The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

This is Part 2 of Gurwinder Bhogal’s report. Gurwinder is a writer embedded in Luton, England and has spent the last year and more researching the causes of extremism. Read Part 1, which is essential to understanding his conclusions, here

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From my research thus far I had concluded that jihadism was not strictly social, political, or religious, but was influenced by each of these factors. The social explanation didn’t explain why so many jihadists came from stable families and well-to-do backgrounds. The political explanation didn’t explain the prevalence of Islamic extremism prior to Western interference in the Middle East, including at times of relative peace and prosperity. The religious explanation was also lacking; almost all Muslims are peaceful. Sure, the Qur’an and Muhammad can both be construed to be violent, but so can the Bible and most of its prophets. And Islam is far too diverse, complex and nuanced to be owned by the literalists, both Wahhabi and far-right  —  neither of whom have the patience to understand exegesis.

I tried to work out the fourth element, some kind of connective tissue for the different explanations. What I really wanted was to speak to an actual jihadist. I’d briefly spoken with a leaflet-dealing Islamist in Bury Park, but he had not been too accommodating. I wandered around the area every day for several weeks, hoping to find more activists. My efforts were fruitless.

The leaflet-dealing Islamist I’d spoken to had said the West was waging a war against Muslims. During a taxi journey one night, I broached the subject with my driver, a middle-aged Bangladeshi immigrant called Sharif. He told me that while he didn’t agree with ISIS, he too believed the West was waging a war against Muslims. He cited the same evidence that the leaflet-dealer had: the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Israel/Palestine. He did not know that the evidence he cited actually disproved his claims.

The invasion of Afghanistan was the only time in recent history that the West sought to take down a Muslim regime. The invasion of Iraq was not an attack on Muslims; Saddam Hussein had often claimed to be Muslim, but in practice he showed no real belief in religion except the pursuit of Arab nationalism and his own personality cult. Gaddafi, too, had been a secular Arab nationalist, despite demagogically painting himself as Muslim in his usual theatrical style. As for Assad, he is allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but in practice is a strongly secular nationalist leader who, even if he were religious, would be considered an enemy Alawite of ISIS and their ilk.

Given that three out of four of the countries attacked by the West have been secular states, and that the West is still allied with strongly Muslim countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the bombing campaigns of the last two decades can hardly be considered a war against Muslims.

When I pointed this out to Sharif, he shook his head. I pointed out further evidence to rebut his claims of a Western assault against Islam, such as the appointment of a Muslim mayor of London. Again, Sharif shook his head. I struggled to understand how he could ignore facts and remain so convinced of a war that didn’t exist. Finally, he told me: “I know because it’s all in the Qur’an.”

Claims about the prophetic power of the Qur’an were not new to me; I was well aware that Islam is the most teleological (purpose-driven) and eschatological (concerned with the end) of the Abrahamic religions, and that among its most potent signs and symbols are those that supposedly foretell human destiny.

But Sharif went further; he named specific things that he believed the Qur’an had augured; climate change, the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS. He then said the world was becoming increasingly more chaotic, and that this was a sign we were living in the last days.

Over the course of a year, I interviewed exactly 100 local Muslims, on the streets, at the mosques, and even in the local gym. I learned that belief in an impending apocalypse was almost taken for granted in Luton: 36% of the Muslims I interviewed said they believed that the Last Hour would occur in their lifetimes, and of these, 89% had concluded this primarily from news of events in the Middle East. These numbers become even more disturbing when one considers that many interviewees would likely have downplayed their belief in apocalyptic prophecies out of distrust toward me.

In any case, 92% of those convinced of an impending apocalypse were below the age of 30, and 75% were unable to answer simple questions about the Qur’an. Furthermore, when I pressed these people for details regarding the Judgement, they usually had little or nothing to say. It seemed that in most cases their conception of apocalypse, while certain, remained nebulous. Even so, I wondered if the belief, at its most obsessive, might be the flashpoint at which religion ignites into violence.

Apocalypse sky: Guildford Street, Luton.

Apocalyptic ramblings have long led to violence: during his wars of conquest, Muhammad often relied on prophecy to justify invasions and keep the morale of his troops up, promising them victory even when the odds seemed against them. At the Siege of Constantinople in the 15th century, the imam Aksemseddin’s prophecies lifted the spirits of Sultan Mehmed’s fatigued troops, helping them to crush the remaining forces of Byzantium. And, at the dawn of modern jihadism, abd al-Wahhab won over ibn Saud by telling him his ascent was prophesied by Allah Himself, galvanizing his conquest of Arabia. Throughout history, religious prophecies have helped Muslim autocrats achieve political ends, their golden promises luring new followers and restoring lost morale, so that their forces could conquer and defend with renewed strength, convinced destiny was on their side.

