of activists within al-Muhajiroun (a banned Islamist terrorist organization that was based in the United Kingdom) that those who are less knowledgeable about Islam were more susceptible to the appeals of recruiters and ideologues, because they lacked the knowledge of Islam to contradict their arguments in support of violence. This gives rise to an interesting research question: can knowledge of Islam reduce support for Islamist militancy? We evaluate this question by employing data derived from a nationally representative survey of Pakistanis fielded by Fair et al. in 2011.

Brief overview of the study

We test support for Islamist militancy by instrumentalizing two survey questions that query respondents about their support for two groups, both of which are rooted in Pakistan’s Deobandi interpretative tradition of Islam. The first group is an Islamist organization known variously as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its offshoot Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which targets Shiite, non-Muslims, and Sufis in Pakistan. The second is the Afghan Taliban. To test the central hypothesis, we constructed an additive knowledge index that measured the respondents’ basic knowledge of Islam employing several questions for which there are no ambiguous responses. (For example, we ask respondents whether or not the Quran specifies how one should pray.) This knowledge index is our principal independent variable. To calculate the final index score for respondents, we summed the respondents’ total score and divided it by five to produce an individual knowledge index that ranges from 0 to 1, with higher index value indicating greater knowledge of Islam. We also included several control variables in our model based upon previous the work of Shafiq and Sinno (2010), including: respondent’s maslak (sectarian commitment), ethnicity, gender, marital status, level of education, age group, and income. 

What do the data say?

We find that knowledge about Islam indeed has a statistically significant and negative impact upon support for the Afghan Taliban and SSP, although the result is larger and more significant in explaining decreased support for the SSP. However, several control variables—including gender, maslak, ethnicity, and income—are also statistically significant and often larger in magnitude than the knowledge index in explaining support for both the SSP and the Afghan Taliban. We consistently found that the biggest predictor of support for both of these groups is the sectarian orientation of the respondent. Specifically, those who espoused the ultra-conservative Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadis traditions were most likely to support the SSP or Afghan Taliban. This is somewhat surprising given that Ahl-e-Hadis religious scholars have considerable disputes with the Deobandi interpretive tradition. However, the impact of the knowledge variable is all the more surprising when one considers that it includes only rudimentary questions about Islam. Perhaps if our index included more complex measures the salience of this variable would have been greater.

So what?

Even though the sectarian commitment of the survey respondent has greater explanatory power in predicting support for these two militant groups, our results show that even a basic knowledge of Islam can indeed dampen support for Islamist militant groups like the SSP and the Afghan Taliban. The policy implications of this research are potentially important. Rather than pillorying Islamic education and the institutions where such education takes place, perhaps a more productive approach is to focus upon the quality of Islamic education that students receive. Our work suggests that modest knowledge of Islam among Pakistanis can have an important mitigating effect for support for militancy.