A State of Extremes

Jun 12, 2017

By Sir John Jenkins

Recent events in Manchester, London, the Gulf, Mosul, Raqqa and Libya highlight the fragmentary nature of western policy responses to mobilised Islamism and all its works. Domestically in the UK this has been a public concern at least since the mid-1990s, when the activities in London of various Islamist activists – Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Algerian and Saudi among others – began to be seen as problematic by the British government.  It became more pressing after 9/11and the attacks of 7 July 2005 in London, when the Blair government decided it needed to address the issues of radicalisation and extremist violence at home but not necessarily abroad. The two go together but have never really been connected. Getting this right is more urgent than ever as we prepare for the Islamic State’s loss of territorial control in Syria and Iraq and their reversion to insurgency there, in Libya, SE Asia and elsewhere, seek ways of containing what is likely to be an enduring threat to the homeland from them and other forms of revanchist and violent Islamism and consider the impact on our relations with important states in the Middle East of our current policies.

The UK’s domestic strategy has been fiercely contested and subject to change from the start. We still lack a coherent account of the threat from the highly productive, creative and resilient Islamist core in the Middle East. In a highly complex environment where developments in the wider world directly, rapidly and severely affect national security, it continues for perfectly understandable reasons to be hard for officials and ministers to capture the comprehensive nature of the ideational challenge and promote an effective response. At a moment of profound political change such as this, we have an opportunity to pause, take stock and adapt.

This will not be easy. There remain serious unresolved differences over issues such as the nature and status of Muslim communities, British and/or religio-cultural identity, the standing of self-proclaimed intermediaries, the balance between domestic freedoms and the concerns of external partners, the meaning of multiculturalism and the role of faith in modern Britain, the value of terms such as ‘moderate’ and extremist’, the severity of the threat posed by groups such as Al Qaida and the Islamic State, their genealogical relationship with less structurally violent Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the nature of the relationship between radical Sunni and Shia groups, the role of Salafism, the significance of state sponsorship and the balance for British interests.

But the challenge is not new. The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt in the late 1920s and its subsequent trajectory under Hassan al Banna and his successors as General Guide aroused concern in London and elsewhere almost from the start. This concern was focused principally on our interests in the Middle East against which the Brotherhood, set up partly in response to British influence in Egypt and the wreckage of WW1, fought with determination. After Nasser’s suppression of the Brotherhood in 1954, it fragmented, scattered and reseeded itself throughout the Arab world but also in Europe and the US, foreshadowing the similar cycles of collapse, splintering and rebirth we have seen with AQ and IS, which themselves have roots in earlier manifestations of Islamism, including the MB. Some thought the problem had gone away: it had in fact become international. Others believed that we were seeing in the marked turn to a more austere and combative form of Islam in the 1970s and 1980s an authentic, spontaneous and legitimate response to the failures of nationalism and the oppression of increasingly authoritarian regimes not just in the Middle East and North Africa but more widely in the Islamic world. That was one reason so many observers welcomed the emergence of Islamist political movements after the start of the populist insurgencies in the Arab region after 2010.

The reasons for Islamism’s rise and resilience are complex. But at its root such views fail to distinguish between Islam as a historically contingent, highly diverse and flexible hermeneutical milieu within which to frame and produce socio-political and cultural meaning – both within societies that regard themselves unproblematically as Muslim and those that do not – and Islamism as a dehistoricised and exclusionary vehicle for the construction and mobilisation of new communal and adversarial political identities by vanguardist groups in pursuit of power, reserving for themselves the right to determine what Islam is. The former admits of multiple and sometimes contradictory and competing identities: devout, profane, sacralised and secular, Arab, Asian, European, American, Russian, Chinese. The latter tends to promote monoculturalism, separatism and a revanchism that flows from a constructed sense of enduring victimhood.

When we consider the challenge of Islamism – violent or not – we need clearly to distinguish between uncoerced choices and the hegemonic shaping of choice to promote an ideology of power.  That is at the root, for example, of the issue of the hijab or niqab. Many liberals – Muslims or otherwise – will argue that it is a woman’s right to decide what she will wear. Even in the socially liberal West such rights are never absolute. The deeper problem is that they clearly flow from an often unexpressed belief in privileged individual autonomy. Yet in Islam, many aspects of dress (as with other personal issues) are religiously prescribed and socially normative. This in turn reflects a contemporary understanding of the foundational event of Islam, the establishment of a divinely appointed political community; the historically mainstream Islamic view of this community as the vehicle of salvation; and the common jurisprudential position that the legitimacy of political authority within that community flows from the willingness and ability to enforce sharia law. As scholars have repeatedly shown, this is not in practice the way most Muslims live their lives (or indeed the way many historically have done so).

