I was recently (Jan.2016) talking with a friend of mine on a wide range of issues. We had moved onto a discussion of Islam in light of the recent (Jan 1st 2016) mass sexual attacks in Cologne and (as we subsequently found out) other German cities.
My friend said “the Islamic extremists are just a tiny minority of course.”
My reply, made without much thought, was “I don't believe that.”
Having had time to think about that I would now say that we were both right, because it depends on what you mean by “Islamic extremist” and a “tiny minority”.
Without definitions of those terms to give a common frame of reference any discussion becomes pointless.
So my intent is to present evidence and data on these points.
I'm going to take the second term first.
We now know (late Jan 2016) that across Germany over 1000 (one thousand) women were sexually assaulted in ways ranging from groping up to gang-rape on New Year's eve.
Germany's current population is about 82.2 millions (taking 2014 census data and extrapolating). Of these ~41 millions will be women.
Taking these round figures, this means that a “mere” 0.002% of Germany's female population were assaulted that night.
This is clearly a “tiny minority”, yet it is one that has had a large impact and were I to dismiss this mass sexual assault in such terms I can only imagine the opprobrium that would, rightly, be heaped upon me.
The result of these attacks has been a substantial shift in Germany's view of refugees/migrants from a generally positive view to one much more sceptical at best and hostile at worst.
Looking at this in terms of the migrants who were blamed for the attacks: the number of “refugees/migrants” involved was in the thousands (probably less than 2000 all told across Germany) out of 1.1 million “refugees/migrants” arriving in Germany in 2015, to put what happened in the worst light from the refugees' perspective.
Thus less than 0.2% of a population has fundamentally affected public perception (rightly or wrongly).
Prof. Sharma wrote an interesting article in 2006 in which he notes the following:
“In 1917, less than 3% of Russians were Communists [who] quickly came to oppress the entire nation - murdering 30 million Russians in the process. In 1924, less than 3% of Germans were Nazis [and]that 3% came to oppress the entire nation and led the world into a war that killed 50 million people.”
The point being that a “tiny minorities” can have major, even world-wide, impacts. Small numbers of people in percentage terms can greatly affect large populations in ways ranging from altering perceptions and opinions to cowing and gaining collaboration from many for the aims of the minority (very few Germans in percentage terms actively opposed the Nazis for example).
In these examples we can see that “tiny minorities” can wield a power completely out of order with their numbers.
Thus we should not dismiss the power of tiny minorities to influence both their own and other societies.
Thus the “tiny minority” part of the argument is largely a red herring, it actually “proves” nothing.
Further, as we shall see, when referring to a population of ~1.5 billion even a tiny minority can be a large absolute number.
In this there are two related questions: who are they and how many are they.
Who are the extremists?
Islamic terrorists are extremists – at least most of the time (see below) – on this most people would agree.
But what of others?
What of the hate-preachers who preach the ideology but are not personally violent in their conduct?
Or the Madrassah teachers who do the same?
How about those who provide succour and sanctuary to the Jihadists?
Or those who, through payment of Zakat (the Muslim “charity-tax”), support Jihadis financially? (To be fair some probably do so unknowingly, Muslim 'charities' that support Jihadists are not known for their transparency.)
What of those who ignore the presence of hate-preachers in their Mosques?
Or those mosques and communities whose ideology whilst not directly “Jihadist” sets the milieu for “radicalisation”?
A Spectator report (June 2014) found that “only two out of 1,700 mosques in Britain follow modernist interpretations of the Koran”. According to that report, UK mosques are 6% Wahhabi/Salafi and 45% Deobandi (an understanding similar to the Taliban of Afghanistan). The report's author concludes that “Illiberal Islam is thoroughly British these days”.
The “Afpak” Taliban grew out of Deobandi Islam and like Wahhabist/Salafist doctrine has been linked to terror groups, thus in my view such groups should be called “extremist” as per the definition below.
Clarion project says:
“Islamic extremism is driven by an interpretation of Islam that believes that Islamic law, or sharia, is an all-encompassing religious-political system. Since it is believed to be proscribed by Allah ... sharia must be enforced in the public sphere by a global Islamic state. As such, Islamic extremists consider it to be the only truly legitimate form of governance and reject democracy and human rights values. Thus, the ultimate objective of Islamic extremists is the merger of “mosque and state” under sharia law. Those who favour such an approach are called Islamists. Their ideology is called Islamism … Related terms for Islamic extremism include radical Islam.”
