Speaker’s Corner: “10 years on from 7/7 – a good time to rethink our fight against terrorism” by Nohoudh PhD scholar Mohammed Abdul Aziz
The following blog is a response by Nohoudh PhD scholar Mohammed Abdul Aziz to the Daily Mirror article, published on July 6th 215, entitled “UK terror attacks are inevitable and there’s nothing we can do to stop them, warn spy chiefs” which claimed that a “Mirror survey reveals up to 1.5 million Britons could be supporters of Islamic State”:
10 years on from 7/7 – a good time to rethink our fight against terrorism
Reading the headlines of Chris Hughes and Nick Somerlad’s article in The Mirror on 6 July 2015 brought to mind Disraeli’s famous statement ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.
Clearly, there is an issue here around the polling, analysis and basic maths in the article. For example, the article states that of a sample of 2,016 Britons in a survey over the previous weekend 3% of them had a very favourable view of ISIS – or Da’esh as many Muslims would prefer to call them, and equates this to 50% of British Muslims sympathising with the group. Did this sample consist only of Muslims? If so, how does 3% become 50%?
Poor analysis and sensational journalism aside, what is clear however is that, 10 years after 7/7, the threat of terrorism to Britain and British interests is still extremely high and real, as we witnessed in Tunisia last month. The BBC reported last week that over the last 10 years up to 50 major terrorists attacks have been foiled by our security services in the UK alone, and it is right that our spy boss, Andrew Parker, should warn us that we cannot remain bullet proof forever. Sooner or later the terrorists may well slip through – and this is more likely as a result of the actual and real problem of a small but growing number of young Muslim men travelling abroad to join Da’esh, the new trend of young Muslim women joining their cause, and the most recent incidents of families with young children joining them too – only God knows what these parents are thinking!
So, what should be our response to this threat of terrorism – almost two decades on from its inception? I do not think more of the same response alone, as over the last two decades, is the right response – more draconian counter-terrorism legislation, multiple increases in the size of our security apparatus and officials and the intensifying of the blame-game and scapegoating. After two decades of this same response, this is a good time to stand back and think afresh – and there are things we can do to win our fight against this menace of terrorism.
First and foremost, we need to assess our understanding of the problem. It is not just a theological or ideological problem – as various governments and anti-Muslim ideological interests and voices have insisted over the last two decades. I am, of course, not the first to say this. A joint statement issued by a group of academics and public figures last week made this point very succinctly: “The way which PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy.” To address the problem, we need to address all elements of it – not just what suits our politics.
Second, to the extent that Islamic texts and theology are misused by extremists and terrorists to give legitimacy to political grievances, we need greater literacy and nuance in our understanding of Islam and Muslims, to be more careful of how we use terms deriving from Islamic vocabulary and language relating to Islam and Muslims, and above all, to be more even-handed with regards to Islam and Muslims.
In our fight against terrorism, we must get away from the simplistic dichotomies of ‘good Muslims and bad Muslims’; ‘the Sufis versus the Islamists/Salafists/Jihadists’; and ‘those with us and those against us’. There are spectrums and shades within each of these simplistic dichotomies. The last time I did a mapping of just seven of the dominant strands of British Islam, I noted at least 35 sub-groups – with their own distinct history and understanding of the key theological concepts of Hakimiyyah (the Will of God); Khilafah (the Caliphate or Islamic state); Shari’ah (Islamic law); Ummah (the global Muslim community); and Jihad (the struggle to serve Islam). Within these sub-groups, there were Sufis with strong doctrines on armed struggle, and Islamists with strong affinity to the procedurally secular, democratic state. By not understanding the spectrums and shades, we may be pushing away and alienating many that are key to fighting the terrorist threat we face.
We must also understand the power of the Islamic vocabulary on the Muslim mind. In some interesting work done by the governments own Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) in its early days, it noted that when government officials, politicians, senior public figures and the media say ‘Islamist’, most Muslims expect an attack on Islam and/or Muslims to follow. The perception of attack then alienates many Muslims from British society – who then become easy prey for the extremists. More importantly, when we ill-advisedly use terms such as ‘Islamist’, ‘jihadist’ or even ‘the Islamic state’ deridingly or with disapproval – terms derived from the vocabulary and sacred ideals of Islam – not only do we alienate Muslims, but we also empower the extremists. We capitulate ownership and authorship of the Islamic vocabulary, and ultimately of Islam itself – and the power this has to mobilise Muslims – to the extremists. Little wonder then that the extremists then have an appeal and hold for young Muslim minds.
A key antidote to Muslim extremism is Islam itself, and the jihad against Muslim extremism without Islam will be that much harder. We need, therefore, to wrangle back ownership and authorship of the Islamic vocabulary – to make it possible for the majority of Muslims to say: “We are the Islamists; our jihadist mission is to overcome Khawarij tendencies in the modern world (like the Taliban, AQ and Da’esh); our goal is to create societies or ummahs based on the Shariah objectives (maqasid) of the protection of life, intellect, religion, property and family – for the purpose of justice, equality and the common good; we strive for plural, procedurally secular democracies; this to us is the ideal of the Islamic state, the Will of God”.
We need further to treat Muslims in our society with equality – equal in terms of legal protection from hate crimes and discrimination, equal in terms of institutional engagement (on par with other faith and non-faith communities), and equal in terms of how we conduct our discourse. We have some way to go on each of these fronts. To take the idea of the Islamic state again, the reality is that we live in a country with a established Church, we founded and support a Jewish state in Israel, but we express grave concern at the mention of the idea of an Islamic state. Surely, our response should be either that we accept each of these ideas so long as they broadly operate within international law and international human rights standards, or that we accept none of them.
Thirdly and finally, we need to get over the blame-game and scapegoating on this issue, and develop a broad partnership to fight this menace of terrorism. Not a day goes by without a call on Muslims like myself to do more in Muslim communities to address this menace. To do that, one must acknowledge at least some of the Muslim grievances amply borne out by much academic research – and yet, the moment a Muslim does that, they are somehow contributing to the single narrative of the extremists and the conveyor belt to radicalisation, and are shunned by government. Government will not work with Muslims unless they are dancing to its tune and barking at Muslim communities on its terms – and it will prevent others from working with ‘critical Muslim friends’. This approach is simply not working. We need to create space where British Muslims can speak their minds freely, be critical citizens and friends to government and society, and work in partnership with government and others to address a shared problem that is NOT only of their making.
Of course, where terrorist acts are imminent or in the making we must take tough immediate action – but a tough law and order approach on its own will not be enough for the long term. For that we must understand the nature of the problem more holistically; we must understand the grievances at the root of the problem and address them comprehensively; we must understand the nuances in Muslim communities, the power of Islamic vocabulary and the impact of ill-advised language; we must treat British Muslims as equal citizens; and above all, we must own the problem as a society and work in partnership to address it. Otherwise, it is not only the extremists (and extremist websites and social media) that are the recruiting sergeants of future terrorists, but all of us.
This short piece is not intended to provide a comprehensive answer to what is a very complex problem, but I do hope that it provides a little food for thought – for those who can get away from just scoring political points for votes, earning brownie points for government funding and self-promoting for public recognition and career development – for a real genuine discussion about a menacing problem that is as threatening today as at its inception almost two decades ago.
July 2015/Ramadan 1436
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her/his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of SOAS or the CIS.