A major academic study has shown that many jihadists and other radical Islamists have a deep understanding of Islamic theology. The study, published at the beginning of August, comprehensively refutes the claims made by many politicians and other public figures in the West that radical Islam is a perversion of Islam and jihadists have little knowledge of Islamic theology.
The 310-page study, conducted by Ednan Aslan, who is professor of Islamic religious education at the University of Vienna, was based on 29 in-depth interviews with radical Muslims in Austria. Most of those studied already had a grounding in Islamic belief before they were radicalised. However, what Professor Aslan terms “the intensive examination of theological topics” represented a turning point for many in their radicalisation. Professor Aslan’s study also highlighted the central role played by some Islamic theological teachers in radicalisation, stating, “persons with a higher theological knowledge function as authorities and play a central role in the spread of ideology.”
It is really important that Western governments wake up and take notice of such research. Until they recognise that the persecution of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere is driven by some long-standing interpretations of Islamic theology, it is unlikely that they will be able to address the problem effectively.
In fact, when Western recruits join jihadi groups such as Islamic State, one of the first things that happens to them is that they are taught Islamic theology, which includes how non-Muslims are to be treated. There is a major theological debate going on at the moment within Islamic State as to how non-Muslims and apostates should be defined.
These are not new debates; they represent a stream of Islamic theology that has existed for centuries. Groups such as Islamic State frequently quote from medieval Islamic theologians such as ibn Taymiyya (d.1328 AD), who took a particularly harsh approach towards Christians.
Of course, it is true that some jihadists simply “jump on the bandwagon” with little initial knowledge of Islamic theology. But - and this is why Aslan’s study is so important - Western governments must grasp the fact that the jihadists’ persecution of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities is primarily driven by interpretations of Islamic theology that go back centuries.