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Geopolitics & Security

We Must Defeat the Ideology that Drives the Violence

Commentary27th March 2016

We are at war with Islamist extremism. We need a different rhythm of thought in respect of it; preparing for a conflict that is longer than anything we have seen in modern times.

The attacks in Belgium were shocking. Unfortunately the attacks are going to keep coming. If you have no compunction about killing wholly innocent civilians and are prepared to die in the act of doing so, societies like ours offer vast possibilities of vulnerability.

My foundation's Centre on Religion and Geopolitics tracks extremism across the world daily. This threat is global. We require a fundamental change of strategy if we are to defeat it.

Otherwise, we will have periodic but increasingly frequent acts of terrorism that will result in many more victims and start to destabilise our political and social cohesion. Eventually the terrorists will commit an act of such size and horror that we will change our posture; but by then the battle will be much harder to win without measures that contradict our basic value system.

The threat is not simply the acts of violence; but the ideology of extremism that gives rise to them. Confront only the violence and fail to confront the ideology and we fail.

There has been a very deliberate decision to describe the challenge as "countering violent extremism".

The risk is we leave the roots untouched. It is easier to look upon this problem as if the violence were cultish in nature, the provenance of tens of thousands of brainwashed crazies who person by person we have to arrest or "deradicalise".

Regarding it instead as a much broader problem of ideology leads us into uncomfortable terrain because here, the challenge is not measured in thousands but in millions. However, until we analyse correctly the nature of the threat, we have no hope of countering it successfully.

Islam as practised and understood by a majority of the world's Muslims is an honourable and peaceful faith. It has contributed greatly to human development. This is absolutely necessary and right to say. We are talking here about a perversion of faith, not true faith.

But we need to end the denial about what is happening and has happened over a significant period of time within Islam.

Over the past half-century or more there has developed a narrative within Islam about the religion, its place in the world, its purposes and its proper relationship to politics and society, which has intensified its religiosity, changed the character of its interaction with those of different faiths, and is fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.

It is this "Islamism" which begets Islamist extremism which begets the acts of violence.

The reality is that the adherents of this view of Islam are numbered in many millions, have, in some countries, elements of official support, and are systematically teaching it to millions of young people across the world.

The factors that explain this are varied. These include the forming of the Muslim Brotherhood, the flight of many of its members from Egypt in the 1950s and their welcome in other Arab states where they found employment in their education systems; the Iranian revolution and the storming of Mecca in 1979; the export of Salafist-type doctrine (funded by oil wealth) to Africa and Asia, including Pakistan; and a genuine sense of injustice over the Palestinian issue that can then be exploited. In turn this ideology has come to parts of the Muslim community in Europe.

Add to this the immaturity of some political systems, and the population explosion that has seen countries double their size in the past 25 years so that in places 70% of the world's Muslim population is under the age of 30 and you have the toxic mixture of bad politics, frustrated youth and close-minded views of religion.

The so-called Arab Spring came out of all this, where "liberals" and "Islamists" combined to topple tired and unrepresentative regimes, but then completely disagreed about what comes next.

What all this means, is we face not simply a fringe of fanatics but a much wider spectrum of Islamism that has at its furthest end Isis, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda. But even in its more moderate and non-violent form it has a way of thinking that is still inconsistent with the pluralist and open-minded view of the world that defines the only way it can work peacefully in the 21st century.

This ideology is not interested in coexistence. It does not seek dialogue but dominance. It cannot therefore be contained. It has to be defeated.

This requires not small incremental decisions designed to respond to the moment, but big all-encompassing decisions for a generation.

We must escape from the paralysing grip of the present political discourse stuck between a right wing that is now tipping into bigotry against Muslims as a whole and a left that thinks that calling it "Islamism" is stigmatic and prefers to believe that in any event we have caused all of this through western policy although the countries now affected cover the gamut of policy positions from the most interventionist to the expressly pacific. This discourse disables the alliance we need within Islam.

Here is the good news in all the gloom. Such an alliance is today available. Many Muslims are speaking out and as they do, others gain confidence and follow; because the majority of Muslims hate the way their faith has been hijacked. And never forget the majority of terrorist victims are Muslim

There are two parts to any new strategy — one immediate, the other longer term. I can only summarise here.

