Confronting Islamism

Last Tuesday’s assault on Brussels demonstrates, once again, the extent of ISIS’s sinister capability.  After a string of attacks around the world, and despite Europe on high-alert, the Jihadists evaded security agencies. The result: characteristic bloodshed and mayhem.

ISIS’s operatives are capable, determined, and fanatically believe in their purpose.  They are equally certain in the morality of their actions, as they are convinced that paradise follows their death. They are willing to kill anyone to achieve their goals.

A chilling blend of competence, delusion and profound wickedness. A band of committed psychopaths.

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, Europeans are once again reflecting on whether these kinds of attacks are the new normal.  Doubts about security are increasing; people begin to fear daily life.  Who will be the next target?  This is the lingering terror of terrorism.

There are two natural reactions that are difficult to resist in the wake of terror attacks.  Firstly, a strong desire to lash out. The easy targets of immediate anger are ordinary Muslims living in local communities.

The second reaction is a newfound willingness to trade civil liberties for the comfort of security. The desire for safety sees people ready to surrender freedoms they would ordinarily cherish.  Societies become willing to listen to political strongmen whose blistering rhetoric makes the terrified feel safe.

Giving in to either of these instincts is to succumb to the terrorist’s goals. They want to disrupt the West’s way of life.  They want enmity between the West and Islam. They want war.

However, inaction is certainly no solution – as political and security failures in Europe demonstrate.  The battle with ISIS, and wider Jihadism, is both a security issue and a struggle of conflicting ideas.  Effective security is necessary in the short term, but this war can only be won if the enemy’s underlying ideology is confronted and defeated.

Taking the low road of targeting ordinary Muslims obscures a focused response to the real problem, which is Islamism.  Not Islam, but Islamism.

Islam, Islamism and Jihadism

Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist turned Muslim reformist (and a gifted communicator), plainly distinguishes Islam, Islamism and Jihadism:

  • Islam is a religion. Like any religion its adherents are not homogenous. They have multiple perspectives, and different interpretations of their religious text. Some will be liberal, some fundamentalist.
  • Islamism is a theocratic ideology seeking to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society. Islamists may be political, or they may be violent (or both). Both forms of Islamism are a threat to secularism.
  • Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism.

These distinctions are important.  To know someone is a Muslim is to know that they follow an interpretation of Islam (of which there are many), nothing else.  This does not reveal much of anything about the individual or their views on an ideal society.  Just as knowing someone is a Christian does not tell us whether that person is a community minded Salvo, or a Westboro Baptist nutcase.

Islamism, and its violent advocate Jihadism, is the antithesis to western liberal values.  It is important to remember that ordinary Muslims are paying the heaviest price at the hands of Islamists and Jihadists.  As frequent violent attacks in Muslim majority countries attest.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that Islamists and Jihadist groups come from, and blend within, Islamic communities.  They sustain themselves by, predominately, recruiting from these populations.

It is entirely inaccurate to say ISIS and other jihadist groups have nothing to do with Islam.  As their name and ideology reveals, Islam clearly has something to do with ISIS.  Not everything, but something.

Muslim communities cannot ignore this fact, and neither can world leaders.  However, the way forward is not to isolate Muslim communities; it is to include them in the dialogue.

Combatting the ideology of Islamism and Jihadism requires a whole-of-community effort.  And it is influential moderate and liberal Muslims who are best placed to counter the Islamist narrative. They will have the greatest chance of influencing the minds of their coreligionists away from extremism and theocracy.

If Muslims want to integrate successfully into Western societies they must embrace secularism (and of course many already do). And the wider community must support Muslims who take great personal risk to encourage religious reform and counter extremist narratives.  The Quilliam Foundation is a good example of such an organisation.

Likewise, leaders need to be upfront about the problem of Islamism. A solution to Islamic inspired terrorism will never be found if the root cause is not acknowledged. It is important that societies openly, and rationally, engage in difficult conversations around religion and its role in promoting extremism and illiberalism.

To be silent on these issues is to cede that conversation space to demagogues and bigots. The Donald Trumps of this world. The type of reckless leaders who make no distinction between Islam, Islamism and Jihadism, and who would restrict civil liberties to impose their own form of authoritarianism, under the guise of ‘security’.

There is no easy resolution to extremism, but a good start would be talking honestly and sensibly about the root causes. These discussions need to be frank, but they also need to be inclusive.

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