Back in Luton, Masood (a figure who appears in Part 1 of this report) had once mentioned to me a story about his last trip to Pakistan. He had gone to visit his uncle, in a small village at the foot of the Hazara mountains. There was a young man at that village, who had become “tired of life” and wanted answers. He began to seldom leave his house, obsessing over rumours that major events were at hand in the world, and that they had been predicted in a code within the Qur’an, which was being deciphered at a place on the other side of the mountains. He would calmly tell his family how the events in the Middle East  —  particularly the war in Syria   —  were occurring in line with Muhammad’s pronouncements one and a half millennia ago, and that the events presaged the end of reality itself. The young man subsequently vanished. Later his father learned he had joined a Salafi seminary with links to the Taliban, and went to Afghanistan to get him.

I could not ascertain how that man had been radicalized. When I asked Sharif how he’d learned of the Qur’an’s prophecies, he admitted he’d never actually read the book, but had instead “seen it on the Internet.” Naturally, I began to frequent Islamist blogs and chatrooms, paying particular attention to the politics pages. Like Sharif, most of the posters on these forums had only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam  —  though many did quote the holy texts in their signatures. More importantly, I noticed a pattern, and the first signs that I was looking in the right place: the posters unanimously believed that the Qur’an and ahadith had predicted  —  were predicting  —  modern times.

In particular, they believed the holy texts presaged such things as HIV and climate change, both of which they regarded as punishments for Western decadence. I searched for the prophecies to which the forum posters had referred. When they spoke of climate change they were likely referring to this passage:

“Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].” (Qur’an 30:41)

The line that “predicted” HIV was not actually in the Qur’an, but in an obscure translation of a hadith that is considered da’if (untrustworthy) by mainstream Islamic scholars:

“It never happens that permissiveness overwhelms a people to the extent that they display their acts of sex shamelessly and they are not uniquely punished by God. Among them, invariably, pestilence is made to spread and such other diseases, the like of which have never been witnessed by their forefathers.” [30]

It took me some weeks before I had gone through every prophecy in the Qur’an and ahadith. Many did not refer to modern times, many were not regarded as sahih by scholarly consensus, yet some were both regarded as authentic and vaguely accurate enough to be interpreted to describe the modern age. For instance:

“From among the portents of the Hour are (the following): 1. Religious knowledge will be taken away (by the death of Religious learned men). 2. (Religious) ignorance will prevail. 3. Drinking of Alcoholic drinks (will be very common). 4. There will be prevalence of open illegal sexual intercourse.” (Bukhari 1:3:80)

According to many online Islamists, that verse refers to Western debauchery, and is another sign that the West is the ultimate enemy. Yet it was not as important to them as the prophecies that seemed to augur current events in the Middle East. One hadith line that was discussed at length apparently predicted the Iraq War, and tied it to the End Times:

“The Last Hour would not come before the Euphrates uncovers a mountain of gold, for which people would fight.” (Muslim 41:6918)

In addition to pointing out to these Islamists that they were not taking into account scholarly issues like hadith-grading and exegesis, I would have liked to have pointed out that their beliefs in prophetic fulfilment were simple confirmation bias, the tendency of the brain to notice evidence supportive of one’s beliefs, while ignoring evidence against. Or perhaps it was pareidolia, an evolutionary by-product of audio-visual pattern recognition, which causes one to hear whispers in rustling trees, and faces in clouds.

Unfortunately, bias has a logic-proof hold on those who are determined to believe, as you will now see.

One Islamist blogger, writing anonymously and eponymously for Newsrescue.com [31], quotes from several hadith, having diligently cherry-picked the plausible-sounding ones from amongst all the fanciful ones. He (I’ll assume he’s a he) presents his first quote as describing the current situation in Syria and Iraq:

“There will be such troubles and calamities that nobody will have a place to shelter from them. These calamities will travel around Sham (countries in the Middle East including Syria, Jordan, Palestine, etc) and settle over Iraq. They will bind the Arabian Peninsula… As they attempt to eliminate these calamities in one place they will arise in another.” (ibid.)

