We cannot be neutral in Islam’s internal struggle

Islamism is a threat both inside and outside the Islamic world on a scale comparable with fascism and communism in the 20th century. It needs a comparable response. Trying to pretend that a few far-right extremists are comparable with the rise of Islamic State, an ongoing global terror campaign, or the contining failures of human rights in much of the Muslim majority world is simply wrong. There is an ongoing conflict within Islam, and we are not neutral in this struggle.

We are involved in a struggle with Islamism whether we like it or not

Not all versions of Islam are compatible with our society. There is no other way of saying this. Islamism believes that government must enforce (almost always a strict version of) Islam, and crucially rejects freedom of religion, thought, and secularism based on its readings of the Quran and the hadiths. It is incompatible with a secular liberal democracy, and is by nature extremist on the Government definition of “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

This is not to say that Islam, the religion, is incompatible with a secular liberal democracy. There are various more tolerant versions of Islam and some Muslims focus on other parts of the Quran, such as those stating there is no compulsion in religion or action (e.g. verses 2:256 and 18:29). There are good and bad versions of Islam – and most Muslims believe in a mixture of the good and bad elements. But Islamism believes in use of government power and brute force in enforcing its version of Islam on others, and attacks the moderate or tolerant strains.

Islamists try to demand special treatment for Islam and, once they have it, use it to force their more aggressive version of Islam forward, arguing those who disagree are blasphemous or not respecting Islam. Countries which have tried to placate Islamist extremists became trapped in a cycle in which Islamists are given freedom to bully others, and have used this freedom to drive their version of Islam forward. This is why for Islamists and quasi-Islamist states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan there is no crime worse than blasphemy – because enforcing their version of Islam is the foundation of their power.

When I worked in Number Ten, the people who grasped most clearly Islamism’s threat were my Muslim co-workers, because they knew Islamists were determined to destroy more tolerant and decent versions of Islam and replace it with their own cancerous version – using a mixture of theology, guilt and brute force to theorise and terrorise those who oppose them, both non-Muslims and Muslims.
The ambivalence (not shared by David Cameron) in government came from guilt ridden non-Muslims and those Muslims who buy into one of the main Islamist narratives – that no version of Islam is a problem, and only ‘Islamophobia’ is the problem. This ignores the widespread abuse of human rights by Islamist states or states that want to placate Islamism.

The Left has largely capitulated to Islamism

With honourable and principled exceptions such as Nick Cohen, much of the Left has long since abandoned those who are women, LGBT, minority faiths or nonreligious, and others unfortunate enough to be born where Islamism is strongest. They will speak out against Saudi Arabia, but only in the same breath as condemning the USA’s support for it – because for them this is all about the West. They see themselves as educated multiculturalists but they are, ironically, deeply ignorant about what Islamism is and how it works.
Their use of the weasel word “Islamophobia” and attempt to blame every failure in the Middle East on western intervention is deeply harmful.

Western intervention has made things worse, but Islamism and the Middle East’s difficulties are part of an internal struggle with modernity that the Muslim world is going through. Islamophobia – as opposed to discrimination against Muslims as individuals, and which should never be tolerated – is a word that Islamists love because they can twist it. Cartoons of Mohammed – Islamophobia. Stopping Islamist indoctrination in state schools – Islamophobia. Concerns about basic human rights in Islamic countries – Islamophobia.

The Government needs a strong anti-Islamist approach

Yet if the Left has capitulated, the Centre and Right have failed to understand what is necessary. In fighting Islamism, there are various key policies – fortunately few of which require legislation:

  • Islam is not to be given special treatment and sensitivity will not prevent enforcement of the law or the same treatment being given to Islam as other religions.
  • Islamists (as opposed to Muslims) are to be excluded from every government funding source, platform, and other official interaction and publicly criticised.
  • We will work with anti-Islamist Muslims wherever possible.

Number 1 sounds easy. But consider a few cases recently where May and DCLG/the Home Office were found wanting. Luis Smith was temporarily banned by a Government backed quango for ‘mocking Islam’ in a way mocking Christianity would never have been acted on. A girl who ‘twerked’ in public in a hijab was sent death threats, and had to publicly repent after a religious interviewer talked to her, rather than being protected by the law. There have been occasions in which gender segregation has been used in meetings at universities. This is how Islamism works: bully and purify the believers, shut down any external criticism of Islam, obtain special treatment for Islam – and then move even further. We have failed to live up to our standards.

For number 2, Islamist groups and individuals should be ostracised and not a platform, penny or anything else that legitimises them should come to them from government. They should be publicly criticised. This includes in political parties. The Labour Party should be deeply ashamed it selected someone who has publicly celebrated the Iranian regime in Manchester Gorton. This is a regime that executes gay people and arrests people on blasphemy charges. The selection was a disgrace – and we should have urged our voters to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate to defeat him.

Point 3 means working with and support anti-Islamist Muslims of all types. Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for the London mayoralty was appalling because it came close to equating Muslims with Islamists by smearing Sadiq Khan. You can criticise Khan on many fronts but he is clearly no Islamist extremist. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the Muslim Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Abouteleb, told Islamists who don’t like the West’s freedoms to “pack their bags and f*** off” – a more courageous response that put him in physical danger but shows some Muslims get what is at stake. We cannot simply have non-Muslims criticising Islamists – this is an internal conflict – and we need to give all the support we can to non-Islamist Muslims who are prepared to stand up to Islamists – whether Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, or apolitical. Sajid Javid has a key role here in co-ordinating integration policy at DCLG.

We must realise that stopping Islamism is a fight for the very basis of our society and its freedoms. May needs to give it according priority.