But taken together with the reductive Islamist emphasis on the exclusionary, supercessionist, supremacist and totalising nature of the religion, on the essential identity of all Muslims everywhere and on their alleged lack of agency outside the bounds Islamists themselves set, it produces intense pressure to conform to a set of rules identified by others as in accordance with the presumed will of God. Talk of personal choice in this context comes close to casuistry. In this sense – and in many others – Islamism is not the expression of a rediscovered spirituality: it is the instrument of a Gramscian war of manoeuvre and sometimes a frontal assault designed to capture, secure and expand Islamist political space and eventually domination.

These features are common to all Islamist movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates to Al Gihad, Al Hijrah wal-Takfir, Al Gama’at al Islamiyyah, Jama’at-e-Islami, AQ and IS. They also underly Khomeini’s heterodox doctrine of Wilayat al Faqih, and the position of its Hezbollahi supporters. And it leads inexorably in the end to the extreme violence of AQ, IS and their analogues. This may represent, in the words of the excellent David Thomson, “terrorism for losers”. But it is directed by some highly dangerous and deeply committed ideologues.

In the end the underlying challenge that all forms of Islamism represent is not going to be resolved simply by heightened intelligence capability, armed force or increased numbers of police on the streets, necessary as they all are to detecting, investigating, preventing and deterring Islamist crime. It is at heart an ideological challenge to the modern nation state, to emerging nation states and to the neo-Westphalian state system within which such states operate.

The answer is not to seek to impose a liberalism of the unwilling. Westphalia was originally a security order underpinned by secular law, allowing for the settlement of competing claims to territorial authority through the political and juridical institutions of the Holy Roman Empire – with agreed external guarantors – and then subsequently through the emerging institutions and practices of a wider international legal order.  Economic, social and cultural liberalism were later developments and incorporated into the institutions of a new global order only after 1945.

It is the notion of a state and then an order of states regulated by secular law that is centrally at issue in this contest.  For Islamists there is no authentic law other than that which the Deity has prescribed – that is, Sharia. It is this that also authenticates the social and cultural order. It recognises no territorial boundaries. In the thinking of Sayyid Qutb – whose writings, curated and developed after his death by his brother Muhammad and others, are foundational to all forms of contemporary activist Islamism – no state that does not recognise the exclusive normative authority of Sharia as construed by Islamists deserves to be recognised as a legitimate political community. Those who truly believe therefore have the right to overthrow such states and the inter-state order to which they belong by violence if necessary in order to establish true Islamic government on earth.

We should therefore stop trying to understand Islamists through our own cultural or epistemological categories. The common tendency to think of the MB, for example, as a version of the Christian Democrats where the men have beards, the women are veiled and they pray 5 times a day is misguided. It is undoubtedly true that the MB at least contains a range of views. And there have been MB reformists who want more openness and plurality. But true reformists (like the less gradualist and more impatient) tend to leave.

In pre-modern Islamic state practice, politics (as we understand the term) can in practice be autonomous, underpinned by a centuries-old corpus of sophisticated, subtle and usually pragmatic textual, jurisprudential and credal exegesis and occasional political philosophy. As in the ancient Near East, rulers rule: the ruled live their lives. The ruler and the scholar have distinct spheres. The latter checks the former’s exercise of power: the former controls affairs of state. In the western tradition there is a firm doctrinal distinction between Caesar and God – but also an articulated synthesis of separate spheres. Christians have accepted the legitimate authority of the secular state at least since Constantine. They draw an explicit distinction between sacerdotium and regnum, spiritualia and regalia, the two Cities, the two Bodies and the two Swords. Canon Law is not divine law. Religious dress is precisely non-normative. And Christian Democrats do not believe that legislation is preempted by the Deity. They accept individual equality before the law. They operate according to the same set of rules as other actors in Western democracies and have the same idea of the state and society. That idea for contemporary Islamists is very different. They want not a modernised Islam but an Islamised modernity. Our understanding of politics is profane: Islamists transcend politics through revelation. Max Weber pointed out a hundred years ago  that the modern rationalising state in Europe arose on the back of an emergent class of secular jurists in the Roman Law tradition.

