Quilliam Political Liaison Officer, Jonathan Russell, reflects on the state of jihadism in the world, ten years after Ken Bigley was beheaded in Iraq.
We see a brutal jihadist organisation based in Iraq, its members motivated by their adherence to an Islamist ideology, behead a British civilian wearing an orange jumpsuit on camera after making him criticise British foreign policy.
We see a multi-faith memorial service, a renunciation of kidnapping and beheadings as un-Islamic by the Muslim Council of Britain, and then a series of opinion pieces in the print media discussing whether Islam is a religion of peace, whether the UK should negotiate with terrorists, and whether UK foreign policy causes extremism.
It upsets me that this is as true on 7 October 2004 as it is today in 2014. The British civil engineer Ken Bigley was killed 10 years ago today by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) , in much the same way that British aid worker Alan Henning was this weekend at the hands of the Islamic State (Isis).
In many ways Isis are the logical descendants of AQI. They share a radical and exclusivist worldview, with more affinity for using the Islamist practice of excommunication, takfir, than other extremist organisations.
While the jihadist organisations in Iraq and Syria do not seem to have changed much, you would expect the UK’s response to have evolved. We have a different political party in charge, have experienced the horrors of jihadism in our own green and pleasant land, and as a country have always been geared towards finding progressive solutions to political problems. Yet when it comes to countering terrorism, we haven’t progressed as much as we should have. So what’s wrong?
To begin with, too much emphasis is still put on war and law. Theresa May spoke well on the need to tackle the whole Islamist ideological spectrum rather than just the jihadist fringes of it recently, but then suggested legal changes which would likely be counter-productive. As well as ensuring that counter-terrorism adheres to basic human rights norms, we must develop a civil society-based approach which is wholly inclusive of Muslim communities.
Another problem is that no-one has worked out how to centrally co-ordinate the Government’s Prevent Strategy across the relevant departments, while ensuring that it is delivered locally. Its purpose is to engage with communities rather than alienating them, and “provide practical help to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”. Yet none of this is being practically implemented by the Government. The next parliament desperately needs a counter-extremism tsar to take control of this portfolio and make some key strategic changes.
Furthermore, Islamic groups with questionable ideologies continue to receive funds from the public purse, and get invited to top table. Many are seen as the gatekeepers of the “Muslim community”, a notion that really ought to have been phased out with the British Raj 67 years ago. Groups like the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain — who have been linked to international Islamist groups that want to impose a single interpretation of Sharia as codified law — continue to rally against those who use violence, but fail to criticise the ideology that underpins such violence. Surely opposing beheadings is the minimum required, but they need to go further in their condemnations of IS. Westminster must insist that groups condemn the idea of the Caliphate and singular Muslim rule in general, rather than simply the terrorist organisation.
Some elements of the political and media circus are also failing in their analysis of the problem. Parts of the British Left struggle to criticise Islamist ideology, largely for fear of being called racist or Islamophobic, and instead apologises for it, focusing on foreign policy, economic problems, and cultural relativity. At the same time, the right-wing media and far-right groups like British First fuel alarmism by portraying Muslims as the root of all evil. To solve these problems we have to promote a sensible middle ground between the two extremes.
I hope that after a decade we might be reaching a turning point. With the sudden rise of IS, and the migration of hundreds of British extremists to Iraq and Syria, the UK has finally accepted the scale of the problem. Solutions are being proposed that must be taken on board in all parties’ manifestos for the next General Election. Failure to do so may mean we turn around in another ten years and see more orange jumpsuits. But this needn’t be the case.
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