The Coalition We Need To Defeat Islamism

The central challenge of our times is to build an alliance of thinkers and activists to overcome the ideas behind the global terrorist threat

Michael Gove

In the 19th century conflicts were wars between rival states. In the 20th century conflicts between states were driven by rival ideologies. Now, in this century, we are all, in every nation, being drawn into a conflict in which one ideology seeks to abolish states as we have long understood them, liberties as we have long enjoyed them and the idea of the individual on which our civilisation depends.

This ideology, while it threatens so much we hold dear, and has influenced so many to acts of violence across our world, is still, despite everything, remarkably poorly understood. This ideology animated the mass murderers of 9/11, inspired the Bali bombing, drove four men to kill 20 times their number in England in 2005, were behind the desecration of the Bamiyan Buddhas, attracted thousands from every nation to become born-again barbarians in the sands of Syria and binds together Hamas and Hezbollah, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the men who ran Birmingham Central Mosque. It is a clear and present danger to so much we hold dear. To counter it, we need to know its doctrines, its animating ideas, the organisations through which it works and the appeals it makes to potential recruits. But that understanding is neither as deep, or widespread, as it needs to be to meet the scale of the challenge. And until we develop that proper appreciation of the scale, and nature, of the threat we will not be able to mount the defence of civilisation that is so vital to the survival and spread of freedom.

The ideology that poses such dangers is Islamism. Not Islam. Islamism.

And it is vital, absolutely critical, that we maintain that distinction.

Islam is a great religion which provides spiritual nourishment and moral guidance to millions. Its essential doctrines — the importance it places on charity and self-discipline, reverence for life and joy in God’s creation — should inspire admiration in people of other faiths and none. Islamic civilisation kept alive classical learning during Europe’s Dark Ages and helped foster scientific and mathematical advances that spurred forward mankind’s progress. Islamic philosophers have provided ways of reflecting on man’s predicament which enrich our understanding of how societies grow and decay. And it should go without saying, but sadly does need to be repeated, that Muslim men and women across the world are inspired to teach, heal, create, lead, support, love and protect their fellow citizens by a love of all mankind.

Islam is one of the world’s youngest faiths, younger by seven centuries than Christianity and, of course, far younger still than Judaism or Hinduism. But it has also been one of the world’s most successful — the purity of its monotheism and the radicalism of its philosophy having proven attractive to many — especially those who have felt a sense of solidarity with the suffering.

Islamism has a very different history, pedigree and appeal.

For a start, it is not a religious phenomenon or faith denomination. It is a political movement. It does not have its roots in divine revelation or a call to charity, but in anger and hurt and a will to power. It inspires its followers not to heal and love but to dominate and eliminate.

It is also, critically, an ideology which has its roots in the 20th century.

Islamism was a response to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and, with it, the dissolution of the Last Caliphate. The Ottoman Empire had been a sickly and decaying patchwork of nations united under the Sultan in Constantinople. He exercised a fading legitimacy as the leader of the Muslim people — the Caliph.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was viewed by some young Muslims as the final humiliation for a people and a faith who had once swept all before them. For these young radicals there had to be an explanation for the decline in power of Muslim states over the last 200 years, their subsequent colonisation by Western powers, and the enduring poverty of their people. How, they asked, could those who had been in receipt of the full and final revelation of God’s purpose through the Prophet Muhammad, those who had then gone on to bring so many under the banner of their faith, now be a culture in retreat and decline? The answer, they concluded, was that Islam had not been followed as faithfully, submission had not been as complete, surrender to God’s laws had not been as total, as was required for ideological purity and political success.

The early Islamists sought warrant for their views in a particular interpretation of Islam’s own birth. Muhammad was a warrior against the jahiliyyah or decadence of those without true faith around him. He and his companions — al-Muhajiroun — retreated from the corruption in which others were sunk and pledged themselves to fight for a revolution in virtue. And in that fight there was no need to treat the barbarian with the same consideration one might show a fellow Muslim. Defeating the enemy was a noble end which could justify almost any means.

