Don’t blame the West, the terror won’t stop until Muslims reject the caliphate
The attacks in Spain disprove the idea that our foreign policy is to blame for Islamist extremism
What did Spain do wrong? Why did Muslim radicals attack so many innocents? Those are the questions being asked across the West following the atrocity in Barcelona. Many will resort to the self-flagellation of “change our foreign policy” or “we are to blame because of colonialism”. I wish it were so simple. I know the mindset of militant Muslims seeking to kill disbelievers in the name of a caliphate, because I called for the creation of such a caliphate for five years of my life. I recognise the ideology, theology and strategy behind the violence. There is no appeasing the fanatics.
Consider the facts on Spain: on March 11 2004, al-qaeda terrorists killed 192 and injured 2,000 on trains in Madrid. Spain had 1,300 troops in Iraq at the time (America had 135,000 and Britain 8,700). Three days after the bombing, José Maria Aznar lost the general election to a Left-wing party committed to ending Spain’s involvement in Iraq. On April 18 2004, the new prime minister ordered the withdrawal of Spain’s troops. Scarred by the Madrid bombing, fearful of reprisals after the terrorist attacks in France, in November 2015 the Spanish government refused to join a global coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). So what did Spain do wrong?
We are asking the wrong questions. Spain’s foreign policy shows that we cannot stop terrorism by changing our behaviour. In the mind of the Muslim extremists, Spain is not Spain, but al-andalus, part of a Muslim empire that lasted in Spain for 700 years. Today’s Spain is considered to be “occupied land” that must be liberated. The last Muslim ruler of Granada, Boabdil, who negotiated a peaceful end to his emirate in 1492, made a terrible mistake, argue the extremists. Spain must return to their version of Islam, for in that literalist reading of religious scripture, the world is divided into two realms: Dar al-islam and Dar al-harb, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. And once a land is controlled by Dar al-islam it must forever belong to that sphere. Terrorism is merely a tactic to support the aims of the caliphate.
In February this year, Isil warned that it would target Spain’s beaches and it increased its propaganda material in Spanish. But Spain is not the only target. India was also part of their interpretation of Dar al-islam because it was under the Moghuls until 1857 and must therefore return to the domain of the caliphate. Israel must be destroyed as the caliph must reclaim Jerusalem. Turkey’s Muslim reformer, Kemal Ataturk, ended the caliphate in 1924 and a secular Turkey must return to the fold. Charles Martel of France defeated the Umayyad caliph’s soldiers in the Battle of Tours in 732, and Austria held out against the Ottomans in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Time and again, Isil refers to the West as “crusaders” and targets the Pope and Rome as eternal enemies of Islam.
They are prisoners of history, and this selective narrative of the past fuels their chosen grievances of the present. For them, the West is to blame for every dictator and injustice in the Middle East. They talk of the Sykes-picot agreement of 1916 as if it were yesterday. The dictatorships, tyrants and lack of prosperity in the Arab world fan the flames of anger. The prisons of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Algeria are full of Salafi-jihadists who wished to overthrow their governments and create societies based on rule of hardline sharia. Between dictatorial tyranny and religious theocracy, where is the freedom for ordinary Arabs to reform their countries?
In addition, we have radicalised networks of extremist Muslim organisations reinforcing the worst elements of victimhood. They operate on the internet, but also in our universities, communities and prisons. Like the communists of the last century, they rail against capitalism, injustice, the West and dictators, and talk about the racism faced by French Muslims, or the Islamophobia encountered by British Muslims, while offering an ideological panacea: Muslims are weak and can only be strengthened by creating a powerful caliphate.
To strengthen Muslim identity against the West, they seek to divide and rule. They abuse religion to amplify differences, rather than unite based on common belief in one God, goodness, and faith.
The attack in Barcelona and the calls by Isil to attack beaches weren’t random: they hate the freedom of women to dress in bikinis. They attacked the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May because they despise men and women dancing freely to music. They attacked Charlie Hebdo because they refuse to allow for blasphemy. They target synagogues and kosher grocery stores across Europe because, like their neo-nazi counterparts, they hate Jews.
But when I visit Turkey, I see Muslim women in bikinis on the beach beside women in headscarves. In Tunisia, Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the conservative Ennahda party, talks about the mosques being open, and also the bars and the beaches. In Morocco, I see Jewish communities honoured.
We have to be honest. Across the West we now have 30 million Muslims who are Westerners. There is no war against Islam. The freedom of Muslims to worship and live proves that the old, imperial paradigms of Isil’s Dar al-harb and Dar al-islam are outdated. Most Muslims are quietly thriving in business, politics, media, sports, and more. In Britain, Mishal Husain’s voice wakes us up on the Today programme. Nadiya Hussain of The Great British Bake Off prepares cake for the Queen. Mo Farah reinstates British sporting pride. The list goes on. But there is a dark, sinister movement growing, too.
Ten years ago, when I wrote my book The Islamist and warned against this ideology on the rise in our midst, many in the Muslim community dismissed me as an alarmist. Today, an actual caliphate exists and its soldiers are wreaking havoc. Enough of blaming the West. Isil has attacked 30 different countries, and the vast majority of its victims in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere are Muslims. Isil and other extremists thrive on the justification that it is religiously obligatory to create a caliphate. Jihadists commit mass murder in the pursuit of, or defence of, this belief in a caliphate. For too long we have been responding to their terror tactics, rather than uprooting their strategic objective. I learned through my own studies and long conversations with religious authorities that a caliphate is not a religious obligation. We can be perfectly Muslim without aiming to subjugate others to a theocracy.
Muslims must reject the idea that we need a caliphate. Unless we discard the drive for a Muslim super-state, many more will be killed in pursuit of it. Muslim organisations, governments, websites, political parties, religious leaders and educational institutions must roundly, unreservedly accept that we no longer need a caliphate. Remove that objective and the violence to justify it falls away. The West must take sides, too, in this battle of ideas among Muslims.