Understanding the causes of violence in the name of Islam

An Interview with Professor Amr Abdalla

A contribution to the 2018 GVI series on “Innovations in Peace”


While the West has a hawkish approach to eliminating extremism in the name of Islam, renowned conflict resolution expert Amr Abdalla thinks this genie can be put back in the bottle only by understanding the causes of the issue.

In an interview with the Global Vision Institute, the Egyptian-born scholar asserts that while security measures are necessary for safety, characterising Muslims involved in religious extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam as evil, with no or little effort to understand their motives, is counter-productive.

“If you want to resolve an issue like this, you must understand where someone doing this is coming from. A person who wakes up in the morning, puts an explosives belt around his waist, goes to a civilian location and blows up himself and kills so many people in the process, thinks he is doing the right thing. How can this be?”

“And for me, this is something to understand: How come this person thinks that he is doing the right thing when he knew that he will be walking into death and in the process killing other people. So, if I want to resolve this issue or do something to prevent it, I must get into the hearts and minds of these people and see how did they reach that logic and how I can undo that logic.”

For him, the core value is that one must understand the person involved in extremism. Simply demonizing violent extremists has negative ramifications, for it gives the other party an impression that their action is a legitimate form of self-defense. But, he says, the more this is done, the more we continue the vicious cycle of violence.

“These are my personal core values I have embraced during the last 30 or 40 years: Peaceful co-existence and non-judgmental approaches.”

Abdalla holds a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and was also a former public prosecutor who dealt with militants of Islamic Jihad in Egypt involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat.  He feels that extra-legal measures used during interrogation create more animosity among the militants.  He also blames the media and movie industry for creating this evil image of Islam and Muslims, often demonizing the people and sensationalizing the issue because this will make people view them as a ‘terrible enemy’ that has to be destroyed, he said, adding “this is the worst thing to do in any conflict.”

“When we do not try to understand the other (person) and instead demonize and dehumanize him/her, especially when the act as horrific as terrorism and violence, it becomes easier for the media to sensationalize the whole thing and to make it easy to see our enemy as a really bad person.”

 “And one way to do this is to portray their values, their beliefs in a weird, very strange manner. When we say we went in and bombed that place to the stone age, people think they are getting rid of an evil. Then there are actors in the  international arena who also have an interest in keeping an image of Islam that is consistent with orientalism of the last 200 or 300 years, the East in general, and especially in the Middle East, that Islam is something bad or terrible, something you don’t want to associate with, and the way to become civil is to walk away from all religion, especially from Islam, and to a more secular way of understanding the world around us.”

The complexity of extremism and terrorism

Explaining the complexity of extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam, he suggest that people who want to fight in the name of Islam are often well-educated and sometimes even affluent, like Osama bin Laden. People do not engage in extremism in the name of Islam specifically owing to their own poverty, unemployment or illiteracy. Instead, they do it out of conviction that they are doing the right thing.

“We have to tell this to the media and we have to do this carefully. I am not saying that we are bad people and they (the terrorists) are the good ones. I am saying we must know in a conflict from where the other person is coming from so we can defeat them. You cannot defeat them only by demonizing them. As a matter of fact, this is creating more enemies for us.”

The former Professor and Vice-Rector of the University for Peace is apprehensive that the menace of violent extremist will not end unless the psyche of the people involved is understood. In this regard, Abdalla recalls that the traditional ‘Muslim story’ and broad teachings at home, in school, and community, often focus on a rich cultural heritage shared from generation to generation incorporating self-sacrifice, courage, solidarity, love and compassion, justice and equality, based on a sincere desire that by exhibiting the above they become a ‘good Muslim’. These stories are compelling and inspiring to people. Simultaneously, many of these individuals begin to look around and are made aware of the deep injustices and inequalities that exist.

“They say we have an enemy who is stopping us from regenerating or reinventing our greatness as Muslims and we have to fight that enemy because the enemy is already fighting us. That enemy is usually the puppet regimes as they see in the Arab and Muslim world and the superpowers that exists now. They say the superpowers and their puppet regimes are fighting Islam and we have to fight back. For me it is a combination of that historical, religious, cultural story and current affairs in the world and the two come as a perfect excuse to justify violence. They don’t see it as violence. They see it as a just war or just form of self-defense. When you bring religious logic to it, then it becomes a duty of a good Muslim to fight that battle. If you are not fighting, then you are not a good Muslim. If you fight and even die, you get the jackpot, you become a martyr and go to paradise.”

Abdalla, who teaches and conducts training, research and evaluation in conflict resolution, says the idea of reviving political Islam is unconvincing, but at the same time, demonizing Islamic groups has created a new dynamic which is creating a hostile international environment instead of peace and harmony.

“In my own opinion, anyone trying to promote revival of political Islam (as compared to civilizational Islam) is really out of touch with reality today and does not have an honest understanding of history. At the same time, when I see the media in Arab countries demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups vouching for political Islam, they are just adding fuel to the fire.”

“And on top of it, you have the Western media and its typical approach. What is adding to the problem is the ease of access to social media and technology. This, on an operational level, is allowing some of those extremist groups to recruit and it is also adding to the proliferation of the media against them, which infuriates them.”

Consistent trends

It was during his innovative training course on Islamic methods and techniques related to conflict resolution, targeting relief workers preparing to work in Afghanistan that Abdalla learnt how violent extremism, radicalization and terrorism in the name of Islam spread across the Muslim world. In his view, it was the support to Islamic groups from Saudi Arabia and the Arab world with the backing of the US that helped what he calls the ‘internationalization of Islamic jihad.’

