We need to pull up Islamism by its roots
Published in the Times on 24/3/16
Police and security services have their role but we have to stop radicalisation in the first place
There is little room for doubt that Europe is in the midst of something akin to a jihadist guerrilla war. Up to 100 fighters have left for Iraq and Syria from Brussels alone. Belgium is in danger of becoming the new “Londonistan”.
The political climate that is unfolding has long been demanded by al-Qaeda ideologues. A leading al-Qaeda strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri, who used to live in London, called for this insurgency in Europe more than a decade ago. In his book Call for an International Islamic Resistance al-Suri outlined the benefits of provoking civil war between Muslims and non-Muslims so that communities begin to self-segregate for their own protection. Jihadists believed that by stirring up religious tension people would retreat into their own safe spaces as they inevitably started to identify other citizens primarily by their religion to test where their loyalties lie.
The inevitable backlash in the West against terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims — the mutual religious mistrust that this would breed, the war-weary isolationism from the Middle East that it would create among policymakers and the retreat into populist identity politics across society — could only ever serve those who wished to divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim zones. As we Muslims are a minority in the West al-Qaeda sought to force us to flee any populist backlash. Jihadists wanted the world to be so angry with Muslims that whether we intended it or not we would come to be seen primarily as Muslims first. Islamist propaganda ensured that many Muslims had already adopted this medieval mode of identification. Once the seeds of division were sown the only sanctuary left to Muslims would be the jihadists’ “caliphate”.
Bin Laden foresaw all this. The only snag in al-Qaeda’s plan has been Islamic State, which audaciously snatched the mantle of the caliphate after Bin Laden’s death. Everything else has so far gone according to the jihadist grand strategy.
More attacks this year are highly likely. Intelligence agencies are overwhelmed across Europe. In the UK the security services are inundated with work. They fear the inevitable: multiple terrorist attacks on British soil. Not if but when this happens it will trigger political pressure and a nationalist backlash against Muslims and our membership of the European Union and against immigration more generally. Politicians will start to take tougher measures to show that they are doing something or they will lose elections to those who promise to take a harder line. We must not allow fear to affect or sway the way we intend to vote.
This struggle is first and foremost an ideological one before it is a military one. Many on the liberal left used to deny that Islamist extremism existed. Then they took to limiting the problem to “violent extremism” only, using nauseating and insipid phrases such as “al-Qaeda-inspired extremism” to refer to what was clearly an ideology. No, it was not al-Qaeda that “inspired extremism”; it was extremism that inspired al-Qaeda.
Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam are as unhelpful as saying that this is what Islam is all about. Extremism certainly has something to do with Islam. We must accept that the world is in the midst of a generational struggle to distinguish the faith from Islamism, a political ideology that seeks to impose itself on society and its violent arm of jihadism. The task ahead of us is to name this ideology, isolate it and then discredit it while supporting those who seek to reform Islam today.
We must reassert our hard-earned enlightenment values as the antidote to rising theocratic dogma within our communities. For if Islamists are to fail in their strategy it is paramount that we reach across religious and cultural differences and build alliances around our common values. It is Islamists who seek to convince us Muslims to identify by our religion first. But we must be citizens first and foremost, standing for secularism.
Just as one need not be gay to challenge homophobia one need not be Muslim to challenge theocracy. Despite its obvious imperfections, the UK Prevent strategy aspires to bring communities together in this way, though it is clearly struggling. The Dutch model also recognises the importance of an approach rooted in unifying communities along secular lines to challenge theocratic thinking. This approach reframes the debate, pulling the rug from under the Islamists’ feet as well as undermining identity-obsessed populists riding the current wave of fear, who are also dividing us all along religious lines.
The world is not divided between Muslims and non-Muslims but between those who believe in open societies and those who believe in closed ones. Muslims and non-Muslims sit on both sides of this fence. All of us together are responsible for challenging intolerant, theocratic thinking before it spills over to violence. All of us together are responsible for refusing to allow religion to become the primary bond that divides us from “the other”. Religious spheres of influence is a notion the world rightly left behind in the medieval era.
Maajid Nawaz is founding chairman of Quilliam and author of Radical: My Journey from Islamic Extremism to a Democratic Awakening