David Cameron’s new taskforce to combat extremism met on Monday to address what Tony Blair calls a “problem within Islam” that he blames for the terror plots which have caused such distress and given rise to so much community tension over the past decade.
The taskforce, which includes the home secretary, Theresa May, and Michael Gove, the education secretary, will examine ways to combat radicalisation in mosques, on campuses and in jails. One aspect of this that will exercise the home secretary’s mind will be how to make it easier to expel those preachers who specialise in what has become known as “hate speech”.
With the phrase, “problem with Islam”, Blair has articulated what many people think but few outside the extremes of UK politics have said. In the wake of the recent attacks in Boston and Woolwich, it has been more common for public figures to claim “this has nothing to do with Islam”. The response is understandable in the face of reprisals on innocent Muslims and defamatory remarks about Islam’s propensity to violence. In truth, however, these terrorist incidents do have something to do with religion – but religion of a very particular kind.
The established religions of the world and their scriptures are complex, ambiguous and full of contradictions. If their messages were simpler, it would not have been necessary for men and women down the centuries to have devoted lifetimes to their study and contemplation.
Religions are reservoirs of meaning, and their complexity is the reason for their success: they retain an endless potential for reinterpretation in new situations. In the case of Islam, traditions of commentary stretch back more than 1400 years. Sharia is an ever-evolving discussion about new cases – it is no more fixed and unchanging than secular law.
At least, that is what religion was like until the 20th century. At that point a new variant of religion arose, first in Christianity and then in other world religions, a form now widely known as fundamentalist.
Fundamentals for true believers
Fundamentalism can only be understood in relation to a number of modern developments. First, mass printing made books – including scriptures – cheap enough for anyone to own. Then the growing prestige of science gave rise to the idea that a book like the Bible or Koran could be read like a scientific treatise on the universe. To this was added the inspiration of new forms of mass communication and advertising which specialised in clear and simple messages that could be instantly absorbed.
Finally, the 20th century brought developments which some moral conservatives regarded with horror, including the rise of historical-critical interpretations of the scriptures, the emancipation of women, and greater sexual liberation.
Put all these ingredients together, add local context and stir in conflicts with other forms of religion and secularism, and you have a recipe for different types of fundamentalism. What they have in common is the attempt to purify religion by distilling it down to its “fundamentals”. These are presented as the key to the scriptures, which are treated as clear and infallible. You can discard traditions, scholars, clergy, customs and culture – all you need is the plain word of God. The true believers are those who accept it, the rest are infidels.
The appeal is clear. God’s word is now accessible to all. Young men and women can do religion for themselves without having to defer to elders. The message is there in a book. It is easily portable, and universal – great advantages in a time of mobility and globalisation. And though the message is strenuous, its rewards are great: community with the like-minded, moral certainty and superiority, blessings in this world and salvation in the next.
A leaderless jihad
Despite the fact that the vast majority of fundamentalists live decent and peaceful lives, the religion which inspired the first waves of Islamist terrorism was a fundamentalist version of Islam. But what we see in Boston and Woolwich is different. Here we have examples of what Marc Sageman refers to as a “third wave” of Islamicist violence, a “leaderless jihad” inspired by outrage at Western treatment of Muslims in Iraq and back home, and carried out by young men acting on their own initiative outside any wider organisation.
The old recruiting grounds of extremist mosque or student association aren’t as necessary, because the internet now makes it possible to find others attracted to the use of violence, and to exchange advice and encouragement.
The religion which inspires this new wave of amateur terrorism is different too. Whereas most fundamentalists are deeply committed to their religion and devoted to the scriptures, the religious component of many recent attacks seems more shallow and superficial. Attacks are motivated by rage and hatred and a young person’s desire to do something cool, thrilling and heroic. A flimsy set of ideas about Western “crusader” conspiracies and moral depravity, godly Islamic warfare and eternal glory produce the narrative to bind these motivations together and provide justification for killing in cold blood.
So the religion that infuses third-wave Islamicist violence is not traditional Islam, nor even fundamentalist Islam, but something flimsier – fundamentalism lite. And since such religion is part of the problem, countering it must also be part of the solution. Sponsorship of moderate versions of Islam does not seem useful, for the hotheads involved have no interest in theological debate.
Much more important are good Islamic classes, and religious education in schools, which help immunise children against superficial interpretations of Islam from an earlier age. And for terrorists or potential terrorists who are convicted and imprisoned, serious engagement with the Islamic tradition can also play an important part in re-education.