He then quotes another verse from the same book, as further evidence for his discovery:

“Doomsday will not take place until Iraq is attacked. And innocent people will seek places to shelter in Sham. Sham will be reconstructed and Iraq will be reconstructed.” (ibid.)

He goes on to quote from another hadith, claiming it refers to the division of Iraq among Kurds, Shia Iraqis, and Sunni Iraqis (respectively):

“The people of Iraq will be divided into three groups. One part will join the looters. One part will leave their families behind and flee. One part will fight and be killed. Prepare yourselves for doomsday when you see this.” (ibid.)

The blog continues, finding many more of these superficially compelling connections. Normally, we could dismiss such blogs as conspiracy theories. But, as I learned, their warped worldview is taken very seriously by actual jihadists, and not just the so-called keyboard warriors.

ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, is named after the Syrian town they eagerly captured in April 2014, where the forces of Allah and Shaytan are prophesied to meet in battle and bring about the emergence of the Mahdi  —  a kind of deputy-messiah  —  who will then summon Jesus himself, who will in turn “break the cross” to demonstrate the fallacy of Christianity, before the archangel Israfil blows a horn and everyone falls dead and the Judgement begins.

In order for all this to pass, ISIS believes there has to be a final reckoning between Muslims and Christians in Syria. Thus, jihadists pay special attention to verses that speak of interfaith enmity in the Last Days. Like this one, found in ISIS’s magazine, but originally from Muslim 41:6924:

“The Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them).” [32]

Jihadists believe “Romans” refers to Western Christians, though the actual meaning is the subject of debate among mainstream scholars.

Another hadith verse (which is accepted by ISIS but considered da’if by mainstream Islamic scholars) goes thus:

“‘Three will fight one another for your treasure, each one of them the son of a caliph, but none of them will gain it. Then the black banners will come from the east, and they will kill you in an unprecedented manner. Then he mentioned something that I do not remember, then he said: ‘When you see them, then pledge your allegiance to them even if you have to crawl over the snow, for that is the caliph of Allah, Mahdi.’” (Sunan ibn Majah 5:36:4084)

It is easy to see how ISIS chose the shade of its flag; it regards itself as the Mahdi’s spearhead, come to liberate the sacred ummah from the forces of Shaytan  —  the debauched, depraved West  —  which have been secretly oppressing humanity by manipulating world events, but whose eventual defeat has been prophesied by divine destiny (though not necessarily by the Qur’an or ahadith).

Victim, persecutor, rescuer: it’s a narrative that neatly fits the Karpman drama triangle  —  a model of human interaction in which people cast themselves and others into roles to simplify a reality that would otherwise be too complex for them to deal with. We see it constantly in the tabloids, in reality TV shows, and in Hollywood movies, perhaps because people find this world too big, too layered, too variegated and nuanced to comprehend, and so they seek out narratives that shrink the world down to a manageable size.

The prophetic-apocalyptic narrative serves much the same purpose for some restless young Muslims. It isn’t strictly about foreign policy or Islam, but it assimilates elements of both  —  using Wahhabi literalism and the cacophony of the Internet to draw parallels between decontextualized Islamic prophecies and misunderstood current affairs  —  thereby distorting and simplifying two complex narratives so that they neatly fit each other, and reach the hearts and minds of those who would never normally have an interest in religion or politics. The new narrative’s simplistic fairy tale makeup enables it to be transmitted through tweets, forum posts, and word of mouth  —  unlike policy papers or Qur’anic exegesis  —  and its vague references to both scripture and real world events give it a mask of plausibility.

Thus, ISIS doesn’t offer jihadist neophytes an understanding of the Qur’an, or any real solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. It offers them a comforting simplification of reality, in 140-character instalments; an easily digestible story of revenge and redemption in which they can be the hero and win the ultimate prize: an identity. The identity offered to them is filled with all kinds of indulgences: a special snowflake destiny, an unbreakable brotherhood, a world-encompassing conspiracy, a scapegoat for the state of the world, a VIP pass to paradise.

In short, jihadists are not ascetics; they are hedonists. They are neither theological nor political; they are dreamers. And they dream of vengeance and hope: for a past that never happened, and for a future that will never come.

I was sure I’d found the link I’d been searching for, the primary intellectual appeal of jihadism, and the reason it was reaching so many young people in Luton and elsewhere. The jihadists, having neither the patience for Qur’anic exegesis, nor the understanding for international politics, had been sucked into a quasi-political, pseudo-religious prophetic-apocalyptic conspiracy theory. To defeat jihadism, we’d have to kill this narrative.

