I Used to Be in the Muslim Brotherhood. Here's How You Defeat Terrorism | Opinion

British lawmaker Sir David Amess was stabbed and killed two weeks ago. A 25-year-old man has been charged with his murder—and with terrorism. In fact, Amesss' alleged killer, Ali Harbi Ali, was known to the British security services; he had been referred to their counter-terrorism program "Prevent" as a teenager.

Amess's tragic murder is not only an example of a rising tide of terrorism; it is an important reminder of what we're really fighting when we're fighting terrorism. Contrary to what many in the West continue to believe, terrorism is not about a knife or bomb in the hands of a Muslim. It's about a specific ideology that's infected the minds of those vulnerable to it. As a U.K. prosecutor put it in regards to Amess's alleged killer, "We will submit to the court that this murder has a terrorist connection, namely that it had both religious and ideological motivations." And there is the key: Terrorism today is a perversion of religion into an ideology, and as such, it's one that we can only truly fight at the level of ideas.

As a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was groomed from a young age, I speak firsthand of the dangers posed by this ideology; after all, the ability to systematically infiltrate a person's mind is far more powerful than any physical act. One cannot hide a gun, but one can easily hide an ideology, as Amess's murder has shown.

It was while I was still a university student in the American West, at Portland State University in Oregon, that the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in recruiting me. Like many who are recruited, I was full of the enthusiasm of youth. I was also an energetic young man who was living a world apart from my homeland, and I allowed the zeal of the Muslim Brotherhood to ignite my mind. It was 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its impact on Central Asia was constantly in the news. I began a keen research journey to defend the causes of Arabs and Muslims influenced by the ideology of the Brotherhood.

I have to be honest: It was thrilling. I believed that the Brotherhood was the true voice of Islam, and I can hardly describe how powerful it felt to be connected to that center, to be invited into its innermost circles.

But as I matured, I discovered the fragmentation and divisiveness among Muslims. I realized that besides the Muslim Brotherhood, there were other groups—the Salafi and Tablighi, for example—all claiming to be "the true voice of Islam." It made me question the Brotherhood's claims to superiority, and I resolved to put some distance between myself and all people who see or sell themselves as guardians or speakers on behalf of Islam. I made up my mind to be independent in my thinking and rejected any kind of guardianship or custody over my mind or my will in the name of Islam.

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A girl carries a flag of the Muslim Brotherhood as she joins protesters from the Islamic Action Front during demonstration to show their solidarity with Palestinians and anger at a recent political arrest, after the Friday prayer in Amman November 28, 2014. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

But I learned an important lesson, too: What draws people to terrorism is being vanquished by the thrill of a powerful ideology with spiritual claims. And the only way to fight it is through self-empowerment.

Islamist terrorism is once again spreading because the ideology at its core is finding new purchase. In Afghanistan today, one of the most radical ISIS cells since 2011, ISIS K, has been committing Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities, making the entire landscape of extremism in the region far more complex—and far more dangerous.

As the U.S. retreated from Afghanistan, Islamists in the Middle East and African continent are hailing the victory of radicalism. The Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan has been greeted by a tidal wave of celebration across the region and the world from East to West. To many, it's a sign: If the minority Taliban can take over the country in the face of Allied troops and the armies of the most powerful countries on earth, there is hope for these militant radical groups to defeat small and weak states in Asia and Africa. One by one, these groups are again gaining power, claiming that the future is bright for those on the Jihadist path; it is only a matter of time before smaller, more militarily weak states fall victim to our worst fears.

This extremist Islamist ideology is mobilizing rich and poor, young and old, uniting the disaffected of every group against a moderate way of life—a way of life in which instead of adopting the Islamic values of coexistence, tolerance, harmony and peace, the Islamic faith is hijacked and corrupted, turned into a religion of brutality and suppression.

Transforming the Islamic faith into a political ideology is the main source of power for these radical groups. And it's this that the West keeps missing in its war on terrorism: the importance of ideas in motivating thousands of energetic youths, tens of thousands who joined ISIS from all over the five continents, to join these groups blindly.

Of course, it's not totally divorced from material reality. As long as there is poverty, marginalization and oppression, this war of ideas becomes stronger. Whether in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Muslim communities in Europe, an ideology that grants adherents belonging with true spiritual import will always have more purchase for people who have nothing else to fight for, nothing else to lose.

And that's how we fight it—the way I fought it: through empowerment, by giving the most vulnerable, the disenfranchised youths alternatives. We fight it by deconstructing the political ideology of radical Islamist groups emanating from the mother of these groups, the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

It is through better opportunities afforded by education and a thriving economy that we can counter extremism and install a firm commitment to an ideology of coexistence.

We must engage religious leaders and educators in this war of ideas to ensure that our religious leaders are spreading a version of Islam which does not promote hate and extremism but an Islam which hails peace and coexistence. Most of all, they must show that there is a world of opportunity awaiting through a path of co-existence and collaboration, not radical isolation.

My own experience is proof that this is possible. I hope it will light the way forward so we can truly be effective in combatting the rise of terrorism.

Dr. Ali al Nuaimi is chair of the Defense Affairs, Interior and Foreign Relations Committee of the UAE's Federal National Council, a representative legislature whose 40 members, half elected indirectly and half appointed, serve in an advisory role to the emirates' leadership.

The views in this article are the writer's own.