This post is prompted by David Cameron’s recent speech setting out a new agenda on addressing the threat of Islamist violent extremism, and also by the recent launch of a whole series of “counter-jihadi” initiatives on the British right, including the planning of a Mohammed cartoon exhibition in London in September. The latter has been the subject of a report by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate (HnH). My friend Sarah made some sympathetic criticisms of that report at Harry’s Place, for which she got some sharp criticism on Twitter. This whole topic is one which frequently inflames irrational passions and generates more heat than light. This post, therefore, is an attempt to set out a series of propositions on these issues as an attempt to cut through some of the hysteria. I didn’t mean for it to get so long!
“Extremism” is not a helpful framing of the problem
Cameron frames his approach to Islamism in terms of the wider generic problem of “extremism”, noting that Islamism is just one of many forms of “extremism”, along with that of the far right. Cameron is right to note that other ideologies constitute a threat, and there are certain similarities between the Islamist far right and the British nationalist far right. However, the term “extremism” creates more confusion than it solves, especially when the border between extremism and terrorism is blurred, as it was in Cameron’s speech, and in fact can do damage.
The idea of “extremism” implicitly contrasts these ideologies to the “normal”, acceptable politics of the centre ground, of the mainstream status quo. The concept of “extremism” criminalises the desire for change. It stops us from looking carefully and critically at the ideologies caught in its remit – which closes down debate, imagination and criticism, and stops us from engaging “extremist” ideologies and challenging them politically. The concept of “extremism” can make minor, marginal ideologies seem more dangerous than they often are – and therefore can sometimes make them seem glamourous and exciting.
We know from history that the rubric of “extremism” is most often used against the left. In recent decades, for example, we have seen huge amount of resources put into the policing and surveillance of left-wing politics, with undercover police officers inserted into ecological, anti-fascist and anti-racist movements, sowing havoc and ruining lives. Anti-capitalist groups like Occupy are lumped together with al-Qaeda and the IRA in the category of “domestic extremism”. The language of the guidance on extremism given to universities effectively means that not just jihadism but also anarchism should be excluded from such institutions. We have seen the infiltration and disruption of the campaigns led by the families of victims of racist violence, such as Stephen Lawrence’s; collusion in the blacklisting of union activists; and acts of provocation to push non-violent activists into criminal activity.
Cameron is wrong to think that extremism in general is a conveyer belt to violent extremism and terror
Cameron claims that “many [terrorists] were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists”; Islamism, he says, “has often sucked people in from non-violence to violence”. This is true, as far is at goes, but it is also true that most followers of “non-violent” extremism do not get “sucked” to jihadist violence, just as most anti-immigrant racists and casual antisemites do not get “sucked” to violent fascism. Not making that clear is problematic.
The evidence-based blogger Anonymous Mugwump has collated all of the research showing very conclusively that there is no necessary or straightforward step from extremism to violent extremism, no single pathway from Islamism to terrorism; his case is pretty conclusive.
(Cameron’s mistaken emphasis on this connection is probably due to the emphasis on the government’s thinking of the thinktank Quilliam, who have long argued, with little evidential basis, that extremism in general leads to violent extremism in particular – although their position, as Amjad Khan argues here, is more subtle than Cameron’s: non-violent extremism, they say, provides the “mood music” for terrorism.)
As Anonymous Mugwump notes, there may well be good reasons to oppose some forms of non-violent extremism – but its connection to terrorism is not one of them. The category of non-violent extremism is basically a form of “pre-crime” or thought crime; making it into a security issue is dangerous because it criminalises beliefs that are not in fact criminally dangerous; it is a licence for authoritarian over-policing, for policing without the consent of communities. As I will argue more fully below, while terrorism is a policing issue, non-violent Islamism is a political issue, which should be challenged politically, by all of us – citizens, communities – and not from above by the state.
