Mubin Shaikh Explores the Nature of Islamic Extremism

On Thursday, March 31, deradicalization expert Mubin Shaikh visited Persson Auditorium to give a lecture about his work and study in the field of religious radicalization. Shaikh, who has worked alongside both the Canadian and United States governments to help identify and assess the threat of Islamic extremists, spoke passionately and critically about his personal relationship with Islam and religious extremism.

Shaikh organized his talk around two main topics. The first topic detailed his personal life and experiences with extremism and how he came to work with governments to undermine the operation of the terrorist group known as the Toronto 18. The second half of the lecture focused more on recent events concerning the Islamic State (ISIS) and the teachings of Islam from the Quran and from respected theologians.

Shaikh began his talk by introducing the categorical system used to classify the religious involvement of Muslims and extremists. These categories range from what Shaikh called the “Islamo-Zealot,” a fanatic who sees the world in absolutes, to the lapsed Muslim, who was raised in a religious setting but no longer practices his religion. Shaikh explained that he previously belonged to the category of “Born Again” extremists. He then detailed how he became involved with radical Islam at a young age.

“Born Again extremists approach Islam as a way to right the perceived wrongs of their personal past,” Shaikh said.

Shaikh then explained what personally motivated him to seek out radical Islam. In his youth, he held a party at his home while his parents were away. His uncle found him intoxicated, and informed his parents. This led to Shaikh’s punishment and a growing sense of shame, which pushed him to embrace radical Islam.

After recounting his personal experiences with radical Islamist movements, Shaikh segued into discussing the process of radicalization with reference to both his own experiences and the experiences of the Islamic extremists known as the Toronto 18. In 2006, counter-terrorism raids stopped terrorist plots in southern Ontario, which included plans to detonate truck bombs, to open fire in a crowded area and to infiltrate Canadian Parliament buildings to take politicians hostage. Shaikh infiltrated the group, which resulted in the arrest of the 18 would-be terrorists.

“Radicalization is the process whereby a person becomes increasingly extreme in their views,” Shaikh said. He emphasized that this process is gradual and complex.

 He discussed how nature, nurture and cognitive framing all contribute to the process of radicalization. The motivating factors he identified as primarily contributing to radicalization included an awareness of geopolitics, frustration from personal experience and perceived injustice, as well as adventure-seeking and monetary motivations.

Relating these ideas back into his own experience, Shaikh also discussed how his extremism manifested itself. He explained that during his travels in the Middle East he saw Islamic extremists with beards, robes and AK-47 assault rifles.

“When I saw them, I was completely enamored by them. They were heroes to me,” Shaikh said.

He also discussed how, upon first hearing that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, he praised God. When he discovered that the planes were hijacked by Islamic extremists, however, he decided to study the Quran and Islam more closely. During his studies, Shaikh traveled to Syria where he studied with Islamic scholars. This transformed his view of Islam, and Shaikh renounced extremism.

After renouncing extremist Islam, Shaikh became fascinated with the radicalization process and studied it extensively. His personal study eventually led him to work with the Canadian government on the Toronto 18 case, where he served as an undercover operative. He was readily accepted by the group because they knew of his history with extremist views. Shaikh told the story of how one of the leaders of the group praised God for sending Shaikh to them.

“It ain’t God that sent me,” Shaikh quipped, earning a laugh from the audience.

The second half of the talk centered on Shaikh’s use of Twitter in recent years to discourage potential extremists from joining ISIS. Shaikh showed several Twitter profiles that exhibited ISIS’s use of social media as a tool to recruit new members to their cause. Shaikh showed images of the messages he sent to people who displayed telltale signs of vulnerability to radicalization. Through his work on social media, he was able to expose the inconsistencies in the Islamic State’s interpretation of the Quran and prevent recruitment.

“Just because they quote from the Quran doesn’t make them Islamic,” Shaikh said.

Following the talk, sophomore Faith Hamlin expressed her appreciation for it.

“I was really interested in his personal story but was intrigued by the fact he was really relatable. He spoke to the audience well and was engaging, funny and didn’t sugarcoat his words,” Hamlin said.

However, not all audience members responded positively to the lecture.

“I was disappointed in the talk because I had expected to hear his personal experience with Islamic extremism and then go through the religious aspect, thus combating the misconceptions about Islam and terrorism,” sophomore Dzenela Becic said. “Instead it was like Counterterrorism 101, which was interesting, but not relatable to most of us.”

This lecture was part of an ongoing series sponsored by Colgate’s Center for Freedom and Western Civilization and Political Science department.