Dawa: the Invisible Counter-Enlightenment in our Midst

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Is dawa subtly re-branding political Islam? Aayan Hirsi Ali warns of the duplicitous tactics behind efforts to disguise illiberal practices.

If you have never heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, this is probably not an accident. Precisely because of her dramatic personal experiences within and beyond the Islamic faith, and the things she has to say about it and about the objectives and methodology of political Islam, she poses a serious threat to its strategic machinations. This only makes her 2017 report The Challenge of Dawa that much more relevant.

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The stated purpose of Hirsi Ali’s 105-page report is to map out and analyse political Islam’s infrastructure and to propose detailed policy recommendations that will halt its spread. Relative to other publications on the issue, the content of her political analysis represents a deeper and more thorough account of the current ways in which Islamism works in relation to other contemporary issues and influences, such as immigration policy, counter-terrorism, multiculturalism, and integration.

What is dawa?

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Dawa is the organisational infrastructure by means of which Islamists inspire, propagate, indoctrinate, recruit, finance, and mobilise those whom they win over to their cause. To fully understand the depth and breadth of dawa and the means by which it succeeds, one must understand that the status of Hirsi Ali is itself an effect of its success. The branding of this woman, a feminist and reformer from a Muslim background whose very life is threatened by theocratic extremists, as ‘right wing’ is a clear example of dawa’s triumphant spin. The relative publicity, priority, and representative status given to Islamist propagandists like Linda Sarsour speaks volumes about the power of dawa.

Understanding dawa requires acknowledging the reality of political Islam. Political Islam is not just a religion, explains Hirsi Ali. It is a political ideology, a legal order, and a military doctrine associated with the campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad. Like any theocratic movement, it rejects the distinction between religion and politics, mosque and state. It implies a constitutional order fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law in Western democracies. It favours a caliphate over legally accountable and removable elected representatives.

To advance their goal of imposing Islamic law (sharia) on society, Islamists employ a wide range of tactics, of which violent jihad is only one. Hirsi Ali is adamant that we ignore at our peril the ideological infrastructure that supports political Islam in both its violent and its non-violent forms.

‘Non-violence’ gets a free pass

Working under the guise of religious missionary activity, Islamist organisations often enjoy not just freedom from interference, but also official sponsorship from government agencies who regard them as religious ‘moderates’ simply because they do not engage in violence.

This makes what they actually do far more insidious and destructive than violence, which earns only very short-term victories and is openly and obviously hostile to its targets. Dawa is the opposite–it works precisely because it does not manifest as an obvious enemy to the institutions and political structures that it aims to eradicate. It mimics and infiltrates them, using their language and mobilising their energies.

Dawa is subversion from within–the instrumental abuse of religious freedom to undermine that very freedom. For this reason, dawa is able to operate under the cover of laws that protect religious freedom, giving it much more room to manoeuvre than, say, fascism.

In Western countries, dawa aims not only to instil Islamist views in existing Muslims but also to convert non-Muslims to political Islam. The ultimate goal is to destroy the political institutions of liberal democracies and to replace them with the top-down rule of sharia law. Political Islam’s ultimate goal of absolute legal authority holds appeal for anyone interested in totalitarian political power, whether they are genuinely religious or not, and whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. Religion’s potential as a tool for the establishment and maintenance of political power must not be overlooked in any complex assessment of political Islam.

Sabotaging society silently

The failure of liberals to address Islamists’ civilisation-jihadist process (their term) owes less to Europeans’ unfulfilled or latent need for religious morality than to the clever ways in which Islamists have sold their ideological product.

As stated in their own strategy memoranda, the process is going to work by becoming ‘a part of the homeland’ in which it lives, ‘stable’ in its land, ‘rooted’ in the spirits and minds of its people, ‘enabled’ in the live [sic]of its society. The document states:

The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilisation from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.

