Extremism based on a perversion of the religion of Islam—the turning of religious belief into a totalitarian political ideology—remains the most potent global security threat. As the Global Extremism Monitor we published in September last year shows, terrorism linked to this ideology affected more than 60 nations across the world in 2017, and 2018 and 2019 will be no different.
The central case of the Institute is that we will not defeat the violence unless we also defeat the ideas behind it.
Security measures are of course necessary. They are also costly. Countries spend billions of dollars to protect themselves against terrorist acts. And governments are obliged to commit troops to military action against groups perpetrating such terror in virtually every continent of the world.
Such measures can only ever contain the problem. To eliminate it, we must eliminate the thinking that draws people to the misguided, dangerous mindset that in carrying out these horrific actions they are somehow carrying out the will of God.
Yet we spend vast sums on dealing with the consequence of the thinking and very little on changing it. Therefore, we need a much deeper and better understanding of the roots of the extremism, in order to effectively uproot it.
We need to trace how this poisonous ideology came about; how it is taught and disseminated, particularly in the Internet age; and the role of education systems in teaching an essentially closed-minded view of the world and the place of religion in it. We need also to promote the values of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation when inevitably people will mix more than ever before across boundaries of faith and culture.
These essays are the first of a series of publications from the Institute in 2019. In combination, we want our work to show how the roots of the extremism go back not over centuries but over the past half century or more. This warping of Islam is not part of the traditional and historical nature of Islam; it is a comparatively recent phenomenon. However, though we in the West tend to see it through the prism of 9/11 and what followed from that, the reality is that it began many years before, in the 20th century.
We will explore the huge significance of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose 40th anniversary is this February; how it triggered a reaction in the Sunni world; and the importance of the development of organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood in creating a coherent narrative of how religion should dominate and determine political structure.
Post 9/11, in the military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then in the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 and the subsequent turmoil in Syria, Libya and Yemen, these issues became recognised as an even greater challenge. But as events today in the Sahel and Southeast Asia show, the challenge is not confined to the Middle East.
Our guest editor, the world-renowned terrorism expert Professor Bruce Hoffman, lays out some of the core history of the development of the extremist ideology in his introductory essay.
Each of the other essays represents an attempt to reshape the conversation around extremism. We have brought together leading experts in the counter-extremism and security fields to present a clear diagnosis of the problem, as well as some areas where policymakers need to focus. This is not exhaustive. But we hope they can help spark governments—in both the Muslim and the non-Muslim world—to develop a coherent, global strategy that takes on, dismantles and provides an alternative to Islamist extremism.
As I have said before, security measures are vital but nowhere near sufficient. Professor Hoffman reiterates this. Much as in the Cold War, he argues that better ideas and better values will be the decisive factor for victory in the long term.
Part of our weakness stems from a failure to acknowledge the true nature of the ideology that underpins the violence, as Sir John Jenkins forcefully argues in his essay. He writes that this “triumphalist, totalitarian and apocalyptic” worldview presents a challenge to the international and state order.
Farah Pandith argues that governments need to understand the cultural trends in the communities affected by the ideas of extremism in order to combat them.
My Institute’s Head of Research Dr Emman El-Badawy argues that we need to renew the conversation on the tricky grey area between identity, social alienation and extremism. She says progressives should not shy away from policy that combines integration and counter-radicalisation measures.
For Jamie Bartlett, with the best will in the world, fighting back against the deluge of online extremism will not suffice. Policymakers must use every tool at their disposal to counteract this, including AI and new technologies.
Ian Acheson, who led the independent government review of Islamist extremism in UK prisons, shows that at a time of increasing pressures on the system, prisons have become incubators of extremism and more work needs to be done.
My Institute’s Global Extremism Monitor has shown that this violence is not confined to conflict zones. Sixty-four of the world’s Islamist extremist groups operate outside them. As Professor Jytte Klausen highlights, individual networks, offline and on, with Islamists traversing continents, are among the greatest problems policymakers face. Where they settle, they disrupt the stability of communities, including through their links with the criminal underworld.
And as Dr Kim Cragin argues, extremists are taking advantage not only of fragile states but also, specifically, of urban areas. Do we need new strategies to meet these challenges?
In small-p political terms, the essays are trying to find a way for those who espouse liberal democratic values to avoid two errors. The first—propagated by the far right—is to demonise the entire religion of Islam, to say the extremism shows the real nature of Muslims. This false and prejudiced thinking, especially when linked to the issue of immigration, fuels much of the dangerous populist rhetoric across the Western world.
But the second error is that unfortunately associated with parts of the left: that there is something progressive and benign about Islamists, that in their attack on Western policy and their use of issues of social justice, there is the possibility of an alliance with them. This is a profound mistake. The turning of any religious faith into a totalitarian political ideology necessarily leads to prejudice against those who do not share that faith. It is the opposite of progressive belief.
Instead we seek—through the Institute—to advocate an approach that values co-existence and acts decisively not simply against the violence but against the ideology that breeds it.
In this way, we can respect Islam while disagreeing with Islamism.
Download all the essays in this collection as a PDF or read them online:
Tony Blair’s Foreword to Challenges in Counter-Extremism