Islamists’ discourse needs to be challenged in the West

Islamists’ discourse needs to be challenged in the West

Candles and flowers are seen at a vigil in memory of the three victims of the terror attack in Forbury Gardens, David Wails, Joseph Ritchie-Bennett and James Furlong, at Market Place, Reading, west of London on June 27, 2020. (AFP)
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There was a stab attack in a park in Reading, in the UK, last weekend. As I write, it isn’t clear whether this was an Islamist attack or simply an act of random violence. It is being investigated as a possible terrorist incident, but there are conflicting reports about the individual concerned. The reaction of one UK activist group was interesting: To attack the police for even investigating it as a potential “terrorist incident,” saying that the decision is “connected to ideology and once again a stick to beat down ordinary Muslims.”

If this was just a crackpot fringe group, it wouldn’t really matter. But Cage, the organization concerned, has a history of, at best, inadvisable comments on Islamist extremists — and has been supported by numerous individuals on the hard left, including former UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In fact, Cage is part of a network of hard-left groups, grievance politics-based Muslim activists, and nonviolent Islamists. This is an alliance of convenience that exists across much of the West, in which, by and large, the Islamists don’t question the major progressive shibboleths and the hard-left doesn’t focus too much on the more troubling aspects of the Islamist side. 

I specify “nonviolent Islamists,” but defining this is hard. British government definitions have focused on “British” or “fundamental” values. This is weak, as extremism is transnational and many of our allies don’t share some of those we identify. In any case, secular civil servants and politicians have a habit of regarding religious conservatism and religious extremism as broadly synonymous: A dangerous conflation for any counter-extremism initiative. Moreover, government-led efforts to combat nonviolent extremism in much of the West are hampered by commitments to free speech. 

Aside from the question of whether it serves as a gateway into violent extremism, nonviolent Islamist extremism poses a threat to social cohesion. Put simply, if the Muslim communities of the West do not feel a part of the societies where they reside as citizens, then they are more vulnerable to extremist ideas. It is, therefore, in the interests of extremists to foster division.

Theories of intersectionality and grievance politics provide fertile ground for Islamist groups to get to work with the far left.

Peter Welby

Theories of intersectionality and grievance politics provide fertile ground for Islamist groups to get to work with the far left. Their work is aided by prominent networks of Muslim activists and academics who find they share many views. These networks are not generally themselves Islamist (though some are), but ideas that have long been widespread in Islamist discourse are now in common circulation among non-Islamist Muslim activists and academics on the left. To take three examples: The British or American governments (and other Western governments) are by their nature opposed to Islam and Muslims, at home and abroad; counter-extremism policies target Muslims and are Islamophobic; and Western societies are structurally opposed to Islam and Muslims. 

I mentioned academics along with activists because there are those with training in the study of Islam who lean upon their secular academic credentials to present themselves as Islamic theologians — and, to any religious extremist worth the name, theology matters. Most of these belong in that same intersectional activist network, and some come from families with well-known ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat e-Islami, and other international Islamist groups. Efforts by actual trained Islamic theologians and jurists to counter some of their messages tend to get shouted down. Activists and academics from this milieu dominate discussion on social media (as activists tend to in all walks of life). 

It is the voices drawn from this activist-Islamist junction that get a large part of the available attention in the media and in engagement with politicians. They had a dominant voice in the evidence given to the British Parliament’s all-party group on British Muslims’ inquiry into Islamophobia, for example, the results of which can be seen in its report. But their views are not really shared by British Muslims at large. A recent Crest Advisory report found broad support among British Muslims for the principles of the UK Government’s “Prevent” program, which aims to spot early signs of radicalization. It is aimed at all forms of extremism and uncovers far-right sentiment as much as other extremist views. In response, four prominent groups claiming to speak on behalf of Muslims responded either that the report was wrong or that its authors were biased.

Grievance politics is now particularly attractive because it draws on genuine concerns. Anti-Muslim prejudice is represented in both public and normal life across the West. And, the louder Islamist voices and their activist friends become, the easier it is to go down the cul-de-sac of suggesting Islam itself is the problem — a cul-de-sac that many political leaders are already exploring. That needs to be avoided.

The alternative to this is equipping trained scholars to counter the activist-Islamist junction in Islamic discourse. As the Crest report, other polling and everyday conversations reveal, the vast majority of Muslims in the West do not share the views of the activists and the Islamists or are even particularly interested in them. But if this discourse continues without significant challenge on social media and in real life, this is liable to change. I am convinced that this is where efforts should be focused — but that requires resourcing and, crucially, it requires proactive defense against their many enemies from the very beginning. Both resources and defenders trained in the kind of political warfare this represents are currently sorely lacking.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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