So — to this day — Islamists regard all others, including fellow Muslims, who do not follow their ideology and lead as sunk in jahiliyyah. Islamist groups deliberately seek to set themselves outside secular society, educating their children apart if possible, and operating through a network of social organisations whose real political intentions are kept hidden. And the most determined Islamist groups consider it legitimate to lie, steal, embezzle, ignore the state’s laws, intimidate neighbours and flout civilised norms, including, of course, waging terror campaigns, in order to achieve the goals which they believe God has sanctioned.
The first major Islamist thinkers were Hassan al-Banna in Egypt, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Abul A’la Maududi in India, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami. Both were born in the first decade of the 20th century, both became involved in anti-colonial political activism and both became convinced that the only answer to the enemies they fought against was an Islamic State.

And the Islamic State they believed in would, of necessity, be a totalitarian state. Because the Islam they upheld was not a faith as ordinarily understood, not a matter of private devotion, prayer and contemplation, or even a way of encouraging us to rethink social relations. It was a total system governing every aspect of life. Maududi argued that “Islam is not a religion in the sense the term is commonly understood. It is a system encompassing all fields of living. Islam means politics, economics, legislation, science, humanism, health, psychology and sociology.” And it was not only the case that Islam’s reach over human activity was universal, its claim to govern every human heart was also total. Maududi believed that Islam’s destiny was to “emerge as the World-religion to cure Man of all his maladies”.

Al-Banna sought to overthrow what he and his comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood saw as an iniquitous system of colonial rule in Egypt and Palestine. The very existence of foreign control of Muslim lands humiliated Muslims. Because they could not rule themselves, God’s will was undermined and the prospects of building a political system in line with God’s designs was impossible. So, he argued, “it has become an individual obligation, which there is no evading, on every Muslim to prepare his equipment, to make up his mind to engage in jihad, and to get ready for it until the opportunity is ripe and God decrees.”

Al-Banna and Maududi are not names that inspire instant recognition in our society. As thinkers they hardly appear to have the resonance of a Marx or an Engels, as political leaders most would not even begin to rank them alongside a Lenin or a Trotsky. (See pages 78 and 79.) But while Marxism has precious few adherents now — outside Pyongyang and Labour’s Shadow Cabinet, that is — Al-Banna and Maududi command the allegiance of millions.

The Muslim Brotherhood has a presence across the globe — from its Palestinian branch, Hamas, to the Muslim Association of Britain, which has a variety of front and satellite organisations in kinship with it. Jamaat-e-Islami followers also run some of our most wealthy and influential mosques as well as playing leading roles in Pakistani and Bangladeshi politics. Jamaati thinking has a hold on a significant number of individuals in those diaspora communities within the UK and some of the most vocal or assertive figures on “umbrella” organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain are Jamaati influenced.

Al-Banna also inspired another hugely significant Egyptian thinker — Sayyid Qutb — an intellectual who gave Islamism a force and coherence which endures to this day. Qutb believed, like Maududi, that Islam was a system for governing all mankind’s actions — a total social and political regime — which should be followed by all in an ideal Islamic State. He opposed the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s strongman ruler in the 1950s, because he believed that nationalism and socialism were dead ends, diversions from God’s plan for mankind, where there would be no need for national leaders or political parties because all would submit to the rule of sharia and the wisdom of God. Qutb was also explicit that in order to bring about the rule of Islam over all men that violence was not merely justified, but necessary.

Qutb was executed by Nasser in 1966 but, as so often, a martyr’s death proved far more powerful than a tyrant’s command. Qutb’s influence has only grown in the last five decades. Nasser’s failures, particularly his military defeats at the hand of Israel, discredited his model of Arab nationalism, while Qutb’s ideas found enthusiastic followers across the globe, not least in Saudi Arabia. One of those disciples was Ayman Zawahiri, who became prominent in the extremist organisation Islamic Jihad before inspiring Osama bin-Laden and collaborating with him in the formation of al-Qaeda.

Qutb’s writings, most prominently his work Milestones, and his followers have influenced untold thousands and continue to do so to this day. They feed the Islamist narrative of grievance — the idea that Muslims worldwide are suffering at the hands of a materialist and oppressive “West” — and inspire Muslims angered by perceived injustices to embrace resistance in the name of God.

Of course, Islamism, as an ideology embraced by millions, has specific forms and shadings depending on local circumstances and particular histories.

