Last week’s report “Tackling extremism in the UK” from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism was commendably brief at nine pages. What I liked most was the report’s clear recognition of the problems caused by the “ideology of Islamist extremism.” While I have explained elsewhere why I don’t like the word Islamist (very briefly, it is too elastic) I don’t have any problems with this four word compound noun.
The ideology of Islamist extremism
To quote the report, “Islamist extremists deem Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war on Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’. They seek to impose a global Islamic state governed by their interpretation of Shari’ah as state law, rejecting liberal values such as democracy, the rule of law and equality. Their ideology also includes the uncompromising belief that people cannot be Muslim and British, and insists that those who do not agree with them are not true Muslims.”
While the report names only Sayyid Qutb as a source for the ideology, in my view its intellectual foundations owe more to Abul Ala Maududi 1903-1979. In Maududi’s formative years the totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism were regarded by many as being on the intellectual cutting edge. Accordingly it is no surprise that, as someone also opposed to “Western democracy” he devised his own totalitarian ideology, albeit one wrapped in Islamic language. For a flavour, see his book “The Islamic Law and Constitution” which can be downloaded free from the internet.
Hizb ut Tahrir
This organisation was founded in 1952 by a Palestinian, Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. Its programme as set out on its website follows in Maududi’s footsteps by seeking to establish “an Islamic State that executes the systems of Islam.” Hizb ut Tahrir has often been accused by governments of Muslim majority countries of seeking to overthrow them by force, and is banned in many such countries. There is a UK arm which, as far as I am aware, has not sought to overthrow the UK government, but which has led many impressionable young persons, such as the founders of Quilliam Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz to become believers in the ideology. I recommend reading their books “The Islamist” and “Radical” to understand how young people are indoctrinated.
On several occasions the government of Tony Blair indicated that it was minded to ban Hizb ut Tahrir UK although it never did so. Nor has the present coalition government. I am not aware of any allegations of terrorist activity against the UK arm, but understand that the argument for banning rests on the argument that the UK arm is an integral part of the international organisation, and that the international organisation has been involved in promoting terrorism overseas.
Should Hizb ut Tahrir UK be banned?
The task force report proposes “considering if there is a case for new types of order to ban groups which seek to undermine democracy or use hate speech, when necessary to protect the public or prevent crime and disorder.”
I find this the least convincing part of the document, unless it is so attenuated (banning only where necessary to prevent crime and disorder) as to become meaningless.
It is essential in a free country that individuals and groups are free to propose changes in the legal system, to be achieved by lawful means, even if those changes are unwelcome to many. That applies even to seeking to change the constitution, lawfully, to replace our democratic system by a theocracy. One needs to rely upon the good sense of the British people not to vote for theocracy. Accordingly I see no reason at present to ban Hizb ut Tahrir UK.
What should be done?
The task force report is right when it says “We have been too reticent about challenging extreme Islamist ideologies in the past, in part because of a misplaced concern that attacking Islamist extremism equates to an attack on Islam itself.” However, in the rest of the document “challenging” focuses primarily on measures such as denying platforms to extremist speakers. (I don’t know whether the task force considered my proposal for a government register of hate preachers, but it fails to get a mention!)
The report says little about the fundamentals of how one stops people being taken in by extremist ideologies. In my view, the key requirement is better knowledge. For example, people are much less likely to be taken in by Marxism if they understand how a capitalist economy really works, than if they are ignorant about economics.
Similarly, the ideology of Islamist extremism is founded upon an imaginary story of the past. Hizb ut Tahrir peddles a fantasy history, where Muslims lived in a united Caliphate, with virtuous Muslim leaders being chosen by the religious scholars and administering Islamic law until the wicked Europeans destroyed the system a few hundred years ago, leading to the final abolition of the Caliphate in the 1920’s.
The best way to prevent people being taken in by such historical fictions is a proper teaching of the history of Muslim regions, both the great achievements of Muslim civilisation and the human frailties of its rulers. Muslim rulers were diverse, just like rulers in Christian Europe. Some were good, some were bad. Except when dynasties were overthrown, most people became rulers by inheritance, just as in Europe.
In Muslim majority regions there was the same uneasy tension between the political rulers and the religious authorities; the only real difference from Europe was the absence of anything corresponding to the unified Roman Catholic Church in Muslim polities. However the very existence of multiple Muslim polities which regularly waged war against each other is painted out of Hizb ut Tahrir’s picture of an imaginary past of a unified Muslim caliphate.
Compared to the costs of combating terrorism, let alone fighting foreign wars, it would cost the government a pittance to fund more university courses in Islamic history. I suspect these would achieve excellent take-up. Similarly I would like to see the BBC producing more programmes covering the history of Muslim majority regions, such as the excellent serialisation of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s book on Jerusalem. The best way to counter a false view of history is to teach real history. It may not seem exciting, but in terms of impact per pound spent, I believe it would be excellent value for money.