It is most unfortunate, then, that we’ve instead been feeding it.

VII  —  THE GREAT CULTURAL SUICIDE BOMB

The jihadist narrative  —  transmitted via social media, conspiracy theory websites, and most of all, word of mouth  —  uses unscholarly readings of Islamic texts and uninformed readings of the news to depict the West as a depraved, megalomaniacal servant of the Devil, manipulating world events in order to oppress Muslims and bring about a prophesied age of fitnah (strife, chaos) ahead of the Hour.

Normally, a conspiracy theory like this would quickly die out. The reason it hasn’t is that we, the West, have inadvertently played the part that the jihadists assigned us.

Over the past century, the West has lavished upon the Muslim world a significant supply of historical grievances: The Algerian Occupation, The Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the deposition of Mossadegh, the destruction of the al-Shifa plant, the Iraq War, and on and on.

It is not just that these events have made some Muslims angry  —  it is that they have formed the very core of the jihadists’ prophetic narrative.

The West, by relentlessly meddling in Middle Eastern politics, has given many young and naive Muslims the impression that it is manipulating world events toward some sinister end. It has only bolstered this impression with its numerous acts of perceived aggression, from bombings to arms sales to propping up dictators to drone strikes. Such acts of faceless carnage, combined with a lack of effort to provide a positive context for them, have done more to convince Muslims that the apocalypse is at hand than anything written in the Qur’an.

Most beneficial of all to the jihadist narrative were the wartime Western torture programs. As the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report shows, the US carried out systematic physical and psychological abuse of Muslims at “black sites” throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some, perhaps many, of the victims were simply picked out at random by a “witness” looking for reward money, such as the taxi driver Dilawar, who was beaten to death by US servicemen and women over a matter of days, despite not being found guilty of a crime [33]. Even allowing for such horrific extremes, the torture program itself seemed to lack any real strategy, so that it ended up as casual sadism.

In addition to the infliction of physical pain, the torture program included a policy known as “Pride and ego down,” which involved sexual and religious humiliation. Among other things, prisoners would be stripped naked, leashed like dogs, ridden like donkeys, forced to masturbate, forced to pray to Jesus, forced to wear women’s knickers over their faces [34], anally raped with different objects [35], urinated on, forced to eat from the toilet [36], smeared with fake menstrual blood [37], and used for soldiers’ sexual pleasure while others took photos (victims may have included children) [38]. One policy, designated “invasion of space by a female,” specifically involved male Muslim prisoners being raped and sexually degraded by servicewomen. The purpose of this orchestrated hell was to utterly transgress Muslim principles; the better to break down a prisoner’s sense of self  —  which is one of the primary aims of any torture program.

Later, many of the hostages, their bodies broken, their souls desolate, were determined to be innocent and released back into the population, to whisper their stories of hell at the hands of the “evil westerners” who raped and tortured them, seemingly for fun. To make matters worse, pictures emerged of some such atrocities, at Abu Ghraib. We all know the ones  —  and we should note that there were many others we didn’t see, as the Whitehouse considered them too shocking to ever release.

For jihadists, the Abu Ghraib images were a gift, not only because they caused shock and resentment, but also because they appeared to confirm the prophesies of Western oppression and sexual degeneracy.

It wasn’t just the US’s supposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan that have fed the ISIS narrative. Following the end of both wars, the Western powers approved the wrong candidates to take over power. For Afghanistan, they greenlit Hamid Karzai, who was involved in a string of scandals: among other things, he was involved in electoral fraud, nepotism, the appointment of thugs and criminals [39], and he accepted tens of millions of dollars from both the CIA [40] and MI6 [41] for “services” (MI6 also paid £60,000 to an Afghan conman, thinking he was an important Taliban warlord [42]). News of Karzai’s corruption got around, enabling the Taliban to paint him (not inaccurately) as another Pahlavi-like debauched Western puppet.

Even worse than the West’s careless attitude toward post-war Afghan politics was its nonchalance toward Iraq, which led to the Iran-backed Shia Islamist Nouri al-Maliki becoming president after corruption-fuelled “elections.” Upon his inauguration, he was warmly praised by George W Bush and other US officials, before setting about the systematic oppression of Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, effectively turning them into second-class citizens. His stoking of ethno-religious tensions played a significant role in ISIS’s recruitment program. Furthermore, like Karzai, he was corrupt: while in office, he reportedly siphoned off £500 billion from the Iraqi treasury [43]. His dishonesty, incompetence, and divisiveness caused him to be regarded by the Sunni jihadists (and even many moderates) as yet another decadent Western puppet, tasked by the kuffar to spread corruption and oppression throughout the Muslim world, in line with prophecy.