Qutb, Maududi and al-Banna were all Sunnis. In Shia Iran Islamism has taken on a different form under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers. But the attachment to the idea of a state governed by God’s laws, not those of men, is the animating spirit of the Islamic Republic. And Iran’s proxies, such as Hezbollah, share with their sponsor the full range of Islamist attitudes. They oppose any “Western” incursion into Muslim lands, so hate Israel’s very existence. In their ideological and physical war against the West, the Jewish people and the USA are held up as the greatest villains. In Turkey, the government is also avowedly Islamist, but while it shares Islamism’s hostility to Israel and desire to have any public space increasingly subordinated to sharia, it coexists with a business community who look to the West for commerce and friendship. 

Appreciating the different forms that Islamism takes is vital to understanding and countering it — but not as important as appreciating the extent to which so many of the contemporary challenges we face spring from common ideological roots.

The implacable hostility to Israel expressed on campuses across the West, the attempts by individuals in Birmingham and Bradford to take over state schools and “Islamise” their governance and curriculum, the efforts undertaken by extremists to radicalise prison inmates, the grooming of young men and women designed to entice them to join Islamic State or extremist training camps in Pakistan, the online propaganda which seeks to alienate Muslim teenagers from British society and feed their sense of grievance — all of these are driven by Islamist ideology.

There is a subtlety and allure to the Islamist message which can prove hugely seductive. Many young Muslim men and women feel adrift in modern Europe. Their parents’ and grandparents’ generations seem to follow a form of Islam which is shaped by the traditions and mores of “the old country”. But Western society can seem empty and materialist, with no sense of belonging or idealism, only getting and spending. Islamism is tailor-made to occupy this space. Instead of thinking of yourself as Pakistani like your out-of-touch parents or British, which is a shallow and weak thing, define yourself above all as a Muslim. Not a British Muslim who sees no tension between citizenship and faith, but a defiant Muslim who rejects the corruption of a country, and world, sunk in jahiliyyah.

And, critically, see your Muslim identity not just as a matter of faith but an assertion of fundamental difference from all around you. It is dignified and moral, it transcends ethnic and racial divisions, it places you in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, but also exalts you over your hedonistic neighbours, who don’t have anything like the sense of mission and purpose which this ideology can provide.

For most, this message will draw them into purely political activity. They might join an organisation on campus like Hizb-ut Tahrir, or get involved with groups influenced by Jamaati or Muslim Brotherhood thinking.

But as the memoirs of former Islamists like Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz have powerfully shown, some of those who succumb to the Islamist temptation don’t limit their activism to politics. For some there is a conveyor belt, a continuum, which leads them into support for, or involvement in, violence. The journey to jihad in Raqqa begins with an ideological epiphany in Ilford.

That is why this government’s decision to confront both non-violent and violent extremism is so important, and why other nations have much to learn from the work undertaken in this area by Theresa May and David Cameron.

Before 2010 there was a disposition on the part of the British government to concentrate only on extremism when it became violent and embraced terror. But since 2010 ministers have recognised that there needs to be intervention upstream, before extremist thinking has had a chance to incubate and produce not just defiant separatism but hostile action.  

It is the thought-world of the Islamists which provides a spur to, and justification for, subversion and violence. Counter those Islamist thoughts, argue for democratic values, oppose those organising to spread Islamist ideology, celebrate those committed to making a success of liberal Britain, and you can draw the poison from the well, not just halting the drift to violence but enhancing the cohesion of our society.

In government I saw how important it was to understand the ideology, and tactics, of Islamists in order to counter them effectively. When I was Education Secretary my department was alerted to determined efforts by Islamists to take over the running of state schools in Birmingham. A leaked document, the so-called “Trojan Horse” letter, outlined how school governors were subverting the education system designed to help all children succeed in modern Britain. In the teeth of political opposition, from those determined to deny the scale of the problem, we appointed a public servant who really understood how extremists work — Peter Clarke of the Metropolitan Police — to get to the bottom of the affair. His report laid bare the scale of the attempt by Islamist extremists to control the education, culture, faith and social relations of thousands of Birmingham children. Working with brave head teachers he exposed a culture of intimidation and sophisticated ideological networking which was blighting the lives of the next generation.

