Escaping Jinn and the Islamic State

56 – Escaping Jinn And The Islamic State

Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

Escaping Jinn and the Islamic State is the 56th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand series. It features fifty-one-year old Albanian healer and imam, Verdi Morava, who was interviewed in July of 2018 in an Albanian prison by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci. It was produced and edited by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.

This counter narrative video is one of a series featuring a group of nine Albanian self-declared imams, who were prosecuted for terrorism and facilitating travel of [alleged hundreds] of Albanians to Syria and to jihadist groups like ISIS. Three of those interviewed by ICSVE researchers protested their innocence, despite successful state prosecution.. Some in the group of nine, excluding Verdi, who is featured in this video clip, during their trial questioned the legitimacy of Albania’s court, as according to them, it was not run under shariah law. They also claimed that the Islamic State was righteous.

Verdi’s story is unique, mainly because it touches on a number of issues that are important for Muslims who suffer from mental illness and believe in jinn and for the Muslim believers who were forbidden to follow and practice their faith, as in the case of Albanians living under communism. Verdi begins by addressing the very same issue: “Religion did not exist during communism.” He and his family did not practice their religion, though stating, “In fact, based on my family name, we were Muslims.” Under communist rule in Albania, Verdi explains, “Even those fasting during Ramadan would be sent to prison.”

Verdi is an intelligent man who managed to make something of himself by moving to Italy after the fall of communism. He gained financial success through starting a transportation business in Italy. “[I lived] very, very well,” he explains. However, his health began failing and deteriorating as a result. “ I had big headaches. Insomnia. I had headaches and my chest would tighten,” he explains.

Verdi’s symptoms appear to be anxiety-driven. He recalls, “I would engage in psychological battles with myself. I wasn’t hearing voices. ” But he did have an internal dialogue that was terrifying him, “It’s like when a person talks to himself. I was having discussions inside my head.”

Verdi sought medical help, but when doctors couldn’t find a cause for his symptoms, he sought alternative healers and began to attribute his illness to spiritual factors. In 2002, he found a hoxha, a prayer and mosque leader in Macedonia to treat him. “They said I have jinn,” Verdi states. According to Islamic teachings, jinn are said to be supernatural, intelligent creatures, prone to trickery. Muslims who believe in them, think that jinn rank lower than the angels, and are able to appear in human and animal forms and to possess humans. Some Muslims attribute symptoms of emotional affliction and mental illness to jinn and take actions to try to exorcise the jinn.

“[The jinn] would force me to do bad things, things that I would not accept,” Verdi recalls. “I would fight back,” he explains. It appears he had things in his past that were resurfacing in adulthood that he found unacceptable or that angered him. “[The jinn] would tempt me to revisit things from my past to kill someone or commit suicide,” Verdi explains. His mental problems and the Islamic explanation for them drove him to strongly embrace Islam: “That was the turning point that led me to [Islam] … and the belief in Allah.”

Hoping to find some sort of relief and help, Verdi even made a pilgrimage to Mecca. “The first time I went to Hajj, I felt how Allah took everything bad out of my body,” he recalls. “It was the worst period in my life.” But as he recovered his balance, Verdi began to study, and explains, “I learned [this healing art] and started helping others to good effect. Verdi had moved back to Albania at this point, and, overtime, alongside the other imams, became a trusted spiritual leader in his community.

According to the state prosecution charges, Verdi got involved in terrorism at the onset of the Syrian conflict. Verdi was convicted and initially given a 13-year prison sentence—later reduced to 10 years— for assisting in recruitment and facilitating the travel of individuals to Syria. He still protests his innocence.

In discussing his alleged involvement in the recruitment of Albanians to Syria, he explains, “At his request, I escorted a 74-year-old to the airport. He was sick and wanted to go to Turkey.” (Turkey was the gateway into Syria and joining ISIS and other fighting groups at the time). Given Verdi’s extensive travel experience, he claims that he simply helped the man navigate the check-in and board his plane, and that only later had he learned that the old man was going to Syria. Two younger men also accompanied the man.

“No one incited [Albanians] to go [to Iraq and Syria],” Verdi claims, though this runs contrary to fact that many high-ranking Balkan political leaders at the time endorsed and even encouraged, travel to Syria to fight against the regime of Bashar al Assad and defend their Muslim brothers and sisters in Syria.

