Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
A new study found that the so-called radicalized Muslims have little actual knowledge of Islam. What’s your take on this?
CJ Werleman:Well, we also know this to be true from a trove of ISIS documents seized by US Special Forces last year. ISIS kept meticulous and detailed handwritten documentation for every one if its recruits. On a self-completed questionnaire, new recruits were asked to rate their knowledge of Islam on a scale of 1-to-3. More than two-thirds of new ISIS recruits self-reported to being almost completely ignorant on Islamic scripture.
Of course, this is exactly what ISIS hoped for, as it allowed the terrorist group to indoctrinate new recruits into their own demented and perverted interpretation of Islam.
It’s not unsurprising, however. While no one radicalization theory explains the radicalization process of all or even a majority of those who join extremist groups like ISIS or al- Qaeda, we do know that radicalization into violent extremism does not follow from Islamic scripture or promises made in the celestial world, but rather from perceived moral and political grievances experienced in the real world.
It’s also worth noting here that one also must be careful with the term "radicalization.” It’s a complex, unscientific, and overly politicized term. For instances, when white right wing individuals carry out a terrorist act, no one asks how he was radicalized. The term has been exclusively reserved for Muslims who adopt extremist beliefs. Thus implying there’s something uniquely dangerous about Islam, and, as a result, Muslims must be watched to identify which ones are moving up the ladder or along the conveyer belt towards radicalization.
Muslim leaders, activists and scholars have said the same thing about extremists for a long time, emphasizing that groups such as ISIS are Muslim in name alone. In spite of that, Islamophobes try to paint extreme ideologies as true expression of Islam. Could you comment on that?
CJ Werleman:My friend MubinShaihk, a former jihadist, refers to ISIS as terrorists in Islamic costume, and I think that’s incredibly accurate. Islam was always a recruiting strategy for the founding fathers of ISIS – the Baathists – who had been disposed from power by the US invasion and occupation.
These founders knew they needed foreign recruits. There was no way that could’ve restored power on the back of armed Sunni Anbar militias alone, and you have to remember the US Surge almost wiped out 90 percent of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s headcount by 2010.
But, a recruitment slogan that read along the lines of, "Hey, come to Iraq and Syria and fight for the Baath party” would never succeeded in attracting too many foreign fighters, so they put an Islamic face on their effort to overturn the status quo in Baghdad.
That said there are plenty who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS or al Qaeda who sincerely believed the group’s propaganda to be the true expression of Islam, but at the end of the day that’s all it is - ISIS propaganda.
What role does the mainstream media play in promoting Islamophobes?
CJ Werleman:The media plays an enormous role in encouraging and promoting Islamophobia, and it does this in many ways.
Firstly, it gives a platform to bigots who are unqualified to speak about Islam and/or so-called jihadist terrorism. Worst, it overlooks actual qualified experts on these topics. For instance, Fox News regularly invites Ayaan Hirsi Ali on as a guest in the aftermath of an ISIS inspired or led attack. But she’s not a qualified terrorism expert, or even an expert on Islam. She has never attained a single academic qualification in either of those two disciplines, nor has produced a single peer reviewed paper, but yet she’s elevated as an authority by the media, allowing her to propagate her dangerous generalizations and negative stereotypes about Muslims.
Secondly, the media over reports crimes and violence carried out by Muslims, and under reports those carried out by whites. One recent study found that Muslim perpetrated crimes were over reported in the media by a whopping 449 percent. This serves to only heighten the broader public’s already irrational fear of Muslim citizens.
Thirdly, the media rarely frames ongoing conflict and violence occurring in predominately Muslim countries in its rightful context and/or it allows non-Muslim commentators or worse – those with an anti-Muslim agenda to dominate the narrative. For instance, pro-Israel propaganda attempts to root Palestinian violence within a cultural narrative: theirs. One that suggests Palestinian violence flows from Islamic culture. The truth is Palestinian violence is wholly rooted in resistance to Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
What’s your opinion about Donald Trump’s Muslim ban?
CJ Werleman:Trump’s Muslim ban was never about security; it was always about rewarding his racist and xenophobic supporter base. The fact that this ban would have prevented zero terrorist attacks on US soil in the past 20 years is all the proof you need to know that this has nothing to do with countering terrorism, and everything to do with tawdry political expediency.
Moreover, Trump’s discriminatory ban is ultimately self-defeating from a counterterrorism perspective. Most disrupted terrorist plots on US soil have come as a result of intelligence shared by countries on the ban list. Such anti-Muslim sentiment will only lessen the willingness of foreign intelligence agencies to share critical intelligence with the US.
Is his presidency the outcome of right-wing extremists’ anti-Muslim bigotry?
CJ Werleman:I wouldn’t attribute Trump’s election victory solely on anti-Muslim bigotry, but it certainly played a part in mobilizing and energizing the worst elements in American society. But Trump not only demonized Muslims but also immigrants, Mexicans, women, and other groups. Islamophobia, however, has been one of Trump’s reliable go-to applause lines.
I think everyone who watches Trump from a civil rights or human rights perspective is measurably concerned with what his administration will do the day after the next major or catastrophic ISIS or al Qaeda led terrorist attack occurs. I mean, we’ve already seen pundits on the far right urge for Muslim civilian internment camps. So no doubt we are at a very dangerous tipping point at this point in time.
CJ Werleman is a journalist and senior columnist for Middle East Eye. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman