Martin Parsons begins a three-part series considering how to counter radical islamism.
“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” warned the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu reputed author of The Art of War.
Unless we understand the ultimate aims that Islamist terrorists are seeking to achieve, then every public policy aimed at countering them will be no more than tactics, with little hope of strategic success.
Fundamentally, the ultimate aim of Islamist terrorists is that Islamic law (sharia), which is the primary instrument of Islamic government, should be imposed across the entire world on Muslim and non Muslim alike.
However, even the most cursory look at the previous government’s policies for countering violent Islamism suggests that they lacked this basic understanding of Islamist aims. This ignorance, whether wilful or otherwise, not merely delayed effective advance against Islamism, but in some respects led to tactics that actually gave specific ground to Islamists in terms of achieving their long term aims in Britain and overseas. In particular, the previous Labour government pursued a policy of partially appeasing non violent Islamist groups in the misguided belief that this would prevent radicalised Muslims moving onto violent Islamism.
In doing so they ignored the clear evidence that non-violent Islamist groups have the same ultimate long term aims as violent Islamists – the imposition of sharia in Britain and elsewhere. In broad terms it is not their strategic aims that differ, but merely their tactics. Non-violent Islamists have long recognised that Britain is unlikely to become an Islamic state overnight, so they have concentrated on pursuing a gradual Islamisation process.
This strategy has involved seeking to align British law gradually with sharia. They have done this by a combination of pushing test cases through the courts; by lobbying for specific changes to parliamentary law; by seeking various accommodations towards Islamic practices from public bodies; and by looking for legal loopholes such as the use of arbitration tribunals to create sharia courts deciding cases involving family law and even reputedly some criminal cases.
The ability of Islamists to push test cases through the courts was significantly aided by Labour’s formal introduction of the European system of human rights in the 1998 Human Rights Act. Although Britain had already signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, Labour’s Human Rights Act, which focused on the rights of individuals, enabled Islamists to push test cases through the courts much more easily. In contrast to this the historic British approach of protecting individuals by limiting the power of government that was enshrined in the Magna Carta (1215), the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) and the Bill of Rights (1689) allowed parliament rather than judges to decide what was and was not acceptable in Britain.
There is an urgent need to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with one based on the historic British approach of limiting the power of government. Only then will we be able to stop Islamists seeking to obtain ‘sharia compliant concessions’ such as the ‘right’ to wear sharia-compliant school uniform. It will also of course enable the government to protect ordinary people’s right to security more effectively by enabling them to deport foreign extremists who have been plotting terror against us.
Equally, the ability of Islamists to lobby directly and sometimes successfully, for changes in parliamentary law was aided by Labour’s patronage of a range of Islamic organisations, many of which had significant Islamist influence in their leadership. Illustrative of this was Labour’s Incitement to Religious Hatred legislation which was widely seen by Islamic organisations as the Islamic blasphemy law they had campaigned for since the Rushdie affair. Blasphemy against Muhammad is in fact the most serious offence in sharia and carries a mandatory death penalty.
An even more overt example occurred when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly met with some of these leaders immediately following the Heathrow terror plot arrests in Summer 2006. The ministers were asked for two things: Islamic festivals to become British public holidays and a partial implementation of sharia in Britain in respect of family law. Both of course had absolutely nothing to do with countering terrorist plots! However, the then Labour government responded by setting up a commission to investigate whether such requests should be acceded to.
Similarly, the previous Labour government made a whole range of accommodations to the Islamist agenda including allowing the hijab to be part of Metropolitan police uniform (hardly a comforting sight for Muslim women seeking the protection of the law from Islamist intimidation), to the legalising of sharia complaint finance. What is noteworthy about these is that they are both aspects of the Islamist agenda that many Muslim countries have resisted.
It is by no means uncommon for female police officers in Muslim majority countries to wear Western-style uniforms without the option of the hijab that Britain has introduced. Equally, the only countries in the entire Islamic world to have sought a general Islamicisation of their banking systems are Iran, Sudan and Pakistan. Even in Saudi Arabia in 2005 70% of banks were not sharia-based. Yet, under the last Labour government Britain progressively legalised sharia finance. It is noteworthy that at the same time Muslim countries such as Oman have resolutely refused to license any form of sharia finance whatsoever because they recognise it as part of the Islamist agenda to bring increasing areas of the economy and society under Islamist influence and control.
I have previously outlined Labour’s record of appeasement of the agenda ‘non-violent’ islamists in Britain, but let me here draw attention to just three key areas of government policy – Education, Economics and Family Law:
1. Education. The Labour government asked a leading member of the Islamic Foundation, the UK’s largest overtly Islamist group to write, on his own, a government-sponsored report on the teaching of Islam in Britain’s universities. Amongst the reports most unacceptable recommendations was that non-Muslims should be banned from teaching the main Islamic subjects in British universities! Yet when the report was published in June 2006 the Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly welcomed it. The previous government also allowed the same organisation, which draws its primary inspiration from the leading twentieth century Pakistani Islamist Sayyid Mawdudi, to set up a higher education institute in Leicester that awards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in a range of Islamist subjects including Islamic Economics, Islamic Banking and Finance, Islamic Education and Sharia. This academic institution was set up by Khurshid Ahmad, one of the key followers of Mawdudi and has been central to the promotion of the Islamist vision of sharia finance in Britain.
2. Finance and Economics: Within a few months of Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister the Treasury announced a consultation on introducing Islamic sukkuk bonds that are compliant with sharia, something that potentially makes a whole section of government debt subject to the judgement of sharia lawyers, as well as being almost impossible to subject to normal financial scrutiny regulations as it is not based on interest. In Islamic countries sharia finance has in fact been shown to be extremely vulnerable to fraud and large scale money laundering.
3. Family Law: In February 2008 the Department for Work and Pensions announced that where there was a ‘valid’ polygamous marriage it would pay extra benefits. It was somewhat strange for the government to claim that a polygamous marriage could be 'valid' - as bigamy has for many years been a criminal offence in Britain. It is however, legal under sharia for a man to have up to four wives.
In the eyes of Islamists what each of these did was to take a further step in aligning British law with sharia. The introduction of sharia to Britain is, at least in broad terms, the long term strategic aim of both non-violent and violent Islamists. It is simply their tactics to achieve this that differ.
Tomorrow I will examine how sharia forms a touchstone for identifying radicalisation.