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24 March 2016

This article was originally published on The Times, authored by Maajid Nawaz.

There is little room for doubt that Europe is in the midst of something akin to a jihadist guerrilla war. Up to 100 fighters have left for Iraq and Syria from Brussels alone. Belgium is in danger of becoming the new “Londonistan”.

The political climate that is unfolding has long been demanded by al-Qaeda ideologues. A leading al-Qaeda strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri, who used to live in London, called for this insurgency in Europe more than a decade ago. In his book Call for an International Islamic Resistance al-Suri outlined the benefits of provoking civil war between Muslims and non-Muslims so that communities begin to self-segregate for their own protection. Jihadists believed that by stirring up religious tension people would retreat into their own safe spaces as they inevitably started to identify other citizens primarily by their religion to test where their loyalties lie.

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The inevitable backlash in the West against terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims — the mutual religious mistrust that this would breed, the war-weary isolationism from the Middle East that it would create among policymakers and the retreat into populist identity politics across society — could only ever serve those who wished to divide the world into Muslim and non-Muslim zones. As we Muslims are a minority in the West al-Qaeda sought to force us to flee any populist backlash. Jihadists wanted the world to be so angry with Muslims that whether we intended it or not we would come to be seen primarily as Muslims first. Islamist propaganda ensured that many Muslims had already adopted this medieval mode of identification. Once the seeds of division were sown the only sanctuary left to Muslims would be the jihadists’ “caliphate”.

Bin Laden foresaw all this. The only snag in al-Qaeda’s plan has been Islamic State, which audaciously snatched the mantle of the caliphate after Bin Laden’s death. Everything else has so far gone according to the jihadist grand strategy.

More attacks this year are highly likely. Intelligence agencies are overwhelmed across Europe. In the UK the security services are inundated with work. They fear the inevitable: multiple terrorist attacks on British soil. Not if but when this happens it will trigger political pressure and a nationalist backlash against Muslims and our membership of the European Union and against immigration more generally. Politicians will start to take tougher measures to show that they are doing something or they will lose elections to those who promise to take a harder line. We must not allow fear to affect or sway the way we intend to vote.

This struggle is first and foremost an ideological one before it is a military one. Many on the liberal left used to deny that Islamist extremism existed. Then they took to limiting the problem to “violent extremism” only, using nauseating and insipid phrases such as “al-Qaeda-inspired extremism” to refer to what was clearly an ideology. No, it was not al-Qaeda that “inspired extremism”; it was extremism that inspired al-Qaeda.

Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam are as unhelpful as saying that this is what Islam is all about. Extremism certainly has something to do with Islam. We must accept that the world is in the midst of a generational struggle to distinguish the faith from Islamism, a political ideology that seeks to impose itself on society and its violent arm of jihadism. The task ahead of us is to name this ideology, isolate it and then discredit it while supporting those who seek to reform Islam today.

We must reassert our hard-earned enlightenment values as the antidote to rising theocratic dogma within our communities. For if Islamists are to fail in their strategy it is paramount that we reach across religious and cultural differences and build alliances around our common values. It is Islamists who seek to convince us Muslims to identify by our religion first. But we must be citizens first and foremost, standing for secularism.

Just as one need not be gay to challenge homophobia one need not be Muslim to challenge theocracy. Despite its obvious imperfections, the UK Prevent strategy aspires to bring communities together in this way, though it is clearly struggling. The Dutch model also recognises the importance of an approach rooted in unifying communities along secular lines to challenge theocratic thinking. This approach reframes the debate, pulling the rug from under the Islamists’ feet as well as undermining identity-obsessed populists riding the current wave of fear, who are also dividing us all along religious lines.

The world is not divided between Muslims and non-Muslims but between those who believe in open societies and those who believe in closed ones. Muslims and non-Muslims sit on both sides of this fence. All of us together are responsible for challenging intolerant, theocratic thinking before it spills over to violence. All of us together are responsible for refusing to allow religion to become the primary bond that divides us from “the other”. Religious spheres of influence is a notion the world rightly left behind in the medieval era.

Maajid Nawaz is founding chairman of Quilliam and author of Radical: My Journey from Islamic Extremism to a Democratic Awakening.

To read the article as originally published on The Times, please click here.

3 thoughts on “We need to pull up Islamism by its roots – Maajid Nawaz

  1. Micheal Horton says:

    Thank you, Mr. Nawaz, for this article, this website, and for the efforts of your entire team. I just finished your book with Sam Harris, and while I theologically share very little in common with either of you, I found you both to be extremely well-spoken and refreshingly honest. The dialog between you should be held up as a prime example of what a civil discussion should look like.

    This article continues that dialog, at least in spirit. It is my fervent prayer that articles such as this find their way to the forefront of mainstream news and popular culture. Your message needs to be heard.

  2. Robin Fisher says:

    Thank you so much for this contribution and for all that your foundation is doing.
    May I mention some problems?
    Firstly, what is a faith? ‘Faith’ to Muslims, Hindus and Secularists means a vastly different thing. For modern secularists in the West a faith is something more or less private that does not affect your life or work too much. I know that my Muslim friends would not agree with this at all, and neither would I as a Christian. Are you really asking Muslims to adopt this attitude? Actually it seems that Islam is an integrated biosphere where politics, faith, social customs and even language and clothing are interwoven. It is, in fact, pre-enlightenment.
    “..a political ideology that seeks to impose itself on society.” The trouble is, this seems to be a pretty fair picture of Islam in its early days when Islam was imposed by force. Many Muslims I have spoken to in the Middle East hate ‘Daish’but often, to their great distress, are not able to say what distinguishes it from ‘normal’ Islam. ISIS has a theology of its own and its own narrative history linking it directly to the Prophet.
    So the question is: how are you going to disentangle Islam from its warlike past? And how are you going to adopt ‘Western enlightenment values’, some of which are not Islamic, while Islam in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the middle east, not to mention Pakistan, are firmly in the traditional pre-enlightenment mould?
    The anti –Christian mindset that is endemic all over the Muslim world, not to mention here in Britain, indicates as nothing else can that Muslims identify themselves by their religion first.

  3. Robin Fisher says:

    Thank you so much for this contribution and for all that your foundation is doing.
    There are essential problems here which need to be addressed.
    Firstly, what is a faith? ‘Faith’ to Muslims, Hindus and Secularists means a vastly different thing. For modern secularists in the West a faith is something more or less private that does not affect your life or work too much. I know that my Muslim friends would not agree with this definition at all, and neither would I as a Christian. Are you really asking Muslims to adopt this attitude? Actually it seems that Islam is an integrated biosphere where politics, faith, social customs, world view and even language and clothing are interwoven. It is, in fact, pre-enlightenment.
    “..a political ideology that seeks to impose itself on society.” The trouble is, this seems to be a pretty fair picture of Islam in its early days when Islam was imposed by force. Many Muslims I have spoken to in the Middle East hate ‘Daish’but often, to their great distress, are not able to say what distinguishes it from ‘normal’ Islam. ISIS has an Islamic theology of its own and its own narrative history.
    I am glad that you accept that Islamism has something to do with Islam. The question is: how are you going to disentangle Islam from its warlike past? And how are you going to adopt western enlightenment values, some of which are not Islamic, while Islam in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the middle east, not to mention Pakistan, are firmly in the traditional pre-enlightenment mould? The anti –Christian mindset that is endemic all over the Muslim world, not to mention here in Britain, indicates as nothing else can that Muslims identify themselves by their religion first.

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