We Can Defeat Islamist Terror — But Not On Our Own

The West must tackle its vulnerability to extremists while urging the Muslim world to put its house in order. Is anyone out there interested?

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Pope Francis with the Sunni Muslim Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyib in May: “Our meeting is the message,” said the Pope (© MAX ROSSI/AFP/Getty Images)

It is not an exaggeration to say that terrorists are waging a global war in which all of us are caught up. It is not just Baghdad, Tunis or Karachi where there are major atrocities but New York, London, Paris and Brussels as well. Nor are we facing only organised militants, who may be recognisable, but “sleeper cells” in European and American cities, “lone wolves” radicalised online and terrorists disguised as refugees.

How is this highly unconventional and diffuse threat to be met? We should be grateful, of course, to our security services, the police and the armed forces for their ceaseless vigilance in keeping us safe; but what else needs to be done? First of all, we need to recognise the global nature of the threat and, therefore, the global means necessary to neutralise it. In some cases, this will involve armed action to prevent genocide or in support of those trying to prevent terrorism on their own soil, knowing that those attacking our friends overseas could soon be attacking us.

We should not, however, underestimate “soft” measures such as helping countries like Pakistan to eliminate the teaching of hate in school textbooks or in deradicalising madrassas through inspections, widening the curriculum, the teaching of other religions with some academic rigour and proper accreditation of the qualifications they offer. As far as the new media is concerned, the extremist narrative must be combated there not only by taking down material from the internet but by providing young people with alternative views of the world. It should go without saying that what is done in and for the wider world can also be most useful here.

The danger in the West comes not only from Islamist extremism but from a fascist backlash that could, at worst, unleash a kind of civil war between different kinds of violent extremism, exactly what groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda want. It could also lead the West to abandon the very values of human dignity, equality and freedom which it should be defending from this new barbarism.

One of the fictions we do need to give up is that of state neutrality and the idea of a public space in which there are only formal rules of debate and decision-making. It is good to know that the British government, at least, now recognises the need for fundamental values. These are not, by the way, just derivatives like democracy, individual freedom, the rule of law and tolerance but values such as the inalienable dignity of the person, equality, freedom and a commitment to truth. They include also awareness of accountability, which is not limited to human tribunals, the importance of deferred gratification for personal development, as well as service to the nation and a sense of vocation, of being called to our work in life and not doing it only for pecuniary reward.

Values are not freestanding. They arise out of a particular world view and, as Maurice Cowling  and Larry Siedentop have shown in their different ways, the ones above have demonstrably emerged from Christian discourse, going back to Alfred the Great, Magna Carta, the various Bills of Rights, etc. It is true that both the moderate and the radical Enlightenment drew on this tradition but the values are not self-evident and self-justifying. They make sense when they are related to basic Judaeo-Christian beliefs about the nature of humanity and of society.

The affirmation of such values and their basis has implications not only for immigration but for the integration of communities here already. Immigration policy must, of course, take account of the economic and commercial needs of the country, but it cannot be blind to culture, religion and values. We must make sure that those who come to this country as refugees, economic migrants or family members of those already here are ready and willing to integrate into a society which has arisen out of a world view and a history which is quite specific to it. This does not in any way mean that they cannot celebrate their own culture, speak their own languages or practise their religion; but it does mean that they should have a desire to live in and to contribute to a society which has its own value system. There can be recognition of a multicultural society, but not of an ideology of multiculturalism which denies any vantage point by which we may judge what we regard as desirable for our society.

It is perhaps worth saying at this point that the Judaeo-Christian tradition provides for self-criticism from within. We must be able to look at our own laws and practices critically and to reform what has gone wrong. It means also that we cannot adopt the methods of our adversaries, even in fighting them. In particular, in the struggle against extremism, we are bound by international law but also by our own traditions, for example, that of free speech. It would be difficult, say, to support a counter-extremism strategy which went beyond the prevention of incitement to violence and of unjust discrimination against individuals or groups, though it could possibly also be extended to preventing the undermining of the constitutional basis of the State itself. Other than these fundamental principles, the presumption of free speech would have to prevail, however much we may dislike what is being said. Going further would make us totalitarian mirror images of what we oppose.

It has to be said that the West cannot address Islamist extremism on its own. It needs partners, not least in the Muslim world itself. It is true that powers such as India, China and Russia have their own reasons for opposing Islamist extremism and, from time to time, there will have to be cooperation with them and others. But the threat will not be eliminated unless the Islamic world itself puts its house in order. This can be done nation by nation, as in Egypt, for example, or Tunisia. It can also be done at the level of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation or the Arab League.

There has to be, first of all, a rejection of Wahhabism and Salafism insofar as these forms of Islam turn their backs on how the Muslim world has contextualised Islam in different cultures, adapting it to widely different social, political and economic situations. In particular, we need an affirmation not only of the principles of development in the various schools of sharia law but of custom (ada) and of statutory law (qanun), as they have been used in different Islamic polities down the ages and across the world. Modern lawmaking in the Islamic world could then take sharia into account but would also draw on other traditions of law, for example, on international declarations on fundamental freedoms. For 200 years or so, distinguished scholars have felt the need to carry out a radical reconstruction of sharia, based on ijtihad, a fresh interpretation of the sources of Islamic law. Others, less radically, have proposed that in jurisprudence the principle of maslaha (promoting the common good) must always be kept in mind. Islamic states need to endorse these programmes, rather than always trying to accommodate themselves to Islamist rejection of this tradition and history.

This should cut the nerve of much of the Islamist agenda and lead to provision for women and minorities on the basis of dignity and equality. It would also allow for peaceful relations to develop between Muslim and non-Muslim states, based not on the temporary truces and agreements of traditional sharia but on international law. Society would, once again, be free to recognise spiritual movements like Sufism, which encourage a spirituality of the heart as against a legalistic understanding of religion, as espoused by the extremists.

If developments in the West to tackle its vulnerability to extremism could take place pari passu with reform in the Islamic world, there is a chance of first preventing this virus from spreading and then of eliminating it altogether from the international body politic. There is hard work to be done. At both ends, it has to do with addressing fundamental issues rather than simply tinkering with the symptoms. The human intellectual and spiritual resources exist to do the work required, but is anyone interested in such long-term projects which go beyond the next election or the demands of the next Friday Prayers, as the case may be?

Let us hope for statesmen on both sides who will understand what needs to be done and begin to do it.