The many failures of Maliki were compounded by further mistakes by the West: most notably the disbanding of the Iraqi army, and its replacement with a legion of amateurs. The new “army,” untrained and unorganized, could only crumble when faced with the crazed hordes of thanatophile jihadists at Ramadi. As a result, ISIS managed to steal many high-tech weapons that had been loaned by Western powers to the Iraqi military, and they subsequently said in their propaganda magazine that this was yet another fulfillment of a Qur’anic prophecy, which states:

“Indeed, those who disbelieve spend their wealth to avert [people] from the way of Allah. So they will spend it; then it will be for them a [source of] regret; then they will be overcome.” [44]

It is not just in foreign policy that the US and its allies have fed the prophetic narrative: Western governments have also made serious missteps in domestic affairs. The ill-conceived attempt by the French executive at banning burkhinis in August 2016 would not only have done nothing to curb terrorism, it would also have only helped convince moderate Muslims that the West is oppressing them. Fortunately, the law did not pass the courts.

However, some gambits that actually have passed the courts are just as problematic: the UK’s Prevent strategy, which has allegedly resulted in a Big Brother style CCTV network throughout Muslim areas [45], and led to Muslim teachers being “reported for innocuous comments in class” [46], is being used by Islamists in Luton and online to illustrate their tale of victimhood at the hands of the state. Prevent itself is a necessary strategy, and may well have saved us from terrorist attacks, but errors have been committed in its presentation, so that it appears stifling, ham-handed and broad-brush to the group best equipped to fight terrorism: The Muslim community. When I asked Luton locals what they thought of Prevent, they universally derided it as oppressive. Masood told me:

“Muslims want to help the government fight terrorism  —  we see it as our duty  —  but Prevent gets in the way of that, by taking power out of the hands of community members, and giving it to bureaucrats.”

Unfortunately, Western governments are not the only non-Muslims helping fulfil the jihadist narrative; the public themselves are also to blame. Internet comments are nowadays filled with anti-Muslim bile, and, combined with the aforementioned street attacks on mosques and Muslims, an atmosphere of bullying has developed. Although being bullied is no excuse for joining ISIS, it does help ISIS tell their story of prophesied fitnah.

So, if our recent actions have only helped ISIS’s narrative, how do we break the cycle?

VIII  —  AFTER SEPTEMBER COMES AKH TAWBAH

Communism only ended as an influential ideology when the Soviet Union failed. Likewise, the end of the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative will require its heroes  —  ISIS  —  to fail. A decisive military defeat would expose the current jihadist prophecies as a lie.

The problem is, ISIS cannot be defeated in a conventional way, because it is not a conventional enemy. It has three forms — solid (caliphate), liquid (insurgency), and gas (ideology).

In its solid form, it occupies a well-defined space and operates much like any other tyranny, with a conventional standing army. But it also carries out more idiosyncratic activities, such as impregnating sex-slaves en masse in order to bolster its numbers and fulfill a hadithic prophecy of “the slave-girl giving birth to her master” [47], and setting up schools to indoctrinate entire generations of children into its prophetic narrative, with the intention of making them West-hating mass-murderers [48]. We’ve seen the pictures of ISIS children beheading hostages. If this is what they are capable of now, it is hard to imagine the atrocities they will accept as adults.

Fortunately, the solid form of ISIS is the easiest form to disrupt. It lost a large chunk in Mosul, and will soon lose another chunk in Raqqa. If ISIS were a conventional force, losing its two largest cities would have put it on the verge of defeat, but it isn’t, and it isn’t. This is because, when ISIS’s solid form is pressured, instead of breaking, it melts into its liquid form.

In this form, it operates like a guerrilla force, able to seep between the porous borders of nations and soak into foreign populaces. It has done this to dozens of nations, from Malaysia to Lebanon. Once it has soaked through borders it can pass undetected in host countries for large periods of time, allowing it to perform reconnaissance, create information networks, transmit agitprop, and carry out psychological warfare. The liquid form is physically weaker than its solid form, but far more flexible, and it thus employs terrorism as a leveller, using frequent spontaneous attacks to retain an inordinate presence in the news cycle, creating a demoralizing sense of threat, and keeping its enemy’s heart-rates high in order to wear them down mentally rather than physically.