“Islamic extremists believe they are obligated to install [Sharia] governance in Muslim-majority territories, countries and, eventually, the entire world. In the minds of Islamic extremists, they are promoting justice and freedom by instituting sharia.
Islamic extremists have intermediate political goals which they believe will pave the way for the global implementation of sharia. One of these goals is the removal of non-Muslim military forces from Muslim lands and the overthrow of “enemy” [i.e. 'un-Islamic'] regimes.
Acts of Islamic extremism includes terrorism, human rights abuses, the advancement of sharia-based governance, bigotry towards non-Muslims and rival Muslims and overall hostility to the West and, in particular, Western democracy.
Not all Islamic extremists carry out violent acts. Islamic extremists can advance their goals using non-violent tactics such as activism, developing interfaith coalitions with unsuspecting non-Muslims, fundraising, building political influence and the overall spreading of the ideology. These extremists follow a doctrine called gradualism. The largest Islamic extremist group to use this method is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamic terrorists, on the other hand, use violence and terrorism to instil fear and to gain political power in order to establish their goals.
Note that “gradualists” and terrorists agree on the strategic goal, a global Caliphate, but disagree on tactics, violent (terror) or non-violent means.
Another way of viewing this is to say that such “extremist” Muslims hold to an ideology of Islamic supremacy in which Muslims have a “destiny” to rule the world and towards the realisation of which they must work.
Hamas and al-Qaeda are both offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood formed by people who grew tired of gradualist tactics and thought that they could “short-circuit” the process by violence. Whilst al-Qaeda in particular failed, it did cause changes in the world that advanced Islam, thus even the “gradualists” will acknowledge that violence plays a part.
In this view, then, Muslim “extremists” would be those Muslims who share the goal of a global Caliphate (and thus the ideology of Islamic supremacy), whether they espouse violence or not.
Not everybody would agree with Clarion of course and the definition of “extremist” is clearly malleable.
Some years ago the Taliban were considered to be “beyond the pail” extremists, later western opinion makers suggested talking to the “moderate Taliban”. Need I say that there is, in reality, no such thing? What was meant was “less violent Taliban” or those willing to wait for Western withdrawal before seeking to reclaim power. All strands of “extremist” Muslim regard the capture of individual Countries as a step towards a global Caliphate and no group of Taliban ever relinquished their ambition for power in Afghanistan.
Next in line was al-Qaeda, but they were later overtaken by the latest “extremists”, ISIS/ISIL/DAESh.
At what point will a new “extremist” group emerge, so violent as to make ISIS look “moderate”?
Moving away from the overtly violent: The Muslim brotherhood has been designated a terrorist or terrorist supporting group by several Countries and operates a wide range of front organisations throughout the world. By it's own admission it seeks the overthrow of Western governments and their replacement with Sharia run Caliphate, yet USA President Obama declared Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood member president Mohammed Morsi a “moderate”. It should be noted that Morsi's presidency was a time of previously unprecedented persecution of the Coptic minority in Egypt and that he greatly advanced Sharia law within Egypt.
Thus if we restrict the definition of “Islamic extremist” and it's various synonyms to mean just the latest and greatest violent manifestation of Islamic terrorism we do ourselves a major disservice in that we fail to recognise that Islamic “extremism” casts a far wider net.
I also think that the very term “extremist” and the multiplicity of terms used to mean the same rather amorphous 'definition' is misplaced from the start.
Setting aside Shia “extremists”, Shias make up ~10% of the entire world-wide Muslim population, and Shia “extremism” has rather different goals and methodology, much Sunni “extremist” teaching is based on Salafist teachings.
The “salaf” were the “pious predecessors”, that is Muslims from the first three generations and as such comprised Muhammad's companions (the Sahabah), the second generation (the Tabi‘un) and the third generation (the Tabi‘ al-Tabi‘in) of followers.
Since these are the “most pious” of the Muslims, the modern-day Salafists aim to emulate the behaviour and attitudes of the Salaf and (of course) Mohammed. As such they are not “extremists” but radicals – in the sense that their teaching goes “to the root” or origin of Islam. We could also term them fundamentalists, for much the same reason.
