Like the moon, every religion has a light and a dark side. That is partly because religion — the capacity to discover ultimate meaning beyond ourselves — appears to be “hard-wired” into our humanity. And human nature is notoriously flawed. But the dark side of faith is also bound up with holy books, tradition, hierarchy and fidelity. A sacred text can be used to justify almost any enormity; a religious tradition can be cruel yet command unquestioning obedience; power is the more absolute, and hence more liable to corruption, for being exercised in the name of God; and persecution for infidelity or heresy has until recently been the rule rather than the exception.
This dark side of religion can take many forms, but the most enduring perversions of faith always claim scriptural authority. “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” says Shakespeare’s Antonio. True enough, yet in context this hateful response to Shylock’s retelling of a bible story is a reminder that even the greatest of writers relied on classic Christian anti-Judaism. Of course, scripture may also be cited for benign purposes: the Koran, for example, has no fewer than three verses in which Allah ordains that the Jews should “dwell securely in the Promised Land”. Curiously, the Koranic endorsement of Israel is seldom if ever referred to by Muslim leaders.
Islam’s dark side today is the political ideology known as Islamism. It, too, derives much of its influence from scriptural authority, however much it is repudiated by many Sunni and Shia scholars. In an important article for this month’s Standpoint, Michael Gove explains how Islamism has spread throughout the West, while in some parts of the Muslim world it has come to dominate politics and society. As a former secretary of state for both education and justice, he understands the challenge faced by any Western government that is determined to overcome this global threat to civilisation.
Meanwhile, John Ware examines the struggle for the souls of British Muslims between those, like Sara Khan, who work quietly to combat extremism, and the Islamist and Salafist “community leaders” who now run many mosques. One focus of this struggle over the past decade has been the government’s Prevent programme, aimed at combating both Islamist and neo-Nazi radicalisation. Prevent has been the target of a relentless abolition campaign, led not only by Islamists but also by the hard Left and opportunist politicians. In his eagerness to become Manchester’s first elected mayor Andy Burnham, the former Labour Cabinet minister and leadership candidate, has made common cause with the Islamists by making absurd and emotive comparisons between Prevent and internment in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Mr Burnham likes to parade his credentials as a Northerner and a working-class Catholic. By undermining the fight against Islamism, however, he demonstrates that he is unworthy to represent either his region or his religion.
Islamism is an ideology on the march. This march must be halted, not only for the sake of the West but also for that of 1.6 billion Muslims, the vast majority of whom do not enjoy freedom, democracy or the rule of law and have no hope of doing so if Islamism triumphs. But the battle of ideas must begin here — in Bradford and Boston, in Melbourne and Munich — because only in the open societies of the West is there a public square where the doctrines of Islamism can be confronted and defeated.
Like Communism and fascism before it, Islamism has its fellow travellers, who may not themselves have gone over to the dark side but whose corrosive influence prepares the ground for Islamism. Tibor Fischer examines Slavoj Žižek, Slovenia’s second-biggest celebrity export (after Melania Trump), whose neo-Communist philosophy enables him to blame “global capitalism” for the refugee crisis. An even more egregious example is Michel Onfray, the most fashionable philosopher in France, who argues in his recent book Cosmos that “our European civilisation is Judaeo-Christian . . . This civilisation is in the process of disappearing.” After the terrorist attacks on Paris a year ago, Onfray declared that France should sign a “truce” with Islamic State; there was, he wrote, no moral difference between the bloodbath in Paris and the West’s war on terror.
With intellectuals such as Onfray obscuring the distinction between friend and foe while calling for appeasement, it is no wonder that the Islamists are gloating, even as their victims reproach us nightly on TV. As Xan Smiley points out à propos Libya, we tend to blame Western intervention for chaos in the Islamic crescent, even when the responsibility manifestly lies with the local antagonists.
One major cause of confusion is the role of Russia. Putin presents himself in the West as a principled defender of Christendom, meanwhile playing a cynical and bloody game of realpolitik in the Middle East. He simultaneously cultivates both sides of various conflicts: Bashir Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ayatollah Khamenei and Binyamin Netanyahu. And he tries to manipulate Western politics, including the US election, on a scale not seen even at the height of the Cold War. Putin’s Russia is a destabilising and disorientating force.
We in the West must hold our nerve in defence of our values. As Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister, points out, authoritarian and theocratic cultures find our civilisation inherently threatening. For their leaders to be hostile, we don’t have to do anything at all. But as the agony of Aleppo and Mosul demonstrates, doing nothing amounts to a death sentence for millions threatened by Islamism. For the sake of posterity, the West can and will act to ensure that a new dark age does not prevail.