Is­lamists’ dis­course needs to be chal­lenged in the West

Arab News - - Opinion - PETER WELBY

There was a stab at­tack in a park in Read­ing, in the UK, last week­end. As I write, it isn’t clear whether this was an Is­lamist at­tack or sim­ply an act of ran­dom vi­o­lence. It is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated as a pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist in­ci­dent, but there are con­flict­ing re­ports about the in­di­vid­ual con­cerned. The re­ac­tion of one UK ac­tivist group was in­ter­est­ing: To at­tack the po­lice for even in­ves­ti­gat­ing it as a po­ten­tial “ter­ror­ist in­ci­dent,” say­ing that the de­ci­sion is “con­nected to ide­ol­ogy and once again a stick to beat down or­di­nary Mus­lims.” If this was just a crack­pot fringe group, it wouldn’t re­ally mat­ter. But Cage, the or­ga­ni­za­tion con­cerned, has a his­tory of, at best, in­ad­vis­able com­ments on Is­lamist ex­trem­ists — and has been sup­ported by nu­mer­ous in­di­vid­u­als on the hard left, in­clud­ing former UK op­po­si­tion leader Jeremy Cor­byn.

In fact, Cage is part of a net­work of hardleft groups, griev­ance pol­i­tics-based Mus­lim ac­tivists, and non­vi­o­lent Is­lamists. This is an al­liance of con­ve­nience that ex­ists across much of the West, in which, by and large, the Is­lamists don’t ques­tion the ma­jor pro­gres­sive shib­bo­leths and the hard-left doesn’t fo­cus too much on the more trou­bling as­pects of the Is­lamist side.

Aside from the ques­tion of whether it serves as a gate­way into vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism, non­vi­o­lent Is­lamist ex­trem­ism poses a threat to so­cial co­he­sion. Put sim­ply, if the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties of the West do not feel a part of the so­ci­eties where they re­side as cit­i­zens, then they are more vul­ner­a­ble to ex­trem­ist ideas. It is, there­fore, in the in­ter­ests of ex­trem­ists to foster di­vi­sion.

The­o­ries of in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity and griev­ance pol­i­tics pro­vide fer­tile ground for Is­lamist groups to get to work with the far left. Their work is aided by prom­i­nent net­works of Mus­lim ac­tivists and aca­demics who find they share many views. These net­works are not gen­er­ally them­selves Is­lamist (though some are), but ideas that have long been wide­spread in Is­lamist dis­course are now in com­mon cir­cu­la­tion among non-Is­lamist Mus­lim ac­tivists and aca­demics on the left.

I men­tioned aca­demics along with ac­tivists be­cause there are those with train­ing in the study of Is­lam who lean upon their sec­u­lar aca­demic cre­den­tials to present them­selves as Is­lamic the­olo­gians — and, to any re­li­gious ex­trem­ist worth the name, the­ol­ogy mat­ters. Most of these be­long in that same in­ter­sec­tional ac­tivist net­work, and some come from fam­i­lies with well-known ties to the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, Ja­maat e-Is­lami, and other in­ter­na­tional Is­lamist groups. Ef­forts by ac­tual trained Is­lamic the­olo­gians and ju­rists to counter some of their mes­sages tend to get shouted down. Ac­tivists and aca­demics from this mi­lieu dom­i­nate dis­cus­sion on so­cial me­dia (as ac­tivists tend to in all walks of life).

It is the voices drawn from this ac­tivistIs­lamist junc­tion that get a large part of the avail­able at­ten­tion in the me­dia and in en­gage­ment with politi­cians. They had a dom­i­nant voice in the ev­i­dence given to the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment’s all-party group on Bri­tish Mus­lims’ in­quiry into Is­lam­o­pho­bia, for ex­am­ple, the re­sults of which can be seen in its re­port. But their views are not re­ally shared by Bri­tish Mus­lims at large. A re­cent Crest Ad­vi­sory re­port found broad sup­port among Bri­tish Mus­lims for the prin­ci­ples of the UK gov­ern­ment’s “Pre­vent” pro­gram, which aims to spot early signs of rad­i­cal­iza­tion. It is aimed at all forms of ex­trem­ism and un­cov­ers far-right sen­ti­ment as much as other ex­trem­ist views. In re­sponse, four prom­i­nent groups claim­ing to speak on be­half of Mus­lims re­sponded ei­ther that the re­port was wrong or that its au­thors were bi­ased. Griev­ance pol­i­tics is now par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive be­cause it draws on gen­uine con­cerns. Anti-Mus­lim prej­u­dice is rep­re­sented in both pub­lic and nor­mal life across the West. And, the louder Is­lamist voices and their ac­tivist friends be­come, the eas­ier it is to go down the cul-de-sac of sug­gest­ing Is­lam it­self is the prob­lem — a cul-de-sac that many po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are al­ready ex­plor­ing. That needs to be avoided.

The al­ter­na­tive to this is equip­ping trained schol­ars to counter the ac­tivistIs­lamist junc­tion in Is­lamic dis­course. As the Crest re­port, other polling and ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tions re­veal, the vast ma­jor­ity of Mus­lims in the West do not share the views of the ac­tivists and the Is­lamists or are even par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in them. But if this dis­course con­tin­ues without sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge on so­cial me­dia and in real life, this is li­able to change. I am con­vinced that this is where ef­forts should be fo­cused — but that re­quires re­sourc­ing and, cru­cially, it re­quires proac­tive de­fense against their many en­e­mies from the very be­gin­ning. Both re­sources and de­fend­ers trained in the kind of po­lit­i­cal war­fare this rep­re­sents are cur­rently sorely lack­ing.

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