In legal matters, Salafis are divided between those who exercise independent legal judgement (ijtihad) and those who adhere to to any one of the four Sunni schools of law (madhahib).
As well as the Salafis there are other very conservative groups within Islam. All of these, including the Salafis of both “branches”, draw strongly on the Sunnah – the traditions of 'prophet' Mohammed and the biographies of his life.
This also makes them “traditional” Muslims.
Given that the words “extremist”, “radical”, “fundamentalist” etc. have been applied rather loosely and inappropriately to various Muslim groups, sometimes with the aim of obfuscating the truth, I prefer the term “orthodox Muslims” to describe those who subscribe to the supremacist ideology and which will thus incorporate those who are violent Jihadists as well.
That rather begs the question as to what turns an orthodox Muslim into a violent Jihadist or an overt supporter of violent jihad.
In August 2007 the NYPD produced a report called “Radicalization in the West: the homegrown threat” which rapidly disappeared from their website following intervention by CAIR and other US Muslim groups.
In it the authors studied a number of terrorist attacks with the intent of identifying any patterns, not with the attacks, but with the perpetrators.
They found that there were four stages common to the attacks they studied. These were “pre-radicalisation”, self-identification, indoctrination and what they termed “jihadization”.
The “pre-radicalisation” stage states that the environment (or milieu) in which young Muslims are raised is important in determining how orthodox they are.
Put simply, if Muslims are largely growing up within Muslim enclaves then the risk of “radicalisation” is greater than if the Muslim population is dispersed and diffuse. The problem here is that Islam teaches segregation, thus self-ghettoisation is the norm when possible. It therefore follows that as the Muslim population grows, the sub-population of young Muslims “sensitised” to Jihad will increase as a percentage of the total.
Self-identification as a Muslim (rather than an American, Brit etc.) and indoctrination are the logical consequences of being exposed to Salafist or traditional doctrine and thus mosques espousing such teaching act as “incubators” in these stages.
The final step, “Jihadization”, according to the report, takes place outside the mosque because the mosque whilst espousing orthodox Theology is “gradualist” in nature either for ideological or practical reasons.
This is where ISIS recruiters, for example, come into play as does greater use of social media. But a point to note is that before this stage the budding Jihadist will have “popped up” on social media etc., thus identifying themselves to the recruiters.
In my view the difference between a non-violent orthodox Muslim and a Jihadist is simply this last step in the pathway.
I should note that “jihad” is here being used (by the report writers for example) as a short-hand for sword-jihad (“jihad bis saif”) and is but one of four categories in but one system of classification used by in Islamic exegesis for jihad. But since we are discussing Islamic terror it is the sword-jihad aspect of jihad that is relevant.
This step has recently become much easier, theologically speaking, with the advent of ISIS. Prior to ISIS Islamic terror organisations had to cast their jihadi actions as “defensive” in nature, no matter how ridiculous the excuse, otherwise their actions would have been unlawful (“haram”) in Sharia. According to Sharia only a Caliph has the right to call for offensive Jihad, thus since there is now a “Caliph”, the orthodox Muslim who is drawn to the step of Jihadism has no theological bar to taking that step.
I would also add that there is, in my opinion, another mechanism that can get a Muslim to being indoctrinated and that is simply reading the Koran in a language they understand.
Doing so will show the the need to follow a “pure” Islam and also the centrality of jihad; how it is the most “holy” thing a Mussalman can do and is part of the war covenant between Allah and Muslims (also here, here). This will then drive the Muslim to seek out such a “pure” - by which many will understand “literalistic” – interpretation of the Koran, backed up by appeal to the most “noble” of the Muslims, as exemplars of “correct” behaviour, and the traditions of Islam; thus again we arrive at Salafism or something very similar, either by “self-radicalised” or by gravitation to such teaching, which can be found online as well as in mosques – 51% of them in the U.K.
I prefer to call the “extremists” (as defined above) orthodox Muslims.
Some writers use the term “Islamist” to describe this group, but again it is a term that has suffered both from abuse and a lack of (consistent) definition.
If “Islamist” were taken to mean “those that take Islam's teachings seriously” then it would be (virtually) synonymous with my “orthodox Muslim”.
