Why would Muslims born, raised and educated in the West gravitate towards extremism? This question seems to puzzle many onlookers, and the actions of these nationals seem beyond any rational explanation. What is overlooked is that the Isil propaganda machine cleverly and effectively taps into an already existing theological world view within young Muslim minds.
For the last twenty years I’ve witnessed the spreading of two toxic elements running amok in the West. One is Wahhabism, heavily pushed by Saudi Arabia via its preachers, sponsorship programs, mosque funding and book stores. Running parallel is a broader ideology of Islamism, a politicised Islam seeking to impose one version of Sharia on its citizens. This was first pushed by Hizb ut-Tahrir and then al-Muhaijiroun and its many different manifestations. Hatred for “decadent” Western society, which is diametrically opposed to their version of Islamic values, and yearning for an Islamic state enabling one to practice an unadulterated pure Islam, has been the stock in trade of those who currently dominate the activist space.
Often mosques are considered hotbeds for extremism, but this is inaccurate.
The bulk of this activism exists on university campuses. Often mosques are considered hotbeds for extremism, but this is inaccurate. Mosques are run by a generation who are in most cases out of touch with the youth. It’s at universities where the exposure to intolerant and unethical theological ideas happens. I remember while studying at Westminster University, as did the infamous Mohammed Emwazi many years ago, I was introduced to the ideas that I now hope to change. There were two camps: Hizb ut-Tahrir, who ran the Islamic society, pushed their Islamofascistic politicised Islam, and the pro-Saudi Wahhabis, puritanical and amoral. The two camps were deeply critical of one another and were constantly at each other’s throats, but both totalitarian. The plus side of their disagreements was that at least there was a degree of critical introspection and dialogue.
Today, however, things are more grim. Due to a growing mindset of victimhood, the two camps have almost merged as one, often cooperating with one another. As a consequence dialogue within extremism is non-existent, let alone engagement with those outside the echo chamber. The sole focus is on the Other, namely the West and non-Muslims. For example, an event in Bedford entitled “Quiz a Muslim” (held, by an unfortunate coincidence, on the day of the Paris attacks) consisted entirely of Wahhabi and Islamist speakers who appear regularly on university campuses.
The founder of Wahabism was vehemently schismatic. Bin Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of what he deemed “corruptions”, opposing mysticism, rationalism and Shiism. If a Muslim wasn’t a “true believer” then they were deemed an apostate according to his strict standards; such a judgment meant that they could be killed. Accordingly Wahhabi speakers deem Muslims who differ with Wahhabi thought as “deviants”, a euphemism for apostate. When I organised evolution conference to debate the topic of Islam and evolution, there was an obscene backlash. We were labelled as deviants by a prominent Wahhabi preacher for merely having such a debate. One of the guest lecturers was even “excommunicated” for seeking to reconcile the scientific perspective with the faith.
Many hardline Islamists and their sympathisers are no different. In particular they view western society as the domain of disbelief, “Dar al Kufr”. Western societies are described with the pejorative word “Jahiliyya”. This term is commonly translated as “the age of ignorance”. In classical Islam, the term denotes the pre-Islamic situation in Arabia characterised by pagan ignorance of the Word of God (Quran). Syed Qutb, a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s, was the first to apply the concept of Jahiliyya to modern times.
Qutb argued that there are two societies: the Islamic and the jahili. To him, Jahiliyya was not just a fixed moment in history, but a moral condition which recurs whenever society deviates from his utopian Islamist ideal. He deemed all the contemporary world as jahili as they subverted the will of God and had adopted “man-made laws” to regulate their affairs, which was the source of their moral decay. It is also noted by Qutb that Muslim societies are also griped by the call to “secularise” and therefore could aptly be called jahili like their western counterparts. Qutb regarded attempts of “modernists”, who argued for Islam’s compatibility with modernity, as “moral defeatists” suffering from an inferiority complex.
Today’s Islamists echo such rhetoric, The West is seen as a decadent society devoid of any morality and is the root of all aliments of the world. Hizb ut-Tahrir literature speaks volumes: from phone hacking to the Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandal, are all blamed on Western values and the “corrupted, immoral system of liberal democracy” – without a hint of awareness about the fact that they themselves advocate so-called marriage to under-age girls.
In similar vain to Qutb, Islamists see Muslims who do not subscribe to their call for a totalitarian pseudo-Caliphate and support corporal punishments as lapsed Muslims,merely appeasing the West – again, despite the fact that the last Caliphate, that of the Ottomans, abandoned such legislation and progressed towards equal citizenship.
In order to stop future recruits, we have to uproot the intellectual landscape that Isil taps into
When these views dominate university campuses and shut out other perspectives, it hurts Muslim students who are exploring their faith – sometimes for the first time. They are only exposed to a stark outlook on the world, an austere form of Islamic rules, and limits on their interaction with anyone who disagrees. This has an enormous impact on how some Muslim students interact with other Muslims with non-Muslims. It is the start of an “othering” process which ends with a sense of intolerance towards and disconnection from pluralistic British society. That in turn creates a deep sense of alienation: the West, with its “moral depravity”, becomes an alien environment where once it was considered a home.
In summary, the groundwork of extremism, in practise and in thought, was laid many years ago. The notion of the West as the locus of moral vice and the puritannical schism from mainstream Islam I’ve seen across British universities are all hallmarks of the Isil message. Its propaganda taps into well-established if crude concepts and feelings, amplifying them with recruiting materials that are tremendously visceral in nature. At the same time, it conjures an idyllic vision of a Utopian society it can never meet in reality.
In order to stop future recruits, we have to uproot the intellectual landscape that Isil taps into. Some have described what is playing out as the reverberations of a “clash of civilisations”. I don’t see this, but rather a clash between the civilised and the uncivilised. We need to expose Isil’s ideology by presenting it in its true light – a mix of modern totalitarianism and schismatic religion – and in all its ugliness.