We are failing to make progress in the struggle against Islamism, argues Simon Gordon. The Islamist ascendancy in majority Muslim countries is at the root of its appeal in Muslim communities beyond them.
I know that, for many who work in Parliament, yesterday’s attack was shocking. The realisation that the complex is not the impregnable fortress it might seem is disconcerting.
But, for me, the experience felt familiar. I used to work for London’s Israeli Embassy, where bomb scares and terror threats were not uncommon. On a short trip to Jerusalem nine years ago, I was a mile away when a terrorist drove a bulldozer into a bus, killing three. The last day of my Junior Sixth year, twelve years ago, was spent evacuating the school, in the heart of the City, in the hours following the July 7th bombings. Four years earlier, we had been evacuated as a precaution as the September 11th attacks unfolded.
The constant risk of Islamist terrorism is something many in my generation have grown up with. It feels almost routine.
Even those who have come to accept the normality of terror attacks, however, invariably stop short of recognising the prevalence of the ideology behind them. We’re told instead the threat comes from an extremist fringe.
These unhappy few, we often hear, have been radicalised by Western policy. In the UK and the US, terrorism is blamed on the Iraq War. In France and Belgium, the blame falls on state-sponsored ghettoisation of poor immigrants in forgotten banlieues.
In either case, the contention is that Islamism is a reactive phenomenon.
That argument betrays a profound cognitive dissonance. It ignores the fact that in majority Muslim countries throughout the Middle East, what we call Islamism is not just common, but dominant.
In the Sunni world, Wahabbist Islam has filled the vacuum left by the collapse of Nasserist pan-Arabism. In the Shia world, its counterpart is the political Islam of the ayatollahs under which Iran has been ruled since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Islamism underpins the governing philosophy of both the revolutionary groups that drove the Arab Spring, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and establishment regimes, like the House of Saud.
It is indicative of Islamism’s pre-eminence that its most prominent opponent in the Middle East – President Sisi of Egypt – is a strongman general who preserves his power primarily through force.
The Islamist ascendancy in majority Muslim countries is at the root of its appeal in Muslim communities beyond them. When IS, Al Qaeda et al can inspire attacks in countries as diverse as China, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Belgium, the US, and the UK, the idea that Islamism is a response to individual government policies or socioeconomic conditions falls flat. Rather, its appeal in the West reflects the lack of a compelling alternative. It is the key ideological export from the heart of the Muslim world. It is broadcasting on every channel.
The standard post-attack response rings hollow considering Islamism’s success. The tepid defences of “our values”, which are never really defined. The vapid expressions of solidarity on social media – because they can take our lives, but they can never take our Facebook profiles. Least convincingly of all, the disingenuous protests of defiance that life goes on as normal – even though I’m writing this surrounded by double the normal number of police, and a low-level surveillance state has been constructed – freedom notwithstanding – solely to prevent terror attacks.
The platitudes rankle because the West is deliberately not fighting the ideology – especially at its source. Winning hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t work, so the West gave up, as David Cameron put it, “dropping democracy from 10,000 feet”. Indeed, what unites the Obamacrat left, the Cameroon centre, and the Trumpist right is the view that Western mores can’t – and shouldn’t – be imposed on the Middle East. History suggests that view is correct.
The problem is that no alternative strategy has emerged instead. Trump’s response is to curb immigration from the Middle East, but that doesn’t address home-grown Islamists. Cameron’s was to argue that Islamism is an inauthentic form of Islam – as if aspiring Muslim fundamentalists look to Anglicans for their hermeneutics. As for Obama, his “we’re sorry” tour of the Middle East – followed by a full-scale American retreat from the region – proved to be less antidote than catalyst.
Terrorism can be contained, if not eliminated. Arguably, terrorists in Western countries are resorting to low-tech methods and lone-wolf attacks because intelligence services have successfully penetrated the larger terror cells necessary for complicated plans. Western bombing campaigns in the Middle East have helped defeat terrorist enclaves, at least until the next one emerges. Still, whack-a-mole is better than nothing.
But we’re not making progress. The Islamists remain proactive. The West is always reacting to their agenda. We don’t have a strategy to defeat the ideology at its source; it may not be possible to do so.
We may not be losing. But let’s not pretend that we’re winning.