Immediately we need to improve the intelligence co-operation between the key agencies across Europe, and elsewhere, removing all obstacles of bureaucracy and, in some cases, normal legal process to do so. We're fighting this battle at present with one arm tied behind our back.

Second, we need to recognise that the anxiety our citizens have about refugees is as much about security as it is about immigration per se. Unless we have a system of processing adequately those coming into our countries, then we have to keep them either in the region or in the countries where they are arriving but with provision that recognises the tragedy of their situation and treats them with humanity and compassion. Uncontrolled flows of people across Europe constitute an unacceptable security risk.

Third, we are making progress in the fight against Isis but it has to be eliminated with greater speed and vigour. This "caliphate" is itself a source of recruitment. We can use local allies in the fight, but they need equipment and where they need active, on-the-ground, military support from us, we should give it. The Americans are doing this now — at least to a degree and with effect. But to have allowed Isis to become the largest militia in Libya right on Europe's doorstep is extraordinary. It has to be crushed.

The conflicts and genuine political grievances that have allowed these groups to flourish have to be addressed: notably in Syria, where we have permitted Assad to survive but who cannot be the future of a nation he has brutalised; in Iraq, where in 2010 the country voted for a non-sectarian government and when al-Qaeda had been beaten down only to re-emerge in the wake of sectarian leadership and the chaos in Syria, the Sunni minority have to have their rights guaranteed and enforced; and of course including Libya and Yemen.

We have to realise who are our allies and stand with them. This is not easy because in the complexity of Middle East politics our allies are doing things with which we may profoundly disagree. We can state those disagreements. We can urge and support reform. But the Arab nations of the region have to know we are with them in the fight against extremism. Saudi Arabia is our ally. Egypt is our ally.

Israel also is our ally. The Palestinian issue remains of huge importance and it should be our priority to find a way to the only solution that works — a viable Palestinian state next to a secure state of Israel. But Israel's security is our security.

Longer term, we need the following:

First, we must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists wherever they try to hold territory. This is not just about local forces. It is a challenge for the West. Ground forces are necessary to win this fight and ours are the most capable. But the pain of the casualties in such engagements weighs heavy. Western armed forces are mainly volunteers. We need an open and frank discussion with them about how to create the conditions to go and conduct these campaigns. There will have to be new methods of coalition building and co-operation between nations.

Second, education today is a security issue. My foundation is proposing a global commitment on education — a global agreement between nations, similar to that on the environment to combat climate change — where countries accept that it is part of their common responsibility to promote religious and cultural tolerance and root out prejudice from their education systems, formal and informal, and the curriculum taught in them. We need a system of evaluation and implementation of necessary reforms. But this has to become a no-holds-barred agenda item at the top table of global relationships.

Third, we need to boost the capacity of civic society to counter extremism. This involves many dimensions from the encouragement of correct interpretations of scripture to the proliferation of internet material that counters the extremist narrative to the building of inter-faith understanding. But it needs to be organised.

Fourth, aid and development policy should focus on institution and capacity building, making countries resilient and open to progress. Invest now in the poorest parts of the world where it is obvious that religion can be abused as a political tool and the future is more secure, theirs and ours.

Fifth, the role of women and the position of girls should have special recognition, as victims of this ideology, but hugely powerful in the fight against it.

So this strategy has to be comprehensive and geared to a struggle similar to that we faced in defeating revolutionary communism or fascism. It should lead to a new foreign policy synthesis that learns properly the lessons not just of the Bush presidency but of the Obama one too, the successes and mistakes of both. For Europe it should lead to levels of co-operation, military and civilian, that mean we are not utterly dependent on America for our security. For the UK and for a Cameron premiership, if liberated from Britain's internal European debate, it could mean the leadership of this task in Europe where Britain's strengths and the PM's own instincts are uniquely suited to it.

The centre, left and right, has to rediscover its muscularity. We have to provide an answer; otherwise demagogues will ride the anger. We have been there before. It is a part of our history we should not repeat.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times.


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