Attempts by extremists to groom and radicalise are not restricted to our schools. As Justice Secretary I initiated an inquiry into the dangers of Islamist extremism in our jails which identified a number of serious concerns. Vulnerable prisoners were targeted and conversion to Islam presented as a means of both imbuing their lives with new purpose while also showing even greater hostility to “the system” which had let them down. Efforts were made to “Islamise” aspects of prison life and the lack of understanding among some prison professionals of what faith did and did not demand was exploited by assertive extremists to aggrandise their authority. Some of those who “converted” in prison subsequently abandoned a faith which they may have only adopted for self-protection, but others have gone on to lives of extremist activity and terrorist violence — inspired by an ideology whose malign power and global influence so many still fail to appreciate.

We are lucky, however, that two successive Prime Ministers have now “got it”. David Cameron was clear-sighted and brave in calling out the anti-women, anti-gay, anti-liberal prejudices at the heart of Islamism and mobilising Whitehall to develop policies which cut the ground from underneath Islamist organisations. In his groundbreaking 2011 Munich speech he made explicit the link between the words and beliefs of the non-violent extremists and the actions and atrocities of the violent extremists.

Theresa May, as both Home Secretary and Prime Minister, has been equally determined. She has barred and removed more hate preachers and Islamist ideologues than any other minister on record, established an Extremism Analysis Unit at the heart of Government to ensure public servants understand the scale of the threat we face, and has developed a counter-extremism strategy that looks at how to tackle the funding, organisation and ideology of Islamists.

But the fight against extremism cannot be won by Whitehall alone. Clear political leadership is a necessary precondition of success. The local authorities who fund community groups, the heads and governors who run schools, the vice-chancellors who lead our universities, the police officers who maintain civil order, the non-departmental public bodies which disburse taxpayers’ money, the inspectorates which oversee schools and prisons and indeed the professional staff who maintain order in prisons all need to be even better informed, and prepared, to counter extremist thoughts and actions.

That will require subtlety and sensitivity, the ability to differentiate between conventional religious piety and provocative political acts, the confidence to be able to face down intimidation, the knowledge to recognise extremist patterns of behaviour and the belief in liberal democratic values which are the best answer to the Islamist narrative of grievance.

But what is the alternative? Either confused passivity in the face of extremist advance, or sporadic and clumsy over-reactions which alienate potential allies while failing to reassure the public.

When we last faced a totalitarian challenge which operated on both ideological and violent planes, it came from Marxism. Its pretensions to global domination now seem a distant fantasy, almost ludicrously detached from the ramshackle reality of Soviet failure. But for decades the threat from Marxism was no laughing matter. On our campuses, in our trade unions, on our borders, Marxism posited an alternative to Western decadence and materialism which bewitched the minds of many. Indeed, avowed Marxists, operating under the banner of Militant, tried to take over the Labour Party in the 1980s, and only the most determined ideological and organisational effort saw them off.

During that long ideological struggle there was a sustained commitment among brave Western intellectuals, politicians and trade union leaders to counter the totalitarian temptation. Magazines like Encounter, writers from Orwell and Popper to Koestler and Solzhenitsyn, social democrats from Gaitskell to Golding, trade unionists from Bevin to Chapple, all entered the lists against Marxists and their fellow travellers.

Building a similar coalition of thinkers and activists against Islamism and its apologists is one of the central challenges of our time. Governments from Bangladesh to Belgium face direct security threats from Islamists. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states sit uneasily on top of societies ripe for violent Islamist takeover. Islamist terror groups occupy ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria, Libya and North Africa, Nigeria and Somalia. Islamist activists recruit and radicalise in our towns and cities.

Magazines such as Standpoint, anti-extremist organisations like the Quilliam Foundation, academics such as Shiraz Maher and politicians like Khalid Mahmood have been consistent and brave in their opposition to the extremism which threatens us all. But we need more to join them. There are still far too many who deny the scale of the problem, exemplified by President Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the Islamist roots of terrorist violence. And there are also far too many who succumb to counter-productive, knee-jerk responses, exemplified by those French politicians who banned burkinis because they confused piety with political extremism. Between them there is a space that confident and assertive liberals must occupy — or we face a century ahead of freedom in retreat and civilisation in eclipse. 

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