Cameron is broadly right to highlight ideology over “root causes”
|Image: Jake Goretski|
It is a shibboleth of many liberals and leftists that terrorism can be explained through “root causes” such as Western imperialism and foreign policy, or the socio-economic disadvantage of Muslim communities. (Leftists and liberals rarely look for “root causes” to explain fascism, UKIP support or voting Tory; fascists and xenophobes are usually dismissed as malevolent or stupid. Why is Islamism unique among far right ideologies in needing explanation through root causes?)
The late Norman Geras regularly exposed the folly of root causism and the blowback theory. Cameron echoes Norm in noting that 9/11 came before the Iraq war and that it is often the most rather than least advantaged who engage in terrorism, demonstrating that it is the ideology itself, not deprivation or foreign policy, that is the central explanatory factor. Anonymous Mugwump has summed up much of the literature refuting blowback theory too (here, here, here, here, here and here), and Futile Democracy has made some similar points, pointing out how long before 2002 Islamism’s commitment to violence can be dated.
So, Cameron is broadly right here. He is too quick, though, to eliminate the possibility that Western policy has any role in driving terror: surely it is possible that Western intervention can trigger terrorist vengeance even it does not cause it, or that narratives which highlight Western intervention might be used by jihadists to recruit converts? (An analogy would be Israel’s actions and antisemitic incidents, or Islamist terrorism and anti-Muslim hate crime: the former trigger the latter but are not the cause, because for the trigger to work there needs to already be an ideological matrix which blames Israel’s actions on all Jews, terrorist actions on all Muslims – or Western intervention on all Westerners.)
Cameron points to some of the right reason Islamist ideologies are attractive
Focusing on the ideology not the “root causes” does not absolve us from trying to understand why the ideology appeals. Cameron’s explanation of the appeal is incoherent, but hits some of the right notes. The lust for adventure, the desire for identity, a sense of injustice, compassion for suffering members of the ummah and the pleasure of moral certainty are certainly part of the appeal.
And Cameron gestures towards these. Jihadism, he says, “can offer [young people] a sense of belonging that they can lack here at home” – while “racism, discrimination or sickening Islamophobia” lead them to believe there is no place for them in Britain. (Left-wing critics of Cameron, such as Nafeez Ahmed, seem to have completely missed this large section of the speech.)
Cameron is right to downplay grievances but wrong to dismiss them altogether
As I already noted, Cameron is wrong to refuse the possibility that there’s some connection between foreign policy or socio-economic context and terrorism. The right way to frame this, in my view, is through the category of perceived grievance. Perceived grievance clearly contributes to the appeal of radical responses.
Perceived grievances sometimes have no basis in truth (there is no Western war on Muslims; Jews and Zionists do not control Britain). Some grievances involve a mix of fact and fantasy (the Iraq war has some questionable motives as well as some good ones, and lots of people died because of it). Other grievances a firm basis in truth (Islamophobia is pandemic in modern Europe; Muslims do experience some discrimination in the labour market; Assad is slaughtering Sunni Muslims).
In this sense, the Islamist appeal to British Muslims mirrors the appeal of UKIP or the far right to some other British people. Immigration and terrorism does not cause or “provoke” xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, but the mixture of real and imagined grievances accumulating around migration and Islam contributes to the appeal. If we recognise the role of grievance in driving Islamism (as the left does), we also need to recognise (as the left refuses to do) its role in driving right-wing ideology too.
Cameron is right to emphasise antisemitism and conspiricism in the Islamist mix
|Image: The New Centrist|
Cameron put a surprising amount of emphasis in his speech on antisemitism and conspiracy theories. I think he was right to do so, for two reasons. First, because conspirationism and antisemitic memes are behind the false narratives in many of the perceived grievances promoted by Islamist ideology. And second because antisemitism, or more specifically the shift in gear from casual everyday antisemitism to an ideologically committed antisemitic worldview, typically marks the shift from softer sympathy with Islamism to the kinds of Islamist ideology most likely to generate terrorism.
