If we thought that their impending defeat would make ISIS go quietly away, we have been proven wrong. If anything, it makes them a greater danger in the west. Unable to find victories at home, they will attack abroad.
The western powers have slowly come to appreciate the grim reality that this is a war of ideas and the fall of ISIS will not spell the end of Islamic extremism. The hope is that moderate, progressive Muslim reformists will fill the void, but it feels like it will be a long wait for that day to materialise.
Currently, the debate is the same debate as the one for every other terrorist attack. How do we stop Islamic extremism? Why are these things happening? Those on the left have their views and those on the right have theirs. It’s important within the Labour Party that we show a serious and mature understanding of foreign policy. It begins with unpicking exhausted arguments around home-grown extremism which have simply settled into accepted narratives on the left.
The first is the idea that the West is mainly responsible for mass-producing waves of extremism throughout the decades. This is a perverted form of Euro-centric thinking that distorts an unfortunately malleable reality where we can hammer an untruth long enough into being seen as fact. This does two things: the first is that it completely downplays the role of other actors with their own agendas within the Muslim world, namely Russia.
We like to re-imagine the anarchic chaos in Afghanistan as a failing of the West, as responsible for creating the Mujahideen fighters who would later become the deeply authoritarian Taliban. It ignores the space for these extremists that had been created by the Soviet Union’s control of the land. And the existence of extremist thought is partly conditioned by how the centre of thought and power marginalises others.
Put simply, the Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship and its brutally repressive control of Afghanistan created space for radical Islamist thought to ferment and grow. Likewise, in modern-day Syria, we continuously attribute ISIS’ existence to the Iraq War. Lawless anarchy ensued, a brutal Shia government came in, and a country supposedly overflowing with insurgents turned to the most violent circles to fend for itself.
This is true, but only partly. And there is a risk when with incomplete truths when we begin conjuring policy solutions based off them. ISIS has surged in parts of Syria because of the systematic violence waged by Bashar Assad and Putin on the Syrian society, hundreds of thousands of civilians massacred remorselessly. Left alone to their suffering, they have turned to whoever can protect them. This is the same argument in theory that explains why many Iraqis joined insurgencies to fight what they saw as foreign imperialist invaders in 2003.
The second issue with this is that suggesting extremism is a reaction to western violence does not explain why terrorists kill other Muslims and those who have no part in western terrorism. How exactly does killing Yazidi people, massacring Shia Muslims fit into the narrative of lashing out against the west? Islamic extremism is, reduced to its bare bones, violent Sunni nationalism. It regards itself as morally superior to others, regards other Muslims as spiritually contaminated.
Consider the violence towards Shia Muslims, Ahmaddiya Muslims and then examine the rhetoric within the community towards these groups. It’s often hateful, stripping them of their humanity, regards them as mutations of Islam, perversions of the faith. They’re quite often denounced, regarded as heretics. From there, it’s a small road to engaging in violence with these people.
To say Islam has nothing to do with it is to be deaf to what these extremists are saying. They are fighting in the name of Islam, their Islam, their interpretation of it. Denouncing them as Muslims, imagining them as being distortions of Islam is in effect no different to what Salafi-Jihadists do when they brand certain groups of Muslims as heretics. The intentions may vary, but this creates a hive mind where we can erase the issues within a particular group by pretending that certain people aren’t real Muslims but merely representations of their own interests appropriating Islam for their own uses.
It’s a neat trick for those wishing to shout down arguments for reform within the community. A legitimate rebuttal would be to say Salafism doesn’t necessarily mean a roadmap to extremism. They often denounce terrorism. But the ideas incubated within their circles that dismiss women, gays, Shias, Jews and ex-Muslims is often those that provide the ideological foundation for extremists.
They share the same views except they differ on usage of violence. The Point is: if you continuously push a Sunni nationalist, misogynistic, homophobic Islamic ideology in peaceful rebuttals to the West, don’t be entirely surprised when someone nursing their own vendettas against the west and others take it and become utterly violent with it.
For too long some on the left have been complacent on this issue and in light of some Labour MPs recently meeting the Islamist group, MEND, it’s important to acknowledge this. Muslims in the West are a minority rightly deserving of our solidarity and protection. But that shouldn’t detract from the basic truth that many Islamists carry a supremacist mentality, holding bigoted views against many who aren’t like them. They regard liberal Muslims as being intellectually colonised, Shia and Ahmaddiya Muslims as perversions. They demand a puritanical, inflexible interpretation of Islam.
At the same time, dumping everything on the Quran and Hadith to explain why some Muslims don’t integrate and why there’s violence is extremely simplistic. Western actions in the Middle East have been painfully flawed and often disastrous. And if it hasn’t created the extremists, it certainly has often created space for them to grow in. The Iraq War radicalised a generation, both within Iraq and outside. Moreover, pinning home-grown extremism itself on religion ignores the layers of complexity that surrounds this.
Most young British Muslims identify more with faith than older generations. There is a vacuum there that’s filled by religion for a group of people who are marginalised by wider society yet being unable to appreciate the cultural motherlands that they originally come from. They belong nowhere, imposters within two worlds often. Islam fills that space, if not theologically, then at least culturally and socially. It helps them explain their experiences, their self-recognition and then links them to Muslims across the wider world with whom they share struggles in persecution, helping create a common identity.
Moreover, interpretations of faith are too easy to draw liberal against conservative. Culture strongly informs the practice of faith, and can separate South Asian Muslims from Africa and Arab Muslims. This is not a homogeneous community but one informed by varying experiences. If many won’t integrate because of religion, others won’t do so because of culture.
If we really want to tackle home-grown extremism, we need to confront politically inconvenient truths.