It seems unlikely that ideas that have powered physics can also help us understand radical Islam. But let us not forget that the emergence of the so-called Islamic State has necessitated an urgent need for new ideas.
Conventional wisdom on the radicalization phenomenon articulated by social scientist Omer Taspinar holds that the “root causes of terrorism and violent radicalism are extremely complex, multifaceted, and often intertwined. They resist simplification and easy categorization.”
However, physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg has argued in his book Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature that the underlying “simplicity and rigidity” in an explanation of a phenomenon is “a means to the end of finding scientific explanations and judging their validity.”
Indeed, unlike other religions, violence conducted in the name of Islam is not only far more prevalent, but it transcends ethno-cultural, linguistic, geographic and income boundaries. This observation and the time-tested physics insight favor a simple theme as the root cause, based on religion that many people understand and identify with.
The defining trend of the past centuries is the worldwide embrace of modernity and the socioeconomic advancement brought by science. Religious ideologues felt threatened by this new influence, because science not only contests their worldview, but it also offers a credible alternative.
Unlike most non-Muslim communities, starting about 40 years ago, many Muslim communities saw this trend reverse, with regressive Islamism increasingly taking the place of modernity. Manifestations of this Islamism trend range from growing of facial hair to the preference of sharia law over modern secular law.
The trend change is mainly due to Wahhabi ideologues and others pushing the simple theme that Muslims would be true to their religion, if they follow sharia, compellingly portrayed as an all-encompassing “divine law.”
Sharia laws as an interpretation of Islam -readily accessible via clerics or religious scholars – vary widely and in general, reflect the cultural norms of the Arab tribes of a bygone era because typical ideologues graduate from religious schools that adhere to centuries-old syllabuses.
The discovery of oil largesse in the Middle East enabled sharia’s worldwide embrace. Although the regressive world view advanced by sharia narratives discourages wealth creation, the largesse did more than just sustain sharia-governed Saudi Arabia’s economy. In fact, thanks to this wealth, since the 1970s, the country – the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holy mosques – exported worldwide sharia and armed jihad emphasizing Wahhabism, an intolerant and conservative form of Islam.
Apparently, this sharia push has been a huge success. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center report (The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society), in 17 out of 23 nations, the majority of the Muslims surveyed considered sharia to be the “revealed word of God” and in 25 out of 38 nations, the majority favored making it the law of the land. Among those who favored doing so, in 10 out of 20 nations, the majority supported the corporal punishment of cutting off the hands of thieves, similar to what Saudi Arabia enforces under its sharia laws.
It’s no wonder then that militant groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, that purportedly wage armed jihad to impose sharia as the law of the land, have little trouble finding sponsors and recruits.
To be clear, in communities where sharia is popular, modernity and secularism retreat because conditions favor those who overemphasize religious education, push sharia as a counter-narrative to modernity and advocate regressive religion-based ideas, including armed jihad. This point is exemplified in the contrasting support levels for sharia in Turkey and Pakistan, Muslim-majority nations at the opposite ends of Islamist militancy and socioeconomic stagnation spectra.
In an effort to combat what the White House has deemed “Violent Extremism,” President Obama has called on Muslims to “consistently reject the ideology of [militant] organizations.” But he has made no mention of sharia. However, by acknowledging sharia’s role in the radicalization process, the West could finally start managing the threat it understands.
As in physics, simple explanations may hold the key to understanding emerging global phenomenon such as radical Islam.
(The author is a physicist and a scholar of radicalism)