Verdi claims he gets upset watching videos of atrocities committed by the Assad regime

against civilians in Syria: “Look at the Internet. I saw one such video in a mosque,” he explains. “[Assad’s forces] buried children alive. They threw them [in a pit] alive and covered them with a bulldozer. If you believe in Allah, a true believer wouldn’t do such things, ”Verdi emotionally exclaims.

Verdi also expresses sympathy for those who went to defend Muslims against Assad’s troops: “As far as those wanting to help Syrians, they have been so sincere and naïve at the same time, at least in the case of at least two or three people I’ve known who have gone [to Syria] and returned. One of them is here in prison. I knew three [Albanians] who went there. One was killed. [He was] a very friendly and bright kid. He went there with his own convictions,” Verdi states.

Yet, Verdi claims that he does not support ISIS and that “Islam doesn’t promote terrorism either. It can’t. In the Quran, Allah says, ‘I brought you Prophet Muhamad as a mercy to all humanity.’ How could religion be linked with terrorism to kill people for no reason?” Verdi asks.

“[ISIS] made statements even against fellow Muslims,” he explains. “[They said] those who don’t succumb to their rule will be killed. The Caliphate was not proclaimed as it should have been according to Islamic standards, ” he explains, further emphatically stating, “I have never supported terrorist acts.”

When asked if he has advice for youth now, Verdi says he believes that ethical decision-making and critical thinking for Muslims must be rooted in a strong knowledge of Islam, further noting, “[They justify terrorism] by saying that since you are bombing and killing our children, then we should do the same to you,” referring to how terrorist groups often justify acts of violence on their end. “[But] when the Prophet sent people out on a military expedition, [he commanded them], ‘Do not kill women, children, or elderly people. Don’t hurt those non-Muslims who pray in their places of worship. Don’t cut down trees. Don’t burn. Don’t destroy houses. Only [fight] those who fight you.’ Because Islamic history has shown, both in religious arguments and real-life past experiences, that even members of other religions could take refuge with Muslims in Islam,” he further points out.

Verdi also condemns terrorist acts that are waged against civilians in Europe and elsewhere for Western bombings of ISIS as wrong. In addressing suicide bombings, he notes, “The act of suicide is prohibited in Islam. The only thing you gain [from terror attacks] is more hatred from people,” and that hurting innocent civilians is wrong. “Attacking people who have no idea what’s happening and where you also might end up killing fellow Muslims makes no sense.”

He concludes with an advice to youth:  “I’d recommend not to join [ISIS]. Don’t follow ISIS blindly. You need to use your reason.”

Discussion Questions:

What do you feel watching this video?

What do you think about Verdi’s mental and emotional struggles and his attributing them to jinn?

Do you think Verdi helped others to travel to Syria?

What is the relationship between him having suffered during communism and his attraction to the conflict in Syria?

If he is guilty, why do you believe he did so?

Do you believe that it was a mistake for foreign fighters to go and fight Assad’s forces? Or was it a heroic act?

What about those who ultimately joined terrorist groups?

Do you agree with Verdi that suicide bombing is not permitted in Islam? Or do you agree with groups like ISIS that it can be an act of Islamic martyrdom?

Do you agree with Verdi’s claim that terror attacks just whip up more hatred among people?

Under what conditions, if ever, are Muslims, according to Islamic teachings, allowed to intentionally attack civilians?

Verdi was not afraid to have his identity known and to show his face on this video. What does such a decision on his part say to you about his message to youth?

Transcript of Escaping Jinn and the Islamic State video:

Religion did not exist during communism.

In fact, based on my family name, we were Muslims.

Even those fasting during Ramadan would be sent to prison.

VERDI

 51-year-old

Albanian Imam

TEXT: After the fall of communism, Verdi gained financial success through starting a transport business in Italy.

[I lived] very, very well.

TEXT: However, his health began failing.

Big headaches. Insomnia.

I had headaches and my chest would tighten.

I would engage in psychological battles with myself.

I wasn’t hearing voices.

It’s like when a person talks to himself. I was having discussions inside my head.

TEXT: When medical doctors couldn’t find a cause for his symptoms in 2002, Verdi sought alternative healers and began to attribute his illness to spiritual factors.