The tension between sacred and profane law has been an enduring fault line in majority Muslim polities since at least the mid-C19th. Among Western canonical and secular sources are Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the Institutes of Gaius and the Codex Justinianus, Machiavelli, Coke, Bodin, Hobbes, Grotius, Locke, Vico, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Lord Mansfield, Blackstone, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Mill, Marx, Weber, Hayek, Rawls, Bobbit, the Putney Debates, the Encyclopédists, the Federalist Papers, the Frankfurt School and the US Constitution: Islamists have the Qur’an, selective readings of the Hadith and a wilful and impoverished bricolage of Islamic jurisprudence and interpretation. This is designed to enable not trammel the exercise of power. Taken as a whole, it leads to cultural and social coercion.

Believing that encouraging greater societal tolerance is part of the solution both reveals an ignorance of the essential intolerance of Islamism and begs the question of toleration’s limits, unless this is simply the expression of a general belief that social if not economic and political liberalism is the default and preferred state of the universe. History suggests the reverse: the economic, social and political liberalisms that preceded and in some sense produced representative electoral democracy in western nation states were historically contingent and may be the exception rather than the rule. Of course, if we value our current dispensation as much as we claim, we should seek to protect and preserve it, however exceptional it might be. But when we talk about values, we miss the target. They are slippery, changeable and contested. What underlies them is the key.

Liberal exceptionalism is grounded above all in security and the secular rule of law. This is expressed through an independent and unintimidated judiciary and supported by an efficient and uncorrupted police force and other investigative institutions, enforcing laws passed by a representative assembly that is periodically renewed through free, fair and open elections, all open to scrutiny. This is underpinned by sustained habits of mind and shared social practices; a common approach to the past and the future; an acceptance that power can be transferred peacefully; a living memory of efficient and non- predatory state behaviour; an unintimidated civil society; and strong, independent and impartial state institutions. It is precisely this set of freedoms, institutions and shared understandings which Islamists seek to overthrow by promoting a simplified, deculturated and decontexualised form of sacred law – which can never be repealed or individually interpreted – enforced by the self-authenticating authorities of a novel form of non-territorial polity whose legitimacy derives not from popular consent or territorial control but from the manufactured agreement of a self-ascribed community of believers that it is indeed enforcing that law – a circularity of reasoning that, as with most Islamist doctrines, proceeds from an unexamined foundational bias towards what we should consider tyranny.

Islamists are by definition revolutionary. They reject most existing political systems as un-Islamic – something they claim exclusively to define. They seek to replace the secular and neo-Westphalian with a new Islamised order nationally and internationally. This does not mean that they all seek revolution now.  Some do. Others value patience and seek to manufacture consent. They are prepared to use force where this is not effective or fast enough or where they are not allowed to operate with sufficient freedom.

It is often argued that all of this and more applies to Salafism, for example; and that structural Islamist misogyny, anti-semitism, support for terror and violence are simply the common currency of the Middle East (for example). There is some force to this argument. Salafism in particular, a modern phenomenon afloat on a sea of money, has helped close down many previously productive routes of interpretation and avenues of meaning. But – as the Westphalian example suggests – not all opinions that liberals find offensive are consequential for the conduct of relations between states. There is a distinction between opinions casually held and those which structure purposeful and vanguardist political movements. In addition, these views do not inform the public positions of those regional governments whom we regard as partners: the counter-example of Iran is significant. And many of these deformations became part of a more widespread public discourse precisely because the MB and other Islamists promoted them.

Saudi Arabia, the target of much of this criticism, is a distinctively national version of a reimagined pre-modern Muslim state, with the same test for legitimacy and a dialectical interlinking of politics and religion but in practice distinct spheres for each (as we are currently witnessing). Whatever many ordinary Saudis may think, these views do not represent the Kingdom’s official policy or elite discourse. Loyalist Saudi Salafism does not promote clandestine violence, as the MB did from the 1930s onwards. It was certainly associated with a form of expansionist and proselytising proto-statehood from the 1740s: but this expansionism led to its destruction by the Ottomans. That lesson was well learned. Its forces in the early days of Abdul Aziz’s third Saudi state were tribal levies. He suppressed them once they became insurrectionary and signed treaties with non-Muslim states. Most importantly, the loyalist Salafism on which the Saudi political system is historically based, which accepts compromise in the management of state affairs and rejects a renewed Caliphate, is not the main problem: it is the activist, takfiri and often jihadi Salafism, shaped by MB activism and claiming a Caliphal right to rule over an imagined global community. Saudi decision makers now see this as a threat too. Among the first people takfiris attack are the Al Saud themselves.