(We can see something similar on the far right, both with antisemitism, which remains the esoteric core of fascist ideology even as anti-Muslim bigotry becomes a more prominent part of the public appeal, and with Islamophobia as new far right groups move beyond soft anti-Muslim bigotry to a full scale, paranoid conspiricist and civilisationist anti-Islamic ideological worldview.)
Cameron is wrong to think that failed integration is a driver of extremism
The Islamist appeal to forms of everyday antisemitism that are wired into British society at large is a good example of how “failed integration” is the wrong frame for understanding extremism. Many of the ingredients of Islamism – e.g. anti-Americanism, misogyny, homophobia – are not unique to Islamism but float around in mainstream society. The humanitarian impulse that says we must do something about the suffering of the children of Gaza or Syria is not profoundly un-British either.
And so it is not surprising that recruits to jihad are not the least “integrated” of British Muslims, but often the most integrated – including converts. They are English-speaking, British-educated, often high achieving, often from comfortable socio-economic backgrounds, on the surface indistinguishable from their non-jihadi peers.
Very few come from the tiny handful of places in Britain that could be thought of as de facto segregated communities; there are no all-Muslim ghettos in Portsmouth, Southampton, Brighton, Cardiff or Lewisham, to name some of the places where jihadist cells have operated. (I have made that argument before, here.)
Young people who turn to radical Wahhabi or Salafi faith or to political Islam are often doing so in rebellion against their parents’ or grandparents’ conservative Sufi or Barelvi practices. They go to English-speaking mosques to get out of Urdu-speaking mosques. They prefer the multi-ethnic solidarity of jihad to the restrictive ties of ethnic community.
Cameron is right to care about issues such as FGM and forced marriage, but wrong to link to Islamism
“Failed integration”, where it exists, might be a problem, then, but it is not the problem of jihad. Practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation are problems which need to be fought vigorously, but they are problems that flourish in completely different contexts than those in which jihadi ideology flourishes. FGM and forced marriage are issues of patriarchy and cultural –conservatism driven by elders in particular micro-communities, exactly the cultural conservatism jihadi youth seek to escape.
By associating these kinds of practices (which are cultural and not religious, and found among some Muslim ethnic groups and not others) with jihad, Cameron is helping to sustain a false idea of a generic “Muslim” problem, rather than thinking seriously about how to combat jihadi ideology. (And in doing so, of course, sustains the perceived grievance of a “war on Muslims” that jihadist promote to broaden their appeal.)
Islamism and the far right are both dangers, but are not equivalents
The narrative of generic “extremism”, including both the far right and jihadis, at war with our British mainstream sometimes shades in to thinking of these different “extremisms” as equivalent to each other. (For instance, the HnH report describes the counter-jihadists as “as dangerous as the Islamists they claim to dislike” (p.2).) There are some ways in which the far right and Islamism do mirror or feed off each other. This is most obvious with the relationship between the EDL (and its offshoots) and Anjem Chaudhary’s outfit, locked in a childish cycle of media-amplified face-offs. But we shouldn’t be too quick to equate the two sides.
Like Islamism, the far right is a very heterogeneous formation. At its softer end, it blurs with a kind of xenophobic authoritarian populism which is actually quite mainstream in our political culture. At its far end, the kind of hardcore Nazism of a Joshua Bonehill is extremely marginal in its threat or appeal.
Instances of actual violence and terrorism have come from various points on this spectrum, as I discussed here. The new CST report on antisemitic incidents in 2015
shows that suggests that the far right remain much more prominent
as known perpetrators than Islamism (122 incidents involved far right
discourse; 16 involved Islamist discourse). And, to use Quilliam’s language,
figures like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon provide the “mood music” for the disturbing
(and growing) number of anti-Muslim attacks on Britain’s streets. So, the far
right is a threat.
