Criminal prosecution misguided approach in curbing Western-ISIS relations, says Norwegian academic

A chat with  Lars Gule, extremism and Islam researcher at Oslo and Akershus University College.

Widely held expectations that the Arab Spring would cause profound modernization in the Middle East and North Africa failed to materialize. Instead, the dramatic changes in the region have attracted thousands of Muslims from secular democracies to Islamic fundamentalism. In Norway, Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) estimates that at least 60 Muslims have joined forces with the Sunni extremist group Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

“The war in Syria has prompted an awakening for some alienated Norwegian Muslims and caused them to reconsider their own place in the world,” said Lars Gule, who shared his thoughts on ensuing fundamentalism within certain Sunni-Muslim communities in Norway.

Throughout the Western world young and malcontent Muslim men and women have left their sheltered homes to fight with Islamist militant groups in the Middle East, with as many as 2500 Westerners currently involved in combat in Iraq and Syria. Of the 60 Norwegian Muslims who have joined ISIS, authorities say 20 have returned to Norway, 10 have died in battle, and 30 remain active ISIS members.

Most of these Norwegian voyagers have been affiliated with the group Prophet’s Ummah, a small Islamic sect who emphasizes Sharia laws in Norway.

Prophet’s Ummah operates in a similar fashion as other Islamic groups in Europe; their engagement in expansive network activities is demonstrated by visits by radical figures from other countries and who lecture in Norway. Members of the group have close connections to the British hate preacher Anjem Choudary, one of the most controversial Islamist in Europe. Choudary, the founder of Sharia4UK, is notorious for establishing extreme Islamist associations around Europe.

“I know people in The Prophet’s Ummah, especially Ubaydullah Hussain, he is a good friend of mine. He has visited England and I have visited Norway,” Choudry told Norwegian tabloid VG of his links to Norwegian Islamists.

Ubaydullah Hussain, who is the spokesperson of Prophet Ummah, recently sparked public controversy in Norway when he voiced support for ISIS’s beheadings of the group’s rivals, in a VG interview.

Hussain was recently tried in Oslo on charges of inciting terrorism, after using social media to hail global terrorist attacks. The Norwegian court ruled that his statements fell under freedom of expressions and acquitted him earlier this month of the charges.

Meanwhile, PST has declared the need for legislation that more broadly define terrorist incitement, as part of an effort to curb extremism. In its most recent annual Threat Assessment Report, The security agency deemed Extreme Islamism to be the biggest security threat facing Norway, partly due to the potential risk of Muslims returning to Norway after receiving ideological and military training in Syria and Iraq.

Social media is the central platform for youth to become familiarized with the fundamentalism promoted by Prophet’s Ummah and like-minded groups, as well as an effective tool for radicals to keep in touch globally. ISIS actively promotes its jihadist cause – and foster Western relations – on platform such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Norway’s comparatively low economic and social inequality, generous public welfare services and sound performance on global measurements on ethnic integration suggest few clear reasons for Norwegian Muslims to be absorbed by extremist ideology.

Ability to comprehend Islamic extremism’s appeal for certain vulnerable Muslims is nonetheless crucial in order to prevent people from descending into totalitarian anger, and thus potentially joining ISIS, according to Gule of Oslo and Akershus University College.

“The many complex reasons why people join extreme Islamic communities vary from person to person. There are some general trends, and what we observe is a feeling of alienation and an experience of being discriminated,” Gule said. “Some in the Islamic community are marginalized in Norwegian society. They could be school dropouts and unemployed. Joining ISIS is in fact a form of youth rebellion for some, as many of the voyagers are in their late teens or early twenties.”

Norwegian authorities have launched several measures to sway at-risk Muslim youth away from extremism, including official dialogues and close surveillance. Moreover, following substantial media coverage of Norwegian Islamic communities’ ties to ISIS, Norway’s conservative minority coalition government has talked of introducing legislation to criminalize alignment with militant Islamic groups.

Gule cautions that the threat of Islamic extremism cannot be ended legislatively.

“Experiences from other countries suggest that criminal prosecution of people who join ISIS is counterproductive. Public measures aimed at more ethnic inclusiveness, such as employment assistance, as well as rehabilitation for Norwegian Muslim who are returning from Syria and Iraq with traumas could be far more efficient than legal punishment,” said Gule.

Norwegian authorities’ inclination to impose stricter rules on Islamic foreign fighters is nonetheless in accordance with measures proposed by several other European governments in their reactions to similar challenges from parts of their Muslim minority communities.

Stricter laws do not address the heart of the problem, according to Gule, which is the experience of second-class citizens related to their Islamic identity.

“Clearly they are looking for meaning. A sense of exclusion makes it easy to seize the authoritarian answers, as we have seen countless times throughout history.”

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