This process of ‘sabotaging’ is clearly underway. As the Saudi Grand Mufti Ibn Baz stated in 1998 in Words of Advice Regarding Da’wah: From the Noble Shaykh: 

The truth has been spread through the correct Islamic da’wah, which in turn has been aided and supported by jihad whenever anyone stood in its way. It was jihad and da’wah together which helped to open the doors to victories.

Mecca versus Medina Muslims

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Harry Hook/Getty Images

Hirsi-Ali explains that the policy of drawing a sharp distinction between a ‘tiny’ group of extremists and an ‘overwhelming’ majority of moderate Muslims has been one of the most damaging strategic errors since 9/11.

The insistence that radical Islamists have ‘nothing to do with Islam’ has only led to further policy errors. She recommends instead that those who wish to stop the spread of political Islam make a more effective distinction between ‘Mecca Muslims’, whose roots lie in the spiritual phase of Islam’s historical development, and ‘Medina Muslims’, who give more weight to Quranic verses revealed after Muhammad’s move to Medina, which represent the political and militaristic phase of his later career.

In the Medina of Muhammed’s time, the focus was on collective submission, not individual rights. These concepts were enshrined in sharia law manuals that remain valid to this day. Generally, Islamic activists who favour the strengthening of sharia law in society, rather than those who would prefer to reform and modernise it, have prevailed in Islam’s internal ideological battle–at least so far.

‘Tiny minority’? The statistics

Some estimates put the proportion of the world’s Muslims who are Islamists at 10-15%. Out of 23% of the global population, that implies more than 160 million individuals–not a number that fits well with the ‘tiny minority’ rhetoric. Clarion Project, the US-based political Islam monitoring organisation, published statistics that further bust the myth that extremists are a minuscule set of unaffiliated individuals aggrieved over a lack of employment opportunities or craving a stronger sense of identity.

According to European counter-terrorism coordinator Giles de Kerchove, there are as many as 35,000 ‘radicals’ in the UK, and of those some 3,000 have been on MI5’s radar. Since the new millennium, 126 people have been killed in the UK in terrorist attacks, according to figures from the Global Terrorism Database.

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A fundamental problem, says Hirsi Ali, is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to break ranks and repudiate or even so much as acknowledge the theological warrant for intolerance embedded in their own religious texts.

While there is an important emergent group of ‘modifying Muslims’, the statistics show that assimilation to secularism has not happened and, in fact, the change is in the other direction, with almost 60 per cent of European Muslims surveyed claiming that Muslims should return to the roots of Islam and 65 per cent believing that religious rules are more important than the laws of the country in which they reside. More than a fifth of Muslim Americans say that there is a great deal or fair amount of support for extremism in the Muslim American community. 

The strategies of dawa

Well-organised Islamist groups assume representative status on behalf of all Muslims, simultaneously marginalising Muslim reformers and dissidents. Hirsi Ali’s own marginalisation is a case in point. Despite her heroic status as the victim of a religious witch-hunt that saw her artistic collaborator Theo Van Gogh murdered in an Amsterdam street, and irrespective of her clear identity as an exemplary activist who fully endorses liberal secularism, Islamists have succeeded in marginalising Hirsi Ali to the point of obscurity, stripping her of both Muslim and non-Muslim supporters who should be her natural political allies and acolytes. In addition to shutting down her voice, they also desire to kill her, and have issued a fatwa to this end.

Besides branding Muslim reformers and actual moderates like Hirsi Ali as Islamophobic and relegating them to the margins, a second strategy is hijra, taking control of immigration trends to transform Western societies.

A third strategy is to reduce women to the status of reproductive machines for the purpose of demographic transformation.

Fourth is the advantageous use of progressive parties in democratic societies, using their emphasis on inclusion to force the acceptance of Islamist demands in the name of peaceful coexistence.

Fifth is to exploit the good will of self-consciously progressive movements, effectively co-opting them. Identity politics work because victim status appeals to liberal progressives, which is a key strategic locale for annexation.