To answer the “who” directly in the terms given: Islamic “extremists” aka orthodox Muslims are those who seek a global Caliphate by any means whatsoever.
How many “extremists” i.e. orthodox Muslims and Jihadists?
Although I count active Jihadists as being part of orthodox Islam, in this section I derive figures for each separately, although it should still be understood that the values for orthodox Muslims includes those for active jihadists.
According to Brigitte Gabriel “The radicals are estimated to be between 15 to 25 percent, according to all intelligence services around the world [so] you're looking at 180 million to 300 million people” a not-so-tiny minority.
Put another way, Gabriel's figures imply that 30-50% of Muslims are orthodox Muslims, which is not hard to accept since it says that about half of all Muslims are not really sincere about Islam, which I suspect is too many insincere Muslims!
Angel Rabasa, wrote that Western European intelligence agencies estimated that less than one percent of the Muslim population living within their borders are at risk of becoming “radicals”, that's 1% of 45 millions (updated figure) or 450,000 potential “radicals”. Rabasa says that a "radical" Muslim could also be an individual who belongs to an Islamist organization that is advocating for a Sharia legal system, but does not embrace violence to bring this to fruition. Rabasa's figures would include “radicalised” women as well as men. In my terms he's speaking of orthodox Muslims.
Let me note that a “Sharia legal system” would imply a Caliphate, since this is the lawful system of governance under Sharia.
At this stage let me state that “radical” Muslims don't necessarily become violent Muslims and that the two figures above are not necessarily contradictory; Europe's 45 million Muslims out of 1.5 billions is only 3% of the world-wide Muslim population, a tiny minority in it's own right, and Gabriel's figure is for Muslims world-wide whereas Rabasa's are solely for Europe.
One way of determining the number of orthodox Muslims is to consider the results of elections in various Muslim-majority countries in terms of those voting for “radical/ extremist/ fundamentalist/ Islamist” parties. Admittedly that introduces another variable – how do we define such parties? - but it's one way that makes sense and, importantly, for which there is hard data.
Prof. Sharma supplies some:
“Hamas received 65% of the popular vote...the somewhat secular Fatah, at least by comparison to Hamas, won only 30% of the votes.
Turkey's president , Ahmet Necdet Sezar, is a fundamentalist Muslim. Turkey's parliament, which selected him by a 70% majority, is formed as a result of a popular mandate...
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, earned 62% of the popular vote. The most moderate Islamic challenger garnered less than 20% support.
individuals who belonged to clerical parties like the Islamic Revolution in Iraq founded by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, won 65% of the seats in the new parliament.”
Mohammed Morsi, a self-confessed Islamist, won the Egyptian presidential election 24 June 2012 with 51.73% of the vote.
Assuming that all the above are what I would term either orthodox or sub-set Jihadist parties: taking the median, 60%, this could mean that of 1.5 billion Muslims some 900 millions hold orthodox views on the basis that that is the median percentage that votes for “Islamist” parties.
A 2013 Pew poll on Muslim attitudes to Sharia in 38 Countries/regions with Muslim majorities showed that anywhere between 8 and 99% of Muslims polled wanted Sharia as the “law of the land” with between 19-74% (21 Countries) saying it should apply to non-Muslims as well. Without compensating for population size (and so under-representing the total numbers, I know that though I've not quantified it) this gives 40% average approval for Sharia to apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike, i.e. 40% of Muslims want a supremacist legal system that is discriminates extensively against non-Muslims.
If we take this as the measure of orthodoxy than we have 600 million orthodox Muslims.
The BBC reported in September 2014 that the top European Union counter-terrorism official estimated that “roughly” 3,000 Europeans had gone to fight in Syria. Since then the U.K. government has doubled the number of British ISIS fighters from 500 to >1000 and other estimates place the number including “jihadi brides” at >2000.
That means that at least 3,000 Europeans have gone to fight for ISIS. I should note that this is more than the estimates for active fighters because (A) some have returned to Europe and the U.K. and (B) others have been killed.
Taking Rabasa's figure for the European pool of potential radicals, 450,000 of both sexes, this tells us that 1.33% of males are espousing violence “in the way of Allah” and this neglects those who are involved in terror plots in the U.K. and Europe, in short the value is an under-estimate.
