The fundamental problem with Islam
It is hard to identify the moment when soothing words ceased to be an effective weapon in the fight against jihadist ideology. All we know is that it happened several decades before the Paris atrocities, the rise of the Islamic State or even 9/11.
The hostilities consuming the Islamic world have a momentum of their own. It is a fanciful to imagine that the conflict was provoked by the West, fuelled by the West or that the West alone has the responsibility to end it.
Nevertheless, as Greg Sheridan reported on these pages last week, the head of Australia’s domestic spy agency is urging us to tone down our language. We must be “temperate”, says Duncan Lewis, to avoid provoking a backlash.
Lewis has a job to do, and a difficult one at that. It requires his agents to establish trust with the leaders of the Islamic community. Loose talk about — how should we put it? — the less savoury side of their otherwise delightful religion may put the Islamic community off-side. If Islamic fanaticism were confined to Sydney’s Lakemba and Melbourne’s Greenvale, Lewis might have a point. Sadly, however, the tendency of young suburban Australians to fall for this dangerous nonsense is but a small manifestation of an international ideological struggle.
Some have described it as the first global civil war, but it is far more dangerous than that. It is a conflict between the sects and tribes of Islam and between Islam and the rest. It is the defining ideological battle of our age, one equally as dangerous and infinitely less predictable than the 50-year struggle against communism.
The ability of Australians to go about their business without encountering a cleaver-wielding religious maniac is rightly our highest domestic security concern. But that should not prevent us from considering the bigger picture. As Lewis noted in his interview in The Sunday Telegraph nine days ago, the real action is elsewhere. “What I would say is that the collapse of the so-called caliphate will be a necessary part of the complete solution,” he said.
Homegrown zealotry does not exist in a vacuum. Its elimination is a worthy goal, but it would be an insignificant victory in the global battle against Islamic fundamentalism. A military victory against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the degrading of the ideology that supports it, on the other hand, would be a giant step forward.
Two recent reports by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Centre for Religion and Geopolitics demonstrate the scale of the challenge. On Sunday the think tank reported that defeating Islamic State would not end the worldwide jihad since as many as 15 hardline Islamist militias in Syria are ready to take its place. Up to 100,000 fighters aligned to these factions have adopted the same Salafist mindset.
Earlier this year the centre released Inside the Jihadi Mind, which examined the propaganda of three Salafist groups. Although notional rivals, they shared the same creedal values, the same a determination to honour the prophet and a millennial conviction that these are the end of days. They were equally committed to the nobility of jihad, the restoration of Islamic honour and the disgrace of their non-Muslim enemies. Clearly the Kumbaya response won’t do the trick. The centre concludes that Islamic State should not just be opposed militarily but “uprooted through rigorous scrutiny and sustained intellectual confrontation”.
If the centre’s assumptions are correct, Lewis’s attempt to set “appropriate” limits on public debate are ill-considered.
The first report says: “The tactics and barbaric violence associated with the global jihadi movement have prompted many to deny that jihadi groups have anything to do with Islam … The ideology of all three groups depends upon a reading of the religion of Islam … without an Islamic foundation, the Salafi-jihadi ideology would collapse. This demonstrates the necessity of engaging with the ideology in religious terms.”
For Australian Muslims the pull of Salafism is unmistakeable. About 150 are said to have joined Islamic State and others have waged jihad on Australian soil.
A frank conversation about the crisis in Islam should trouble nobody under the circumstances, least of all the Muslim majority who wish to follow a religion of peace. They should speak up at every opportunity, for at the moment those who seek a licence for violence appear to be winning. Since 2001 at least 113 Australian civilians have lost their lives in nine jihadist terrorist attacks on four continents. Their murderers presented themselves in different guises: al-Qa’ida, Jemaah Islamiah, Lashkar-e-Toiba, al-Shabab, Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade and Islamic State. Each group perverts Islam in its own peculiar way. But when it comes to murdering infidels they are all on the same page.
Fortunately there are many who are not prepared to mince words, including distinguished British writer VS Naipaul. In an essay this year he described Islamic fundamentalism as the most potent ideological threat since the Nazis. He takes issue with politicians in Europe and the US who try to play down the jihadists’ religious motivations and portray them as the lunatic fringe.
“Their constant refrain is that these perpetrators of murder and terror have as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity or the testament of Jesus Christ. But does such political assurance bear scrutiny?”
Naipaul insists not; their claims lack theological and empirical foundation. A fundamental element of fundamentalism is that it requires a religion to be fundamental about. Naipaul does not hold back. “ISIS is dedicated to a contemporary holocaust. It has pledged itself to the murder of Shias, Jews, Christians, Copts, Yazidis and anyone it can, however fancifully, accuse of being a spy. It has wiped out the civilian populations of whole regions and towns. ISIS could very credibly abandon the label of Caliphate and call itself the Fourth Reich.” Tough language. Perhaps Lewis should take the winner of the Nobel prize for literature to task.