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Steffi Loos/Getty Images

Finally, Islamists increase their hold over the educational system, including some charter schools, faith schools, and home schooling.

Recruiting the vulnerable

Other methods that have worked well in the United States are the use of prison chaplaincies to focus on recruiting vulnerable African-American men, as well as other ethnic minorities.

African-Americans are the number one target group for conversion by the dawa network. Nearly a quarter of all Muslim Americans are converts. According to J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics, Muslim inmates comprised between 17 and 20 per cent of the US prison population in 2003, but most of them arrived in jail as non-Muslims. According to his research, 80 per cent of inmates who find faith while behind bars convert to Islam.

Influential Sunni cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has explained that the West is to be conquered not by the sword but by ideology. He urged Islamists in the West to build smaller societies within the larger, host one. Islamists committed to this principle explicitly regard the West as territory to settle or colonise through immigrating, out-breeding non-Muslims and converting as many people as possible to the tenets of political Islam.

Why are we ignoring the threat?

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One reason Westerners so persistently underestimate the potential dangers of radical Islam is that these more insidious political threats are far more difficult to identify than acute threats of physical violence. The Dutch Intelligence Agency AIVD has flagged the gradualist character of dawa: not everyone is convinced that Islamism’s isolationism and its development of parallel social structures may constitute a problem.

In contrast to Muslim-majority countries, Western governments are seemingly unaware of the tight nexus between Islamist ideology and strategy and dawa’s front organisations. Westerners see only the charitable or humanitarian side of dawa efforts, while remaining blissfully ignorant of its subversive side.

Hirsi Ali makes it clear that protection of the religious freedom and rights of Muslim individuals who are not engaged in Islamist dawa must be integral to her recommended policy shift. But she is adamant that the now obvious failure of two previous U.S. administrations to effectively counter radical Islamism resulted from their insistence on separating moderate, tolerant Islam from a supposedly tiny minority who practice violent extremism. This theoretical separation only assists the agents of dawa.

Ayaan Hirsi-Ali is exactly the kind of activist liberals should support. And reading her trenchant analysis would be a great place to start.

About Terri Murray 56 Articles
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years


  1. Actually, all religions are equally bad.
    All religionists are by definition insane.
    How can anyone truly believe in non-existent entities?
    There are no gods or Yahweh or Allah.
    That is THE message that all rationalists should be promoting.
    We all need to rid humankind of the curse of religion for all time.

  2. @John: Few people still think all religions are as bad as Islam, especially after reading an article such as this one. Some more research, perhaps?

    Your second remark is equally invalid in the opinion of most psychologists, Prof. Robert Sapolsky being one notable exception.

    Lastly, I don’t think getting rid of religion is possible in the short term. Maybe not in any term. Check out the thoughts of one Dr. Andy Thompson, “Why We Believe in Gods” on youtube. I think you’ll find him convincing. We are better off focusing on getting rid of religion’s influences on public life, by promoting secularism as a noble goal.

    We have to be realistic – unlike religious folks – or we lose before we’ve started..

  3. Dawa is simply proselytizing. A couple of Christians come to my door with a Bible and do that every week. I was Muslim 20 yrs of my life before finding the light of atheism. We weren’t raised like some kind of automaton infrantry seeking to destroy Western civilization. Muslims aren’t different from other people. Yes, a radical form of Islam exists with extremist organizations. That doesn’t justify this generalized dehumanizing of all Muslims.

  4. Dawa is not simply proselytizing and to say this means you have not understood its methods. Dawa does not undermine secular liberal political system by open opposing it, or confronting it with a different ideology. It works precisely by imitating liberal ideas, using semantics that resonate with the left’s existing causes and beliefs, infiltrating left-leaning organisations and re-branding religion as liberalism, anti-racism, and victims’ rights. Your comment is naive in the extreme.

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