Prof. Sharma estimates (article linked above & without presenting evidence) that 1% of “extremist” Muslims take the final step from “extremist” - i.e. orthodox - ideology to actively participating in Jihad violence, which is not that different from the figure derived above.
~95% of all Jihadi violence is carried out by Muslim males in the age range 15-30. According to demographics this accounts for 50% of the male Muslim population. Put another way this demographic represents 25% of all Muslims alive on the planet, that is a “pool” of potential jihadists of ~375 millions.
It therefore follows that by Sharma's metric 3.75 million, or by mine 4.98 million, Muslims world-wide are violent jihadists, or at least quite willing and prepared to commit violence “in the way of Allah”.
As a comparison only six Countries in the world (North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, China, India and Russia) have larger total military forces than the lower estimate.
From the polling data, rather than population data, it would seem that there is a “pool” of between 600 and 900 million Muslims from whom active and violent Jihadists can be drawn. Given that this pool is of both sexes, it means that the number of potential jihadists (males, 15-30) is actually between 150 and 225 millions, roughly 10-15% of the world-wide Muslim population.
From the metrics above it follows that the active Jihadists number between 1.50 and 2.99 millions. Let's assume the lowest of the figures: 1.50 millions since this relies on the polling data.
Is this in any way a reasonable estimate?
John J. McGrath wrote the paper “The other end of the spear: the tooth-to-tail ratio in modern military operations” as part of which he gives an historical overview of the changing percentage of an army that can be committed to combat varied over time from the world wars (50%) to modern hi-tech conflicts (25%). I have rounded these figures for simplicity.
Islamic terrorists are not particularly “hi-tech” in today's terms, thus it would seem that the better equivalence would be to WW1-2 ratios.
That said, in the case of the “Islamic state in Iraq and Syria” which is trying to be a state, the ratio is likely to be nearer to modern values (25%) due to fact that they must largely supply their own logistics (for example) rather than rely on a sympathetic population or state.
Data that tells us that ISIL's fighting strength is ~30,000 which by McGrath's metric implies it has a total strength of 120,000 for this one Islamic terror organisation.
ISIL is not the only large-scale Islamic Terror organisation.
In Somalia, Al Shabaab has lost some of its strength, but the Islamist group still fields about 5,000 well-trained, experienced and equipped militants. Thus their total strength is probably of the order of 10,000.
Boko Haram has a core strength of 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, this suggests a total strength of ~15,000 for Boko Haram.
The Taliban affiliated Haqqani Network, part of the Afpak Taliban (more or less) claims a fighting force of 10,000, which suggests a total strength of ~20,000.
The Taliban itself is estimated (2014) at 60,000 in total.
According to some reports Hamas is around 40,000 strong in total, 2015 figure.
Lashkar-E-Taiba has access to 50,000 in the membership of it's parent organisation Jama'at-ud-Da'wah.
There are about 50 other Islamic terror organisations with sizes in the order of 100-1000+ fighters as well as numerous others too small to reliably count, making another (estimated) 100,000 active Jihadists world-wide.
Adding this up we get nearly 300,000 active Jihadists. Note that this figure largely neglects the generality of their supporters, instead it reflects the size of the organisations needed to field the reported number of Jihadists.
The data suggests that the number of active male Jihadists is >300,000.
This is a “tiny minority” in that 300,000 represents 0.08% of the “Jihadi” age demographic population, but we've already seen that “tiny minorities” can have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. We only have to think how air-travel has changed since 9/11, for example, or how much more “security” there has to be around important public and governmental buildings.
The impact of this “tiny minority” is clear.
But we should also remember that depending on how we count such figures the number of jihadist supporters, by which I mean those ready and willing to kill or at least give direct support to those who do, could be as high as 5 million. As an absolute number this is far from insignificant.
As a comparison it is a larger population than the world's fifty (50) smallest Countries, almost one quarter of all the states listed by the UN.
Behind them are anywhere in the range of 600-900 million Muslims of both sexes, 40-60% of the world-wide Muslim population, who are sympathetic to their goals and who will range in attitudes from those who will offer overt, but non-violent, support to those who will merely turn a “blind eye” to such doctrine and indoctrination - and that is not a tiny minority at all.
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