A Note on an Austrian Study on Islamist Radicalization

Here’s one I missed, from early August. From Die Tagespost, via Google translate:

What role does religion play in islamist radicalization processes? The Islamic theologian Ednan Aslan, who works at the University of Vienna, investigated this question in 29 biographical interviews with delinquent Muslims (26 of them in prisons, three in juvenile institutions) in Austria. Two-thirds of the men surveyed have Russian citizenship and are ethnic Chechens. The most important result of the study is that the active debate “with content, norms and values ??of the Islamic doctrine” plays a decisive role in the radicalization. “This intensive examination of theological issues is a turning-point in many of the interviewees in their lives, and the majority of them are positively evaluated.”

It is clear that the majority of the respondents came from a Muslim religious home and knew the foundations of Islam before radicalization. The widespread view that radical Muslims have mostly little knowledge of their religion, has not been confirmed in this study, says the 310-page book. The author admits, however, that those studies, which see religion as the main cause of Islamic radicalization, are in the minority. His conclusion: “Regardless of their religious knowledge, a radicalized person sees in theology an offer that lends meaning and structure to their lives.” (1)

The story was picked up across the border by Welt, tagged as “Deutschland” despite pertaining to Austria. That article contrasted the findings with a recent study conducted in Germany, which found that juvenile radicalisation was due to a “Lego-Islam” disconnected from the tradition. The German study was based on an analysis of messages on WhatsApp. (2)

References to the Welt article then made their way into English, where the piece was deployed polemically on conservative websites. Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch provided a translation, although he also incorporated a link to a different article called “Why Islam is so immune to reform”, which he misleadingly presented as a sub-heading within the translation. A few days later the British Barnabas Fund also referred to Welt; their post then got picked by CBN, from where it has spread to other Christian websites.

These derivative English articles present Aslan’s research not as a new contribution that needs to be placed alongside other studies as part of a wider picture, but as a definitive rebuttal of all commentary that has come before it, significant as proof that Islam itself is the inspiration and explanation for extremism. In these articles, the specific Russia/Chechen context of many of Aslan’s interview subjects disappears from view, and there is no direct reference to the source itself: Islamistische Radikalisierung Biografische Verläufe im Kontext der religiösen Sozialisation und des radikalen Milieus. The work can be accessed from the University of Vienna website here.

Aslan is a “liberal” Muslim of Turkish heritage, and he is also known for a study into Islamic Kindergartens that proved to be a source of controversy over alleged changes that were made to it (it was removed from the university website, but can be seen here and here). Aslan has published a number of academic book on Islam, in German and in English.


(1) The original article was paywalled by the newspaper after a week, although the text remains available on a web-capture page. Here’s the text translated above:

Welche Rolle spielt die Religion in islamistischen Radikalisierungsprozessen? Dieser Frage hat der an der Universität Wien wirkende islamische Theologe Ednan Aslan in 29 biografischen Interviews mit straffälligen Muslimen (26 von ihnen in Gefängnissen, drei in Jugendeinrichtungen) in Österreich nachgespürt. Zwei Drittel der befragten Männer haben die russische Staatsbürgerschaft und sind ethnische Tschetschenen. Das wichtigste Ergebnis der Studie ist wohl, dass die aktive Auseinandersetzung „mit Inhalten, Normen und Wertvorstellungen der islamischen Lehre“ bei der Radikalisierung eine maßgebliche Rolle spielt. „Diese intensive Auseinandersetzung mit theologischen Themen stellt bei vielen Befragten einen Wendepunkt in ihrem Leben dar, der mehrheitlich positiv bewertet wird.“

Aufschlussreich ist, dass der Großteil der Befragten aus einem gläubigen muslimischen Elternhaus stammt und die Grundlagen des Islam bereits vor der Radikalisierung kannte. Die weit verbreitete Ansicht, radikale Muslime hätten meist nur eine geringe Kenntnis ihrer Religion, habe sich in dieser Untersuchung nicht bestätigt, heißt es in dem 310 Seiten starken Werk. Der Autor räumt allerdings ein, dass international jene Studien, die Religion als hauptursächlich für islamistische Radikalisierung sehen, in der Minderheit sind. Sein Fazit: „Unabhängig von ihrem religiösen Wissensstand sieht eine radikalisierte Person in der Theologie ein Angebot, das ihrem Leben Sinn und Struktur verleiht.“

This was published on 2 August; there was also a piece published the day before in Kosmo, an Austrian magazine aimed at residents with connections to the Balkans.

(2) The German study is published by Springer as “Lasset uns in sha’a Allah ein Plan machen”: Fallgestutzte Analyse der Radikalisierung einer WhatsApp-Gruppe; the authors are Michael Kiefer, Jörg Hüttermann, Bacem Dziri, Rauf Ceylan, Viktoria Roth, Fabian Srowig and Andreas Zick. Springer also publishes some of Aslan’s works.