Extremists of all factions detest our society, where different views and faiths can co-exist peacefully
First published in the Evening Standard on Monday 1st August 2016
“We have imported a monster, and this monster is called Islam,” Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-Right Freedom Party, said this week. His anti-immigrant party currently has a strong lead in the opinion polls.
Following the slaughter of European citizens in recent weeks by Muslims who have pledged allegiance to IS or who have taken inspiration from jihadist propaganda, there exists almost a sense of inevitability in the rise of far-Right populist parties exploiting the prevailing sense of fear and insecurity. Far-Right sentiment can also lead to its own deadly end, as we have seen: 18-year-old Ali David Sonboly, who lured teenagers into a McDonald’s in Munich and then gunned them down, was a far-Right extremist who believed it was a “special honour” to share a birthday with Adolf Hitler.
Extremists of both the Islamist and far-Right variety have more in common than divides them. They both yearn for a final “clash of civilisations”. They hate our democracy and liberal values. They detest a society where different views and faiths can co-exist peacefully.
IS’s call on Muslims to commit acts of terror have an underlying motive to polarise and divide our societies and wipe out what IS calls the “grey zone” of co-existence. Establishing its so-called caliphate, IS seeks to divide the world into two. The “land of Islam” includes those Muslims who have pledged allegiance to IS’s caliphate; this is ranged against the “land of disbelief”, made up of non-Muslims and those Muslims who reject the Islamist worldview and as a result are declared apostates.
There is no doubt that these acts of terror have changed the political discourse in Europe and the United States. Far-Right narratives are seeping into the mainstream and hate crime across Europe is on the rise. Yet when Wilders calls for a ban on Muslim immigration that would “de-Islamise Europe”, rhetoric that would have been unthinkable in the decades after the Nazi Holocaust, he and others on the far-Right spectrum help form the binary world IS seeks to create. Donald Trump’s xenophobic language about Muslims, which no respectable politician would have used up till now, is another prime example. The common inference by such divisive language is that every individual who adheres to Islam is a terrorist in the making.
If we are going to prevent a dangerous drift into the politics of hate dominating across the West, then Western societies have to re-think the national discourse about their Muslim citizens, who can be the most powerful ally in defeating the threat from global Islamism. The greatest threat to IS are Western Muslims who reject its call for jihad and strive to build peace, security and co-existence in their respective countries.
As IS targets Jews, Christians and others, it can be easy to forget how IS hates Muslims who don’t subscribe to their worldview. IS killed hundreds of Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan this year. It has slaughtered anti-Islamist Muslim clerics. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the truck-driving killer in Nice, was no doubt indifferent when he claimed his first victim, 62-year-old Fatima Charrihi, who was walking with her family on the promenade. Hers is one of many such stories —Muslims being the main victims globally of Islamist-inspired terror.
We have a vested interest in ensuring that our society does not become more polarised. The political class must work alongside those British Muslims who are actively countering the Islamist worldview and who are striving for a future based on compassionate co-existence to ensure this appalling and deliberate strategy is not realised. This means rejecting outright the arguments of populist rhetoric from Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Trump, and also taking on the insidious ideology of Islamists, both violent and non-violent, without the fear of political correctness or worrying about causing “offence”.
We must also reach out to young people and confidently counter the arguments and worldview that have prepared the ground for terrorist radicalisers to operate. This is of paramount importance; there are third-generation European and British Muslims — some as young as 13 — who desire to live in IS territory and who believe the measure of a good Muslim is one’s hatred for the West. British Muslim youth must be shown in clear terms that it is not the West that is the enemy; it is Islamist extremism which forces them to reject their multiple identities, their future careers, their own families and universal human rights.
Politicians and wider society must recognise these nuances as opposed to the distorted image offered by Islamist propagandists. That particularly applies to the Left, where some have got into bed with Islamist-sympathising groups that have no interest in Western Muslim integration. These groups push a constant victimhood narrative where Britain is portrayed as an inherently “Islamophobic” society that seeks to destroy Islam and deny Muslims the freedom to practise their faith. This conspiratorial view is being pushed aggressively, and it is vital that public institutions work with Muslim groups trying to counter this toxic narrative. Whether in communities, in universities or on social media, it is vital we counter the arguments of Islamists, otherwise an uncontested space is left open and their message will be taken as truth not just by Muslims but well-intentioned young activists who oppose racism and prejudice.
Countering the appeal of Islamist extremism is not an impossible task. There are Muslim civil society groups doing vital work in cities and towns across the UK challenging Islamist extremism and preventing radicalisation. These Muslim voices present a thorn to IS but equally an uncomfortable truth to those such as Wilders and Trump. And in the fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism those British Muslims who are countering Islamism and championing human rights are our natural allies. At this juncture when global Islamist extremism seeks to destabilise societies, we should strive harder to become even more united in our shared values to defeat the extremists who want to divide us.
Sara Khan is co-director of Inspire and author of The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, co-authored with Tony McMahon. It will be published by Saqi Books on September 5.