The question of why extremist groups continue to be able to attract followers perpetually vexes observers. The decision to join a radical Islamic group seems irrational: Membership frequently entails social stigmatization, emotional separation from one's family, professional risks, and police harassment. Yet recruiting efforts nevertheless draw acolytes. Wiktorowicz, an assistant professor of international studies at Rhodes College, Tennessee, makes an impressive contribution to our understanding of this question in his study of the Al-Muhajiroun extremist group.
Al-Muhajiroun was founded in Britain in 1996 by Syrian-born cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed as an offshoot of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) after Mohammed clashed with HT leaders over his flamboyant public statements. Al-Muhajiroun, like HT, was dedicated to the establishment of the caliphate but engaged more openly in activism and was more stridently supportive of violence. It officially disbanded on October 13, 2004.
Wiktorowicz was given full access to Al-Muhajiroun activists for his study, and he immersed himself in the movement's ideology and events. The most fascinating aspect of Wiktorowicz's findings is his elucidation of the group's technique for drawing people into the movement. Since a "necessary precondition" for embracing Al-Muhajiroun's ideology is that "individuals are willing to listen to … its alternative views," the group focused on creating "cognitive openings" that could shake individuals' previous beliefs. Mohammed explains that this is best accomplished by evaluating an individual's most pressing concerns. He offers an imagined conversation with someone from Bangladesh that ranges from terrorism in Bangladesh to the country's rising food prices, shortage of doctors, and clogged courts. To Mohammed, this demonstrates "a problem with management as a whole"—which in turn highlights the need for his utopian religious ideology.
After the initial opening, many people decided to continue learning about Islam through Al-Muhajiroun in response to Mohammed's force of personality and perceived religious credibility. His lectures are replete with evidence from the Qur'an and Sunna (the Prophet's practices and example); he is conversant with all four madhhabs (Islamic schools of legal thought), and he is interactive—inviting questions from his audience and providing comprehensive answers. In part, these perceptions of Mohammed reflect the failures of Britain's moderate Muslim establishment. Al-Muhajiroun spoke to issues that deeply affected most British Muslims while local imams tended to avoid potentially controversial political questions and often failed to grapple with issues of import to mosque-goers.
Wiktorowicz's study thus makes several important contributions. In addition to illuminating certain psychological aspects of the radicalization process and tactics used by extremist groups, it pinpoints missed opportunities by British moderates. This book is a must-read for anybody interested in radicalization in the West and how to counter it.