But is it equivalent to the Islamist threat, as Hope not Hate and others suggest? I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, the British far right recruits from a fairly large population of angry white males – but only manages to recruit a tiny proportion of them. The toxicity of the fascist brand in this constituency keeps it marginal (for now). Islamism, in contrast, has a much smaller pool to recruit from, but its appeal seems to be more successful in that constituency. For example, you’re unlikely to join a student Islamic society without coming into contact with hardcore jihadist views, whereas the British nationalist far right is actually quite hard to join.
Second, I think that only at the most extreme end of the spectrum does violence become a central part of far right ideology – whereas the message of military jihad is central not just to the most extreme jihadists. As Amjad Khan recently wrote, allegedly “non-violent extremists” such as Hisb-ut-Tahrir do believe in a caliphate and a war of offensive jihad, and justify terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. The centrality of jihad to a broad spectrum of Islamists is the danger of terrorism follows more often (even if not automatically) from the prevalence of Islamism than from the prevalence of the far right. Hence all but the most hardcore on the far right disavow the likes of Breivik and Dylann Roof, while quite broad a broad swathe of Islamist opinion apologise for, defend or even applaud their Breiviks and Roofs (to give just two examples, Cage describe jihadists as victims of the British state, while Cage’s director Moazzam Begg has recently argued that as a counterweight to ISIS we should back al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria!).
The counter-jihadi movement is toxic and dangerous
This brings us to the counter-jihad movement, that part of the far right whose central narrative is threat posed to Western civilisation by Islam, as described in the new HnH report. The counter-jihad movement is not homogeneous, but some of its themes are: a refusal to distinguish between Muslims and people, Islam as a faith and Islamism as a politics; an obsession with demographics and immigration which echo older right-wing themes; a civilisationist discourse, which frames more or less everything in terms of the epic clash of a decadent Western civilisation against ascendant Islam; its paranoid, conspiracist worldview in which Islam is not seen in religious or cultural terms but as a vast co-ordinated secret plot; and a superficial claim to defend liberal values such as women’s or gay rights or free speech, which typically doesn’t translate into caring about violations of these values that come from any source other than Islam.
The counter-jihad movement is toxic and dangerous because it picks up on real and imagined grievances about Islam and immigration circulating in mainstream culture and translates them into a fully-formed ideological narrative, which gives it more reach than the discredited race theories traditional fascists still cleave to. It is toxic and dangerous because it sees bloody conflict between the West and Islam as both inevitable and good, thus licensing both petty and serious hate crimes against Muslims on the streets and even of terrorist activities such as those of Zack Davies, Pavlo Lapshyn or Ryan McGee.
Finally, the counter-jihad movement has strong links with actual fascism, links embodied by Paul Weston and his British Freedom Party/Liberty GB party, by the English Defence League, and by Britain First, all of which involved in the planning of the Mohammed cartoon exhibition in September.
The counter-jihadi movement has exactly the wrong strategy for contesting Islamism
Unlike classical fascism, counter-jihadism’s narrative does contain some elements of the truth. As noted above, Islamism is a clear and present danger, as are illiberal practices (such as FGM and forced marriage) that exist in some Muslim populations. But if we’re serious about combating these things, counter-jihadism takes exactly the wrong approach to doing so.
Using Crusader imagery, flying the George cross, publishing cartoons of the Prophet fucking goats, getting tanked up on Stella and Charlie to march through Asian neighbourhoods, muttering about the eclipse of the white race, demanding bans on halal food – the strategies the counter-jihad movement uses are far more likely to inflame and entrench Islamist support and to confirm the grievances Islamists use to recruit.
As I argued above, jihadi terrorism (like far right terrorism) is a security issue which should be policed as sharply as necessary. But non-terrorist Islamism (like fascism in general) is a political problem that should be combated politically. Combating Islamism means clearly articulating the values it abhors: intellectual doubt, religious tolerance (including the right to heresy and apostasy and the right not to believe), secular public space, sexual freedom, the rights of women and non-heterosexual people, free expression (including the right to laugh and to offend).
