July 23, 2005
Combating Islamist Terrorism: Policy Approaches
Militant Islamist ideology is not a recent phenomenon, the concepts have been around for decades. It was popular with Muslim youth in the 1960-70s, particularly after Sayyid Qutb published Signposts on the Road, a bestseller in the Islamic world that continues to influence Islamist ideology today. At the time, enthusiasm for nationalism was waning and writers like Qutb were disgusted with the corruption of secular authoritarian governments and the perceived erosion of Islamic principles in Egypt and across the Middle East. The answer was of course a return to religion, and a firm rejection of jahiliyya, the state of ignorance and barbarism that occured in the absence of Islam (historically, this term refers to the pre-Islamic period).
So why has this sort of thinking been adopted more recently by a segment of young European Muslims? What is the source of their disenchantment and frustration and how can European (and North American) governments address this issue without compromising ideals such as tolerance and multiculturalism?
I came across a few articles today, reflecting on Europe’s Muslims and potential policy approaches for addressing the radicalization of Muslim youth around the world:
The experience of the US in Iraq demonstrates, for example, that empires do not work. Without some legitimacy, only a ruthless despotism can retain an empire. The US lacks the legitimacy and, happily, the ruthlessness. As inconceivable as a world empire is a universal religion. Today’s world possesses a hodge podge of faiths and non-faiths. States now rest on single religions (as in Iran or Saudi Arabia), civic creeds (as in the US), national identities (as in Japan), procedural values (as in Switzerland) or on no shared identity (as in much of sub-Saharan Africa).
It is far easier to enumerate the challenges than find the solutions. But a tough-minded liberalism, in its European more than American sense, is the only answer. That was the solution proposed by the founders of the multilateral world order after the second world war. It remains the best solution today. We must agree, within reason, to differ. In essence, this means that we agree more on procedural norms than on substantive ones. Moreover, we enshrine those procedural norms within institutions.
Essentially, Wolf is advocating a multilateral approach, not out of some misplaced sense of warm and fuzzy world unity, but because the alternatives (empire or balance of power) can no longer be applied successfully on a global scale. He criticizes the recent American tendency towards unilateralism, because “it leaves the US shorn of legitimacy, bereft of allies and desperately trying to impose order by force”. Managing differences in a pragmatic way, rather than trying to stamp them out, is the only way to maintain stability in a highly-connected world full of competing interests.
Next up, Economist explores the possibility of reform from within:
It would be wrong, though, to seek to exclude or lock up every imam who has uttered a provocative word. The struggle against the jihadis is the struggle of European tolerance against the closed mind of bigotry. It is a struggle that will ultimately depend upon Islam itself to guide its young men towards good deeds rather than the security services to identify those who have turned bad—vital though that plainly is. British Muslim groups have reacted well by vocally and unequivocally condemning the terrorists. It would be even better if they could now lead public marches against the men of violence and, within their communities, a public debate against jihadism.
For what is needed is a free and open debate within Islam, one in which the modernisers emulate the tactics of the extremists in a crucial way: that they exploit Europe's free flow of ideas in order to win the argument against those keener on medieval practices and violence. Ultimately, that will be what makes jihadis empty their heads of hatred.
This is interesting. Qutb was known for being able to discuss Islam in a manner that was accessible to laypeople. Basically he cut out the boring, pedantic rambling that characterized theological discourse at the time and wrote simple and straightforward books for the masses. Oversimplified and full of impoverished thinking, certainly, but easy to understand.
In my experience, reasonable discourse is often impeded by strongly-held prejudices and information gaps. Mideast leaders have purposefully exacerbated existing anger and resentment felt by Muslims over various political/social issues, including Western intervention in the region over the last century or so. Controlling the flow of ideas (e.g. school curricula, newspapers and broadcast media) to spin events and build support for a given political agenda (including misdirection) is a practice common to all authoritarian governments. It may even lead to complete dismissal of any Western perspective simply because it is Western (and therefore biased against Islam), an approach that was advocated by Qutb in a number of his works.
In many cases, encouraging hatred and discouraging contact (e.g. integration) served a number of interests in the past and may continue to do so in the future, unless there is incentive to change. External pressure can easily be spun to imply “imperialist regulation” of Islam, so there is really no other option but to change from within. To me, that means encouraging Muslim clerics to have more than a superficial understanding of the West, particularly if they are living in a Western country. Qutb’s own opinion of America was based on highly anecdotal, personal observation, yet his view has persisted. I think there is a similar risk with Muslim preachers who warn against mixing with those belonging to the jahiliyya without having any real exposure to Western practices.
It also means encouraging religious debate between Muslims, but not in a manner that is offensive. Authors like Irshad Manji, who are ostensibly trying to reawaken debate in Islam, are so condescending that they alienate the very people they are trying to engage. Her book, The Trouble With Islam Today (amusingly, my earlier edition left off the word “Today”, which makes for a much more provocative title), is praised by Western readers because it's written for Western audiences. Her depiction of Islam is so hostile that I wonder if she's trying to provoke some mad cleric into declaring a fatwa against her, just to prove a point. Attacking the core beliefs of a billion people doesn't generally lead to constructive discussion and/or reform.
