For God and country

Ed Husain seems to think that all Islamists eventually become terrorists. But why single them out? What about racists, left wing sympathisers, or even people who care about animals and the environment?
October 24, 2008
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In his response to my article "A Muslim middle way?" (Prospect, August 2008), Ed Husain does not so much rebut my arguments as reassert his own. While Husain concedes that Islamism is a diverse phenomenon, he continues to insist: "it is a fact that Islamism, in all its diversity, has led to jihadism." The implication is clear: whatever kind of Islamist you are, one day you will graduate to jihadism. Since all Islamist roads lead to the single destination of extremism, presumably "moderate" Islamism is a contradiction in terms—despite overwhelming evidence that moderate Islamists exist.

To make his point, Husain uses the example of individuals who have taken the "escalator" from Islamism to jihadism. But, as I pointed out in the article, this in no way proves that there is a causal link between the two. If so, how do we explain those Islamist groups like the forebears of the AK Party in Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who have moved in the opposite direction, away from jihadism? (Husain cites the case of Zawahiri, but he must know, surely, that Zawahiri left the Brotherhood to join a radical splinter group precisely because the Brotherhood was moving in a more moderate, centrist direction.) Indeed, how would Husain explain his own movement—and those of others he cites—away from Islamism?

At stake here is the link between ideas and the perpetration of terrorist acts. In The Islamist, Husain unequivocally states that "home-grown British suicide bombers are a direct result of Hizb-ut-Tahrir disseminating ideas of jihad." An internal report recently leaked to The Guardian suggests that MI5 does not take this simplistic causal explanation seriously. Although the role of ideas in motivating acts of political violence is a complex one, the report suggests it is but one of many factors, and not as important as some might think. Indeed, there is evidence that Muslim terrorist acts might be perpetrated in the total absence of Islamist ideas. The widow of one of the Madrid bombers told investigators that her husband did not read any religious texts because his relationship to violent jihad was "instinctual." Peter Mandaville, author of Global Political Islam, notes that "while those who engage in jihad do seek religious justification for their actions, they may sometimes do so after having already decided to act."

If Islamist ideas inevitably lead to jihadism, the logical implication is that such ideas should not merely be challenged or confronted, but proscribed. There are, after all, laws in every liberal democracy outlawing incitement to violence. But this leads to a tricky problem. On what basis are we to decide which ideas are impermissible? If certain ideas are deemed to lead to political violence, why single out Islamism? Why not ban left-wing ideologies because of militant leftist groups like the Red Brigades? Or animal welfare ideas because of the actions of animal rights militants? Maybe militant environmentalists would prompt us to ditch some of our ecological concerns. Certain species of racism are as bigoted and dogmatic as some forms of Islamism, but since not all racists become militant activists for far-right groups (remember the Soho and Brixton nail bombs?), we don't assume that racist ideas lead inevitably to violence. Why should we assume Islamism is any different?

It is disturbing, not to mention contradictory, that a self-avowed pluralist should be advocating punishment for thought-crime, but that is where Husain's argument seems to be leading. Political legitimacy in a pluralist society must be determined not by what one thinks or believes but by one's actions, which is why the limits of our laws are defined with reference to specific acts of incitement and not by the ideas themselves.

Husain cites Islamism's recognition of God's sovereignty over and above "popular sovereignty" to back up his argument. But by that reckoning the Pope is a political extremist, as are (technically) all believing Jews, Christians and Muslims. There are secular precepts too: conscientious objectors also abrogate popular sovereignty in the name of a higher authority: liberalism.

The point is that those of religious persuasion who observe God's ultimate sovereignty can also recognise that this soveignty must coexist and overlap with secular forms of sovereignty. Islamic political thought recognised early on that the ruler's sovereignty in the secular realm is absolute (nowadays, we could replace "ruler" with "state" or "the people"). This is not so far removed from the famous dictum of Christ's, seen by many as the ideological foundation of western secularism—"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Those Islamists who insist on the absolute sovereignty of God at the expense of all others are ignorant of both history and the reality of the secular state in Islamic societies (despite its religious trappings). On the other hand, Islamists who have undertaken any serious appraisal of their political programme have quickly seen the light. New Islamists, post-Islamists, and Muslim democrats all recognise multiple and overlapping sovereignties.

Husain advocates an apolitical form of Islam in which political engagement is undertaken on secular grounds; that religion should be a private not a public matter. That is fine by me, which is why I don't object in principle to his position and to his organisation. But I also don't object in principle to those who wish to participate collectively in the public sphere as political Muslims. Again, why should Muslims be singled out as being unfit for "identity" politics? Is Husain arguing that gay organisations should not campaign for gay rights? Or feminists should not do so for women's rights? Should ethnic minorities not campaign for greater equality?

Ultimately, Husain does not recognise the distinction between different forms of Muslim politics, because for him all Muslim politics, other than those of individual Muslims acting through secular organisations, are "Islamist"—and therefore at the threshold of extremism. This vision of politics is restrictive and monochromatic, and is not consistent with Husain's oft-repeated claims of pluralism.

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