But just as UKIP supporters will never be won over by merely celebrating multiculturalism, winning potential Islamists to these values requires more than treating them as catchphrases. Instead, we need to work out how to articulate them in credible and imaginative ways; we need to show we are prepared for dialogue not just to lecture; we need to show willingness to take seriously the grievances that Islamism latches on to. And, crucially, we need to find credible, trusted voices to articulate them.
Cameron is right that some Muslim voices are drowning out others
The issue of credible, trusted voices is vital. Cameron is right that some of the least welcome voices are too loud in the Muslim public sphere. Malignant and unrepresentative “community leaders” are given too much airplay both amongst Muslims and in communicating to the wider world.
It would be great instead if, both in Muslim communities and in mainstream media, we could hear more varied Muslim voices, young Muslim voices, reforming Muslim voices, feminist Muslim voices. Fortunately, there are more now than there were a decade ago. Unfortunately, though, the Muslim voices nurtured by the state tend to lack credibility on the Muslim street – by being selected and patronised by the establishment undermines their credibility. Unless radical and reforming representatives actually come from below, then conservative and “extremist” voices will continue to be heard the loudest.
The free speech principle has been hijacked by the anti-Muslim right…
Free speech has been one of the themes the counter-jihadi movement has used extensively. Now, it is true that free speech is increasingly fragile, that Islamism – and especially Islamist terrorism, such as that against Charlie Hebdo in Paris – constitutes one of the gravest of dangers to free speech.
But Islamism is one among many threats – as a quick glance at Spiked or Index on Censorship would tell you. Yet the likes of Anne-Marie Waters, Douglas Murray or Charlie Klendjian – let alone the likes of Paul Weston, Jim Dowson or Pamela Geller – rarely if ever speak out about threats to free speech from any other source. This shows that their claim to be advocates of free speech is hollow and cynical, a cover for anti-Muslim racism.
It is commonly said that if you care about free speech you should care about the free speech of those you oppose the most. Perhaps my dislike of the far right should not stop me from defending their right to speak out. Maybe – that does not mean I should approve their actions when they go out of their way to provide a platform for racism or when their primary intention is causing offence.
I don’t know if Hope not Hate is right in claiming that Waters and the other organisers of the Mohammed cartoons exhibition are doing it to provoke a civil war. But it certainly is a provocative thing to do, likely to lead to unrest, and unlikely to have any positive impact in politically challenging Islamism.
We should treat a Mohammed cartoon exhibition the way we would treat the Iranian state’s Holocaust cartoon contest: it is not a matter of free speech, but a case of provocation, incitement and racism.
…but it doesn’t mean we should embrace illiberal strategies
Although I see the toon exhibition as malignant and dangerous, I do not agree with Hope not Hate’s main policy recommendations in response to it: ban the exhibition and institute better state surveillance of counter-jihadis. These kinds of strategies are ill-advised for two reasons. First, they are ineffective in an age when images circulate on social media whether the exhibition is banned or not – and indeed will be used by the counter-jihadis to sell their victimhood narrative, the perceived grievance they use to recruit. Second, bans and policing are authoritarian solutions, which empower the state. Instead, we should empower communities and citizens by promoting an adult conversation about the issues, and by promoting alternative, democratic values.
Futile Democracy “Romanticising the Caliphate”; Dave Rich “Why is the Guardian giving a platform to Hizb ut-Tahrir?”; Pink Prosecco “Bringingsecularism into disrepute: has the LSS lost the plot?”; OL4A “Enemies Not Allies”.Far right violence from Charleston to Mold Tesco; Has Tommy Robinson changed?; Anders Breivik, Counter-jihad and right-wing terror; The EDL and global counter-jihad; The lessons of the Lucozade plane plot; Anne Marie Waters in Lewisham East; Liberty GB in Lewisham West.
Tom Owolade "Progressives allying with theocrats again"; John Sargeant "Countering Extremism and Extreme Responses"
Tom Owolade "Progressives allying with theocrats again"; John Sargeant "Countering Extremism and Extreme Responses"