A plethora of reasons are offered to explain violent extremism. But how large a role do hate preachers have in fostering anti-western sentiment?
The recent targets of Islamist terrorism in the UK were not random. They were selected because of their significance to western culture and all the perceived evils associated with it – youngsters dancing away to music and adults enjoying a drink with family and friends. Their target was the western liberal way of life that our democracy guarantees. But is it just terrorists who hate these cultural attributes or is extremism more deeply rooted within Muslim communities?
The succession of attacks on two major British cities jolted people awake from the deep sense of security they had been experiencing since 7/7 and the Glasgow airport attacks. In a post-Brexit world, fears of racism and anti-Muslim backlash were successfully countered by Londoners and Mancunians, highlighting the common purpose they each hold dear well above any divisions.
Everyone came together to condemn the attacks including Muslim children and their mentors, in traditional attire – the representative face of British Islam. More non-Muslims hailed their condemnation than ever before. They saw visibly recognisable British Muslims showing solidarity with the victims and their families in their resolve to defeat extremism and those who wish to divide the public on religious grounds.
Lost within the display of unity and subtle patriotism, however, was the source of contempt for the British way of life that the attackers and their sympathisers harboured in their hearts. It was like celebrating a successful course of antibiotics ridding the body of an acute episode of a nasty infection but not addressing the environment that caused the deadly bug to come back to infect, over and over again.
The key to the source code lies with no one but with British Muslim communities and the self-appointed guardians of their faith.
Everyone, including mosque leaders, condemned the deaths and the life changing mental and physical trauma endured by the victims, but did they reflect on their own preaching, which contributed to extremism and created the divisive atmosphere in the first place? Can Muslim imams and leaders expect society to take their condemnation of the attack on Ariana’s concert seriously whilst they simultaneously curse music?
In truly secular societies the right to religious beliefs is as precious as the right to not hold any. This is paramount as long as these beliefs, or lack thereof, do not infringe upon another’s rights, whether from state interference or that from organised groups. Religious groups are often quick to cite the virtue of secularism that protects beliefs and practice and often seek to gain maximum benefit from it. On the flip side, their tolerance for non-believers, especially ex-members, is often absent. They denounce as immoral their way of life whilst simultaneously benefiting from the openness and freedoms it offers them to spread their very views.
“Religious groups are often quick to cite the virtue of secularism that protects beliefs and practice and often seek to gain maximum benefit from it”
Since the rise of political Islamism, and the attacks it brought with it including 9/11, 7/7, Bali, and Madrid, just to name a few, a lot of emphasis has been placed on preventing “violent” extremism. The root causes of terrorism have been extensively explored to understand the rationale behind the worst atrocities on western soil since the end of WW2. Classic excuses for terrorism come in the form of examples regarding the western meddling in Muslim affairs and lands and, of course, the Palestinian cause. Some go all the way back to European colonialism and the Crusades whilst others evoke deep held grievances such as the Muslim defeat at the Gates of Vienna, the withdrawal of Muslim colonial rule from Spain, and the fall of Ottoman Empire – trapping the Muslim mindset in a state of perpetual victimhood.
Naturally the infighting between Muslims since the Battle of the Camel, the tussle between Abbassi’d and Ummayads over power, the long-standing pre-Islamic feud between Persians and Arabs, and most recently the overthrowing of Ottomans at the hands of fellow Bedouin Muslims doesn’t normally feature as part of the balanced equation when studying the turmoil affecting much of the Muslim world today.
What Muslims and others studying modern-day extremism intentionally or unintentionally fail to recognise is that it didn’t emerge all of a sudden from the ashes of the failed Ottoman Caliphate or the evils of colonialism. For centuries, traditionalists have systematically attempted to suppress reformists in pursuit of a literalist, hard-line, set-in-stone interpretation of Islam. They have been given a new lease of life by Saudi and Gulf petro-dollars and the complicity of successive western governments.
“For centuries, traditionalists have systematically attempted to suppress reformists in pursuit of a literalist, hard-line, set-in-stone interpretation of Islam”
Extremism isn’t just the face of a “media figure” such as Anjem Chodary or the deranged babbling of someone like Abu Haleema. It also isn’t the strategic placement of the likes of Linda Sarsour and Yassmin Abdel-Mageid by elements of the left whose judgement is as clouded as the followers of these two Islamist ladies masquerading as feminists and progressives.
True extremism emerges from our homes, neighbourhoods, mosques and madrassas where often the entire Western culture is labelled as despicable sans those elements that benefit us, such as the welfare state and the freedom to preach the very hatred against it.
As mentioned above, holding religious views and teaching them is entirely acceptable in secular societies. What’s not acceptable, however, is the manner in which they are disseminated.
Considering alcohol consumption or, to be precise, the state of intoxication via any means as not permissible, is a perfectly legitimate view to hold. Considering any person who does drink as worthy of utter contempt, is not. The very presence of alcohol, often presented as a reason to withdraw completely from any settings where it might be in sight and is being consumed is a tool in deepening social divisions.
The hard-line approach against healthy activities such as dance, music and drama in schools as part of the curriculum or extra-curricular activities is yet another pertinent example. It paints them as the tools of the Devil and fills young minds with contempt for these activities resulting in a tiny minority from within deciding to blow up their peers for committing the sin of attending a music concert.
It’s high time the concept of religious intolerance undergoes careful examination including the various forms in which it inadvertently manifests in our daily conversations, be that at home, offices, universities or on social media pages and mosque pulpits. It is equally important that this is done through introspection by individual Muslims without the interference of organised religious groups who only seek to benefit from creating as many divisions as possible between Muslims and the wider society.
Muslims today must themselves re-define what extremism is and learn how to strike the right balance between holding legitimate religious views and preventing animosity towards the other communities. It isn’t going to be easy but peaceful co-habitation must come at a price. For this, re-framing the hard-line religious views in favour of a balanced, more accommodating interpretation of our faith must be given a decisive, meaningful chance.
Dr Shaaz Mahboob is a Programme Director leading an initiative testing innovative technologies within the NHS to prevent and counter long term health conditions.
A trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, he is striving to gain equal rights and representation for ordinary liberal minded British Muslims.