Furthermore, if the liquid form is not disrupted, then eventually, by using propaganda campaigns to win over local populaces, it can solidify into a physical presence (as we have seen in Libya and to some extent Indonesia).

Meanwhile, if the liquid form is disrupted, it runs the risk of becoming even more dangerous, by evaporating into its purest form: ideology. The more ISIS is oppressed, the more convincing become its prophecies of oppression. When it cannot win physically, it seeks to win ideologically, by playing the victim and the underdog, and thereby establishing common ground with locals who also considers themselves oppressed by the government. In this way, as ISIS loses men, it gains influence. All that is required for this evaporation is a few sympathetic ears.

Unlike the solid and liquid forms of ISIS, its gaseous form operates purely in the realm of ideas, and is therefore unaffected by geography. The fog of hatred has already wafted all over the world, pooling in places with alienated populations, such as Luton. The gaseous form may lack the overt impact of the solid and liquid forms, but its ability to permeate an entire population through social media means it can form its own lone wolf operatives from a host country’s civilians, who will then attempt to destroy the host from the inside out.

And this is why, despite the need for a military victory over ISIS, the primary battleground in the fight against jihadism is not Syria, or Indonesia, but the Internet. After all, this is not really a war between peoples, but between conflicting narratives  —  the secular Western narrative versus the prophetic-apocalyptic one. And if we don’t end ISIS’s narrative, then a military victory over it will be hollow and short-lived, as it continues to melt, solidify, evaporate, sublime and precipitate between its three forms, animated and reanimated by newer and newer interpretations of prophecies.

The essence of ISIS — its vaporous narrative — ultimately derives its volatility from its clarity, drawing on a multitude of sources, from scripture to history to current affairs, but meshing them together into a story that is easy to understand, and hence easy to spread.

In response, the West has two prominent counter-narratives, one propagated by the political right, and the other by the left.

The left narrative portrays terrorists as a reaction to the oppression of Muslims, either by rich white politicians intent on establishing a neo-colonial occupation in Muslim lands, or by poor white xenophobes intent on defeating multiculturalism.

It is not only wrong, but dangerous, to agree with the extremists that we are to blame for terrorism. It’s exactly what people like al-Baghdadi want to hear. As counter-terrorism campaigner and former extremist Maajid Nawaz ominously writes in his book Radical:

“I watched as our ideology gained acceptance and we were granted airtime as Muslim political commentators. I watched as we were ignorantly pandered to by well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists. How we Islamists laughed at their naïveté.” [49]

Or, as Christopher Hitchens used to say of the West-blaming narrative, “This is masochism, and it’s being offered to you by a sadist.”

We can and should acknowledge that we have made serious mistakes in the Middle East, without condemning ourselves to the role of villain in this narrative.

Another mistake made by the left is to avoid talking about Islamic extremism altogether, out of fear that it might lead to some kind of Kristallnacht for Muslims. However, leftists would be more likely to prevent this if they acknowledged that, while terrorism is not fundamentally Islamic, it does draw on certain regressive schools of thought within Islam, schools which must be criticized by all progressive people, whether liberalist, socialist, or moderate Muslim. The left would also do well to remember that the victims of jihadism are overwhelmingly Muslims.

In stark contrast to the leftist position, the right’s narrative, most vehemently articulated by the emergent subgroup known as the “alt-right,” portrays a West paralyzed by political correctness as it is assaulted by evil Muslims who are trying to establish a fifth column in Western countries as part of a theocratic conspiracy to take over the world.

Unlike many on the left, rightists tend to understand the severity of the extremist threat. However, they employ divisive rhetoric that leads to the scapegoating and demonization of all Muslims. We cannot alienate moderates. It is precisely what ISIS wants. We must support the moderates by supporting their counter-narrative that Islam need not be a violent, literalist, medieval apocalyptic religion. If we insist that because the Qur’an contains violence that Islam must therefore be violent, we are discrediting moderate Muslims and legitimizing ISIS; in fact, the alt-right and the jihadists, with their insistence that Islam and the West are at war, propagate the very same narrative.

If leftists should remember that most victims of jihad are Muslim, rightists should remember that Muslims  —  Iraqis, Syrians, and Kurds  —  are doing the most to physically combat ISIS.