Finally (and I know this one has been beaten to death), the US does have to work on its image in the Middle East. Not only in terms of policy approaches and execution, but actually responding to market expectations and packaging key messages for people in the region, not for people at home. There are common interests, if you look hard enough. As a Muslim friend of mine once said:
“Whatever’s happening in Iraq, London or Afghanistan, never forget what side we should be on. If they get their way, all of you will be wearing burkas.”
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Given that the context of this discussion is the disenchantment and frustration of young European muslims primarily, I don't see that the follies of Islamic dictatorships in "purposefully exacerbating existing anger and resentment felt by muslims" is more than a minor contributing factor. The actions of the 9-11 terrorists, the London bombers, and the Madrid bombers, cannot plausibly be explained by appealing to their living in societies where access to infomation is controlled and the population is subjected to anti-western propaganda, because they didn't. All these terrorists spent a sizeable part of their formative years living in western democracies. They chose fundamentalism in spite of intimate familiarity with the West.
The widespread anti-american sentiment in the Islamic community can probably be blamed to some extent on the propaganda efforts of Islamic dictators to deflect attention away from domestic issues and so forth. But since 9-11, islamist terrorist attacks in democratic countries have been carried out by citizens of those countries. The unfortunate political circumstances in much of the muslim world would therefore seem to be of secondary importance: what is of the first importance is that the 9-11 attacks have popularised an violent ideology which even well educated muslims living in western democracies sometimes find persuasive.
Posted by: Eugene at July 23, 2005 01:51 AM
I think the actions of Mideast leaders have effects beyond the region itself, especially where anti-Western sentiment is concerned. It's not like these youths have no contact with the region or their homelands. 3 of the London bombers spent time in Pakistan prior to carrying out the attacks (reasons are still unclear).
What if some European Muslim youth become convinced that the Western media has no credibility (e.g. it is run by a conspiracy of Jews)? They may choose to ignore any perspective that is Western or Western-aligned. Where do they turn for information? If they make contact with people in the Middle East (e.g. online, mosques, visiting those countries), then they may be exposed to prejudices created by governments to further a political agenda, or prejudices created by religious leaders to further a fundamentalist agenda. A major part of Qutb's strategy was to convince people that all Western perspectives and systems of thought were wrong, that even certain kinds of Islamic discourse were wrong. He encouraged people to take a very narrow view of the world, and actively resist "intellectual" imperialism from the West.
I would also argue that familiarity with the West might be from the perspective of an outsider who has spent a lot of time in a given country, not someone who feels like they are truly a member of that society. You can live in a place without interacting meaningfully with its citizens (sticking to your own) or making any friends outside your immediate ethnic/religious group. I've observed this as well, even among 2nd generation Muslims. al-Qaeda's ideology is probably more persuasive to European Muslims that feel alienated, not ones that readily identify with non-Muslim Europeans.
Posted by: eerie at July 23, 2005 02:31 AM
The solution to the so-called jihadist problem among Muslims in both the Western and non-Western world is multi-pronged. The situation and context, motivation and psyche of the perpetrators of Islamist terrorist attacks are different from London to Sharm el Sheikh to Iraq.
In Europe, the problem likely has to do with isolation and ghettoization of Muslims communities in a multicultural social fabric, leaving Muslim youth open to self-centred, anti-Western influences.
This is obviously not the case in predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt, Iraq or Pakistan. There are of course shared grievances against America and the West, but the problem also has a lot to do with the long-term suppression of human rights, lack of education and poor economic conditions.
I am inclined to agree with the idea of an open engagement of the extremist Islamist side by the mainstream scholarship. Islamic scholars have a vital role to play if the jihadist issue is to be solved from within. They have been in the background for far too long.
Posted by: Ali at July 23, 2005 03:46 AM
This is really well-written, and I'm glad you wrote about Irshad Manji. I saw her speak at my uni a couple of years ago and she only succeeded in further alientating the Arab community...I say Arab rather than Muslim because she went on to blame "the trouble with Islam" on the Arabization of Islam.
On the discussion surrounding Muslims living in the West, I think (and perhaps I speak from one perspective only) that Muslims living in the West can sometimes hold more extreme religious ideas than those living in Muslim countries. Chalk it up to geographically concentrated neighbourhoods where a lot of Muslims possess feelings of alienation, discrimination, etc.
Posted by: ridemycamel at July 23, 2005 05:03 AM
It seems so matter-of-course that the various dialogues must be radically revamped that it disturbs me somehwat that the point still bears repeating as well as it obviously does.
It also bears repeating, emphasizing and reiterating that an improved communications strategy, now matter how clever and no matter how badly needed is not enough. There must also be actual, factual change. Without various bits of real change, introduced memes'll end up serving as live-virus vaccines against the changes they're intended to foster.
Posted by: Simon W. Moon at July 23, 2005 12:50 PM