Real transformation started when I went to ahoxha [prayer leader and mosque leader].

They said I have jinn.

TEXT: In Islam, jinn are said to be supernatural, intelligent creatures, prone to trickery, that rank lower than the angels, and are able to appear in human and animal forms and to possess humans.

TEXT: Some Muslims attribute mental illness to the activity of jinn. 

[The jinn] would force me to do bad things, things that I would not accept. 

I would fight back.

[The jinn] would tempt me to revisit things from my past to kill someone or commit suicide.

That was the turning point that led me to [Islam].

At first, the belief in Allah.

TEXT: Verdi even made a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The first time I went to Hajj, I felt how Allah took everything bad out of my body.

It was the worst period in my life.

I learned [this healing art] and started helping others to good effect.

TEXT: Verdi became a spiritual leader in his community.

TEXT: When the conflicts in Syria arose, he got involved.

At his request, I escorted a 74-year-old to the airport.

He was sick and wanted to go to Turkey. 

TEXT: Given Verdi’s extensive travel experience, he helped the man navigate the check-in and board his plane.

TEXT: Verdi claims he learned only later that the old man was going to Syria.

TEXT: Two younger men also accompanied the man.

TEXT: Verdi was convicted and initially given a 13-year prison sentence—later reduced to 10 years— for assisting in recruitment and facilitating the travel of individuals to Syria. 

TEXT: Verdi still protests his innocence.

No one incited [Albanians] to go [to Iraq and Syria].

TEXT: Though, like many high-ranking Balkan political leaders at the time, Verdi endorsed those who went to defend their Muslim brothers and sisters in Syria.

TEXT: Verdi claims he gets upset watching videos of atrocities committed by the Assad regime against civilians in Syria.

As far as those wanting to help Syrians, they have been so sincere and naïve at the same time, at least in the case of at least two or three people I’ve known who have gone [to Syria] and returned. 

One of them is here in prison. I knew three [Albanians] who went there.

One was killed. [He was] a very friendly and bright kid. He went there with his own convictions.

TEXT: Verdi claims that he does not support ISIS.

Look at the Internet. I saw one such video in a mosque.

[Assad’s forces] buried children alive. They threw them [in a pit] alive and covered them with a bulldozer.  

If you believe in Allah, a true believer wouldn’t do such things.

TEXT: Verdi finds prison psychologically hard to bear.

TEXT: Some of the men tried with Verdi did not recognize the Albanian government

as legitimate and claimed the Islamic State was righteous.

I have never supported terrorist acts. 

Islam doesn’t promote terrorism either. It can’t.

In the Quran, Allah says, ‘I brought you Prophet Mohamed as a mercy to all humanity.’

How could religion be linked with terrorism to kill people for no reason?

[ISIS] made statements even against fellow Muslims. 

[They said] those who don’t succumb to their rule will be killed.

The Caliphate was not proclaimed as it should have been according to Islamic standards.

TEXT: Verdi says he believes that ethical decision-making and critical thinking for Muslims must be rooted in a strong knowledge of Islam.

[They justify terrorism] by saying that since you are bombing and killing our children, then we should do the same to you.

When the Prophet sent people out on a military expedition, [he commanded them],

‘Do not kill women, children, or elderly people.’

‘Don’t hurt those non-Muslims who pray in their places of worship.’

‘Don’t cut down trees. Don’t burn. Don’t destroy houses.’

‘Only [fight] those who fight you.’

Because Islamic history has shown, both in religious arguments and real-life past experiences, that even members of other religions could take refuge with Muslims in Islam.

TEXT: Verdi adds that terror acts in Europe and elsewhere to take revenge for Western bombings of ISIS are wrong.

The act of suicide is prohibited in Islam.

The only thing you gain [from terror attacks] is more hatred from people.

Attacking people who have no idea what’s happening and where you also might end up

killing fellow Muslims makes no sense.

I’d recommend not to join [ISIS]. 

[My advice to youth is] is: Don’t follow ISIS blindly. You need to use your reason.

The Truth Behind the Islamic State

Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism www.ICSVE.org

See more at www.TheRealJihad.org

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College. 

Anne Speckhard

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and has also taught the Psychology of Terrorism for the Security Studies Department in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Dr. Speckhard has been working in the field of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the 1980’s and has extensive experience working in Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.