It is also sometimes argued that Islam is not the only religion in which this process of decontextualisation – or deculturation – can be seen at work. That is doubtless true. There are contemporary examples from Evangelical Christianity and Hinduism, for example.9  But precisely because of the success of political Islamism in building and mobilising new forms of identity, the perceived failure of secular polities to respond adequately and the inability of liberals or non-Islamists to organise, it is currently the only socio-religious culture in which such a process is linked to a revolutionary challenge to established states and the secular order that justifies the use of situational violence to achieve its aims.

Taken together these are some of the reasons many governments, non- Islamists, liberals, secularists and others in the Islamic world are hostile to the MB and other Islamist groups. We may think some of these concerns exaggerated but they are not groundless. Some have framed the issue as one of counter-terrorism. We have tended to see it as political, centred on fitna, the Islamic version of sedition. Both are probably present. So is a radical challenge to our own liberal and rationalist conception of the world.

We need to frame the conversation so we talk with rather than past each other. One of the difficulties with formulating effective policy in the UK over the last few years has been precisely the weak and dispersed nature of our knowledge base. We need to value and nurture real expertise and apply this coherently to both the external and domestic aspects of the issue.

All this is not to conclude that Islamisms of any sort should simply be banned or proscribed. Within strong liberal polities some Islamisms may move given time from conviction to doubt – as some former Islamists have already done. But we should certainly not seek to obscure their intent – socio-revolutionary at best, violently and often brutally revolutionary at worst – by using words such as ‘moderate’; or extreme’ to describe different tendencies.  We may think the underlying shared goal of the MB, Hezbollah, AQ and IS is a fevered postmodernist dream. But for them it is serious: the establishment of global Islamic rule under a deputy of God (the caliph) in place of the current secular state order. And while they will fail, they will do great damage. Their methods and timelines vary: the MB historically sought through social activism and proselytism to stage a long march through society and its institutions (to quote Rudi Dutschke) towards symbolic, normative and ultimately political hegemony. Hezbollah have agreed in Lebanon at least for the moment to operate within a highly specific socio-political context. Other groups, taking much of their inspiration from Qutb and often founded by dissident Brothers, have sought through increasing levels of violence to accelerate the collapse of this order. IS and AQ now both wage savage war against each other, other Muslims, states throughout the Islamic world and against the West.

This will pose new and complex policy challenges for us, not least that of dealing with a multitude of archipelagic groups whose ideologies share fundamental features but which can mutate rapidly. We need to find better ways of distinguishing between them, supporting the integration, where we can, of genuinely adaptive forms of Islamism and acting with resolve against those that are destructive. Islamism is also transnational. This makes porous the boundary between foreign and domestic policy. The closer you look, the more links you find across borders. This is not necessarily proof of illegality. But it is what makes Islamism tick.

Above all, we need to know more than we do. That means – for example – constant scrutiny of what Islamists, including those who claim to be non- violent, say in any language and consequences for any who wish to enter or settle in the UK. It means being willing to seek, seriously examine and address evidence of individual or group involvement in the planning or commission of acts of violence. It means not assuming everything can be reconciled with enough good will. It means finding a way to prevent London being used by such groups as a base actively to subvert governments or undermine our external policies. We cannot simply delegate the management of our foreign policy by neglect or ignorance to groups who do not share the aims of democratically elected governments and may wish us ill.

This is not a task for yet another Commission of Enquiry but for a properly established, qualified and operational group within government, staffed with a mix of forensic, intelligence, area, subject, policy and enforcement expertise, focusing on Islamist ideologies more widely – Shia and Sunni, externally and internally. The goal should be an enhanced capacity to address the wider political, ideological and material risks from all Islamist groups at home and abroad as well as existing violent extremists. Some may pose no immediate threat within the UK but are a major regional menace, have killed and harmed British citizens and may do so again. This represents an area where a wider ranging HMG response could complement our existing effort in seeking to identify and disrupt specific terrorist threats to UK interests.

Above all we need to recognise the threat for what it is, one of the most significant ideological challenges to our conception of ourselves and our societies since the Second World War. Even in an age where experts are suspect, that calls for the sort of expertise governments used to value.

Author

Sir John Jenkins

Sir John Jenkins
Former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and co-author of the UK Government’s review of the Muslim Brotherhood published in 2015. Read Full Bio

Latest Tweets

Warwick argues that we need "a debate about the role of local authorities within their own local jobs markets."

Share This