“I found that there are consistent trends and consistent logic that is used, whether you are a violent extremist in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, or Egypt. There is a common trend. So, the shift in my thinking about violent extremism in the name of Islam was to realise that there are common trends that we need to be aware of .”

“It also made me realize that while military and security options are valid to protect civilians and to circumvent and stop violent extremism, it also comes at a cost when it is not done properly. The collateral damage among the civilians becomes one of the biggest factors in infuriating people and that becomes one of the reasons for violent extremism. When people get killed in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’ it is difficult at that point to convince them, for when bystanders see their women and children are being killed, they fight back.”

He believes that poverty, bad governance, low literacy, and unemployment, are some of the so-called ‘push factors’ for motivating extremism, as cited in the academic literature. Radicalization is thus viewed as the gateway to violent extremism. But why some Muslims become violent because of the above mentioned ‘push factors’ compared to other marginalized communities is a big question even for Abdalla that remains unanswered.

“I believe these ‘push factors’ can make someone angry and frustrated with the system. But then it doesn’t explain why one who is frustrated does not become a communist, an anarchist or a thief. I am sure many of them become that. But what is it in Islam that makes them think that the answer to their grievances is in Islam, and that Islam requires violence. And this is the question for me which is not answered by the whole equation of push and pull factors. I found that equation to be consistent in the whole Muslim world and therefore we need to work on that equation and find a way to counter it.”

Curbing the trend

 For curbing this trend, Abdalla suggests catching these elements before they go through this radical shift.

“For me, this is really the key, and as you can see that such an approach will not start from the assumption that those people are a bunch of crazy and evil people. But it is going to start from the assumption that according to them they are good, responsible people who are trying hard to become as best Muslim as they can be. So, catch them before they go on this slippery slope.”

“We should not try to convince them that grievances are only in their mind and there is no injustice. There are real problems, real grievances. Part of that equation is not to dismiss those grievances. But we should try to convince them that being a good Muslim is to fight injustices in a peaceful manner, not violently. Former Jihadists who had once fought back violently and now have moved out of the doctrine of violence, are trying to fight nonviolently and  peacefully. They set a great example for us and we can seek their knowledge, experience and wisdom to help us to take preventive approaches.”

Abdalla stresses that to prevent violent extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam, engaging de-radicalized people who had once been violent extremists, can be a great motivating factor. The world community, instead of adopting a military approach, should seek advice from these de-radicalized individuals.

“There are some leaders of violent groups who have repented and have come out of that mode of thinking. They discovered in Islam the proper teachings of non-violence and a peaceful approach to conflict. Such people can play a major role in explaining because they know best what made them violent and what made them move out of it.”

“It is not only about Muslim violent extremism. I did a project, a workshop, in Ethiopia two years ago where we brought youths from Africa and Europe to address violent extremism. It included a Muslim who once was a leader of Islamic Jihad in the 1980s and now is a great proponent of peace, and his counterpart who was once a Swedish white supremacist violent extremist and now embraces inclusion and peaceful coexistence with all. Responsible media needs to make efforts to help us understand these people, to give us ideas on how to deal with their thinking and their approaches in an effective way.”

Although there is some research done and there are documentaries, his observation is that the mainstream media still doesn’t run such campaigns. Abdalla, who also is involved in inter-faith dialogue in the US, noted:

“Those (de-radicalized) people have credibility to some extent. Some people see them as a sell out or think they are co-opted, but I believe many of them have gone through deep transformation. I listen to them carefully and I can sense the sincerity. We can find them all over the world. They will know how to develop the message and reach into the hearts and minds of those on the fence, and even to help de-radicalize those who have become violent. Academics can play a role and develop a proper forum where they can de-radicalize and educate, whether they are Muslims, white supremacists or others.”

Finally, in terms of what, if any role, non-Muslims can contribute in confronting these challenges, Abdalla had the following final thoughts:

“Embrace the notion that this is not about black or white, or evil versus good, or any of the other simple dualities often espoused in the media. Instead, we need to think that this is a deeper conflict like any other conflict. We need to join forces with counter parts in the Muslim community to see how to support with technology and shared experiences of similar situations in a non-Muslim context. The whole world has its share of violent extremists. So develop alliances with those who were violent and came out of violence and are now promoting peace. If we can connect across cultures and religions, that would be more fitting for the 21stCentury.”


Amr Abdalla, Ph.D.

Dr. Abdalla is a visiting professor of peace and conflict studies at the University for Peace and the Wesley Theological Seminary.  He serves as the Senior Advisor on Conflict Resolution at the Washington-based organization KARAMAH (Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights in the Washington, D.C. area.  From 2014 to 2017 he was the Senior Advisor on Policy Analysis and Research at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University.  In 2013-2014, he was Vice President of SALAM Institute for Peace and Justice in Washington, D.C.  From 2004-2013 he was Professor, Dean and Vice Rector at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace (UPEACE) in Costa Rica.  Prior to that, he was a Senior Fellow with the Peace Operations Policy Program, School of Public Policy, at George Mason University, Virginia.   He was also a Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia.

He holds a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University.  He has been teaching graduate classes in conflict analysis and resolution, and has conducted training, research and evaluation of conflict resolution and peacebuilding programs in several countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. He has been an active figure in promoting effective cross-cultural messages within the Islamic and Arabic-speaking communities in America through workshops, T.V. and radio presentations.  He has also been actively involved in inter-faith dialogues in the United States.

Dr. Abdalla teaches regularly (face-to-face and online) at Wesley Theological Seminary and the University for Peace.





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