Luke de Pulford works for a global anti-human trafficking initiative.
In the wake of the Paris atrocities, I can’t help but wonder what the great French secularists would make of twenty-first century foreign policy. Almost 500 years since the Wars of Religion scoured Europe, national security rests once again upon the theological question of what can or cannot constitute a legitimate interpretation of a holy book. Voltaire and Sartre would convulse in existential lament.
As well they might. And their lamentation would surely worsen at the prospect of thousands – no, millions – of column inches devoted to advocating the clearly futile exercise of bombing a theological ideology into submission; an ideology that knows no geographic or national limits.
Of course, ISIS is strong for many reasons, not all of them theological. Poverty. A smashed-up Middle East. Value vacuum in the West. The Facebook generation’s sense of purposelessness and rabid search for personal identity. The list is long. But it takes theology to make a martyr. How else could anyone calmly announce Allahu Akbar to the world before cutting off someone’s head or detonating a suicide belt?
Is it not obvious that a theological problem requires a theological solution? I’m not talking about prayer or conscripting the wonks of Whitehall into a Theology for Dummies course. I’m talking about supporting the message of non-violent Islam in a way which is actually going to appeal to those who are in danger of falling – or who have already fallen – into Islamism.
There have been some commendable efforts in this direction. In October, the Government’s anti-extremism plans pledged millions in support of the work of what we call “moderate” Imams and their publications. David Cameron has recently freed up £5 million for anti-extremist groups. But we know that this will not achieve its stated intent. Why? Because so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims (read: Muslims who agree with us) are hated by ISIS almost as much as we infidels.
The problem is that ISIS see themselves as the custodians of Islamic orthodoxy. They think they are the real McCoy. Conversely, they think that “moderate” Muslims have got it very wrong. To ISIS they are “takfir” – “apostates”. Consider British ISIS recruit Abu Bakr Al-Brittani’s charming statement about the Muslim Council of Great Britain:‘The Muslim Council of Britain, they are apostates, they are not Muslims. They have always fought against Islam with the British Government.’
We might call this phenomenon “takfirism”, by which the people who consider themselves “real” Muslims try to kick others out of the club. Ironically, it’s the same technique that the MCB and other lMuslim organisations such as the Quilliam Foundation use to denounce ISIS. Which is exactly why a liberal Muslim going on Newsnight to protest how little the latest slew of suicide attacks have to do with Islam is never going to be effective in the fight against Islamic extremism, as well as being preposterously unbelievable in itself. To ISIS, these people are not credible, not real Muslims – so who cares what they think?
Take an analogy a little closer to home. The Westboro Baptist Church is a hateful little sect which, like ISIS, believes that it has interpreted its holy book flawlessly. They often brand other Christians apostates, especially Catholics. Do you think, then, that Pope Francis’ exhortations not to judge a person on the basis of their sexual orientation is going to stop them from picketing with “God hates fags” signs? Obviously not.
If we want the non-violent interpretation of Islam to prevail, we need to find advocates whose authority and Islamic orthodoxy ISIS Muslims respect. Such people exist, but they are not liberal Imams or nominally Christian politicians. They are Muslim leaders whose views we would certainly not describe as “moderate” but who nevertheless condemn the deranged, bloodthirsty logic of ISIS. However unpalatable some of our metropolitan crowd might find it to partner with such people, this is surely a more effective way to stem the tide of Jihadism than the current prevention strategy which amounts to little more than preaching to the converted. How else can we describe the strategy of paying for a group of moderate Muslims already despised by ISIS to preach a message of Islamic peace in the hope that it will precipitate a change of heart? This is a waste of money as anyone with even the tiniest understanding of Islam will tell you.
Why this blindingly obvious point seems to have eluded our policymakers is hard to fathom. Admittedly, matters theological are not the strength of the civil service (remember the Foreign Office’s now infamous ‘condom’ memo ahead of Pope Benedict’s 2010 UK visit?), but it is high time secular Westminster did a little God and woke up to the complexity of Islam. Then at least we might have a better understanding of the problem we are trying to solve and a fighting chance at developing an anti-extremist strategy that isn’t just pissing in the wind.