Some on the right may point out that terrorism aside, many Muslims also believe in stoning, child marriages, and punitive amputations. While we may regard such beliefs as repulsive, conservatives and alt-righters must accept that they do not have the right to stop people holding barbaric views about the way society should be run  —  unless they want to be called “PC brigade” or “Social Justice Warrior” or “Thought Police”  —  terms they hate so much and often level at the left.

Our constitution compels us to be committed to free expression, which entails letting other people believe things we don’t like (so long as they don’t act on those beliefs). Thus, we mustn’t suppress Islamist ideas, we must confront them head-on, by allowing them into the arena of ideas, where they can be debated, and shown to be inconsistent with logic, justice and compassion.

So, both the left and right counter-narratives are wrong. Generally speaking, the left agree with the jihadists that it is all the West’s fault. The right agrees with the jihadists that the West is at war with Islam. The left wants to suppress all criticism of Islam. The right wants to suppress all of Islam. The left ignores the root problem. The right exacerbates it.

We need a middle-ground between the two extremes, one that neither paints us as the oppressors nor victims of Islam. We need a third narrative. And there is no better narrative than the truth, which is that nothing is ever simple, and no one is an angel or a devil.

The newspapers  —  the loudest voice in the West  —  are in the best position to proliferate this counter-narrative. They can assuage the accusations of oppression by pointing out what the West has done right; for instance, saving hundreds of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks from genocide in the 1990s, allowing citizens freedom of culture and religion, and recently appointing a Muslim mayor of one of the largest cities in Europe.

The media must also do more to promote liberal, secular strands of Islam rather than theocratic, apocalyptic ones. Perhaps, instead of sensationalizing the actions of ISIS, as the jihadists want us to do, the tabloids could from time to time report on charity work and interfaith action being conducted by moderate Muslims in places like Luton. It might not sell as many papers as “Jihadist psycho-bloodbath!” but it will surely serve society better.

The media gave Anjem Choudary an inordinate amount of airtime because he was entertaining, like a comic book villain. But news should be about views, not view count. And so, for every extremist the papers give a platform to, they should also give a platform to a moderate Muslim scholar, many of whom will be needed to demonstrate that Islam is far more complicated and variegated than what the jihadists and far-right paint it as.

A particularly important school of Islam that is not being given enough publicity is called Islamic modernism. It was founded by Muhammad Abduh, who recognised the compassionate, humanist core of Islam, closer to secularism than authoritarianism, and famously proclaimed that “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”

Islamic modernism is slowly but steadily growing, and it is a direct challenge to the central tenets of Wahhabism  —  that abrogation is absolute, that the Qur’an is literal and infallible, that hadith prophecies are authentic and refer to the modern age, and that Muhammad’s wartime Sunnah is an ideal to be followed for all times (and not just wartime in 7th Century Arabia).

In order to spread this narrative as widely as possible, Muslim scholars and religious leaders must also do more to engage with non-Muslims. I found that while there were helpful Muslim leaders in Luton, the mosques rarely made an attempt to answer my emails or phone calls, and of those who did, most seemed content to put out blanket statements such as “Islam is a religion of peace.” Imams and Qur’anic scholars would do well to remember that if you don’t define yourself, other people will.

I stand outside Luton Central Mosque as it undergoes refurbishment. Islam will also need renovation.

Whichever way we choose to shape our counter-narrative, it will only be effective if it is honest. To this end, we must always act in line with our values as a rational, free and open society, and never resort to anger, hatred or bigotry, which would only serve jihadist propaganda. While a resounding military defeat of ISIS may be necessary, we will only stop future Muslims becoming jihadists by winning the ideological debate, and we will only do this by showing our opponents that the world is more complex and nuanced than they have been led to believe.

There is an episode within the Qur’an in which Muhammad has a vision of Heaven, known as Mi’raj. Travelling between the “layers of the sky,” Muhammad meets Jesus, Moses, and other Biblical prophets, before ascending to the throne of Allah Himself. Allah instructs the prophet that his followers must pray 50 times a day. Muhammad relays this back to Moses, who says it is too excessive, and that human beings wouldn’t be able to bear it. So Muhammad goes back to Allah, and asks Him to reduce the number of prayers, to lift the burden on humanity, for whom life is already tough. Allah agrees to reduce it to 5 times a day.

The moral of the story, at least to me, is that nothing is simple or set in stone. And if even Allah can be persuaded by discussion, perhaps people can too?

Notes

[30] Sunan Ibn-e-Majah. Kitabul-Fitan, Babul-’Uqoobat. Vol.II, p.1333. Dar-ul-Fikr Al-’Arabi.

[31] Anon. “Islam: Prophet Predicted End-times Chaos in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt.” News Rescue, 2014. http://newsrescue.com/islam-prophet-predicted-end-times-chaos-iraq-syria-palestine-egypt/#axzz4HR3MDux5

[32] Anon. Dabiq, issue 4, p37. ISIS, 2015.

[33] Alex Gibney. “Killing Wussification.” The Atlantic, 2009. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/05/killing-wussification/17697/

[34] “Derek”, “KJF”, “mtuck” (usernames of managers). “Torture, Rendition, and other Abuses against Captives in US Custody.” History Commons, 2007. http://www.historycommons.org/timeline.jsp?timeline=torture,_rendition,_and_other_abuses_against_captives_in_iraq,_afghanistan,_and_elsewhere&hr_types_of_abuses_performed_by_americans=hr_mentalAbuse&printerfriendly=true

[35] Paul Cruickshank, Duncan Gardham. “Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’.” Daily Telegraph, 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5395830/Abu-Ghraib-abuse-photos-show-rape.html

[36] Kate Zernicke. “Detainees Describe Abuses by Guard in Iraq Prison.” New York Times, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/12/world/detainees-describe-abuses-by-guard-in-iraq-prison.html

[37] Gitanjali S. Gutierrez. “Declaration of Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, Esq., Lawyer for Mohammed al Qahtani.” 2006. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/assets/files/AlQahtani_GutierrezDeclaration_10_06.pdf

[38] Geraldine Sealey. “Hersh: Children sodomized at Abu Ghraib, on tape.” Salon, 2004. http://www.salon.com/2004/07/15/hersh_7/

[39] John Boone. “WikiLeaks cables portray Hamid Karzai as corrupt and erratic.” The Guardian, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/02/wikileaks-cables-hamid-karzai-erratic

[40] Matthew Rosenberg. “With Bags of Cash, C.I.A. Seeks Influence in Afghanistan.” New York Times, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/world/asia/cia-delivers-cash-to-afghan-leaders-office.html

[41] Anon. “MI6 ‘ghost money’ sent to Hamid Karzai amid massive Afghan corruption.” Russia Today, 2013. https://www.rt.com/news/mi6-financing-karzai-corruption-858/

[42] Duncan Gardham. “MI6 ‘blamed for Taliban impostor.’ Daily Telegraph, 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/8161357/MI6-blamed-for-Taliban-impostor.html

[43] Vasudevan Sridharan. “Former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki allegedly siphoned off $500bn in 8 years.” International Business Times, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/former-iraqi-pm-nouri-al-maliki-allegedly-siphoned-off-500bn-8-years-1526096

[44] Anon. Dabiq, issue 4, p8. ISIS, 2015.

[45] Dominic Casciani. “Analysis: The Prevent strategy and its problems.” BBC News, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28939555

[46] Damien Gayle. “Prevent strategy ‘could end up promoting extremism’.” The Guardian, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/21/government-prevent-strategy-promoting-extremism-maina-kiai

[47] Anon. Dabiq, issue 4, pp15–16. ISIS, 2015.

[48] Mia Bloom, John Horgan, Charlie Winter. “Depictions of children and youth in the Islamic State’s martyrdom propaganda, 2015–2016.” Combating Terrorism Center, West Point, 2016. https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/depictions-of-children-and-youth-in-the-islamic-states-martyrdom-propaganda-2015-2016

[49] Maajid Nawaz. “Radical,” p210. WH Allen, 2013.

Gurwinder Bhogal

Gurwinder Bhogal is a freelance writer and researcher. His work has been featured in the UK's Sunday Express and on the blog of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam, which advises the UK government.

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Gurwinder Bhogal

Gurwinder Bhogal is a freelance writer and researcher. His work has been featured in the UK's Sunday Express and on the blog of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam, which advises the UK government.

2 thoughts on “The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

  1. Fascinating reading.

    But this search for the moderate Muslim… have you watched Tommy robinson’s recent chat with (or at) the moderate Luton imam, who seems constitutionally incapable of discussing the tenets of his faith. If a don’t-ask-awkward-questions, I’m-not-qualified-to-discuss-this attitude is the best one available then moderation will not happen.

    The individualist attitude that will help is the very one they can’t bear to embrace.

    Apart from that, yes we non muslims need to overturn our complacency and our political class and culture. Maybe an even bigger task.

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