The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

The Prophetic Narrative at the Heart of Modern Jihadism

I — JAHILIYYAH

Terrorism is on the rise.

As I write this, a momentous battle is being waged by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to push ISIS out of the key stronghold of Mosul. If events proceed as planned, the campaign could lead to the expulsion of ISIS from all of Iraq, which is why the media are largely portraying it as a turning point in the war against terrorism.

The truth is, ISIS has been steadily losing ground ever since the siege of Kobane in September 2014. With every town liberated, and every oil field captured, they become smaller and poorer.

And yet, as they are being beaten back in the East, their operations have only increased in the West. This year saw a slew of Islamist atrocities throughout the western world, from the murder of a priest in Normandy, to the Brussels bombings, to the axe-attack on a train in Wurzburg, to the truck massacre in Nice, to the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey.

The year is not over, yet already the number of EU terrorist attacks has surpassed last year’s (17), which itself surpassed 2014’s (4) [1].

Furthermore, ISIS’s goal to turn non-Muslims and Muslims against each other seems to be having some success; Muslims in the West are now widely discriminated against by employers [2] and risk various personal attacks such as having their veils ripped off in the streets [3], having eggs thrown at them [4], having their windscreens smashed [5] and their mosques defaced [6], being shot [7], and being beaten to death [8][9].

The Muslim-rights group Tell MAMA reported a 326 per cent rise in UK “Islamophobic” incidents last year, from 146 to 437 [10]. While concerns have been raised about Tell MAMA’s methods, and their numbers cannot be independently verified, the Metropolitan Police concluded that only a fraction of anti-Muslim incidents were ever reported because they were now so commonplace that they had become normalised by victims as well as perpetrators [11].

Fears of Islam have now also begun to alter the West’s political landscape, arguably playing a role in the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and in the rise of Donald Trump as a serious presidential candidate. Across Europe, too, previously fringe far-right parties are now gaining momentum, from Front National in France to Jobbik in Hungary. In May, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria came within a mere 31,000 votes of becoming Europe’s first far-right head of state since 1945 [12].

Clearly, despite the headway in the military struggle against ISIS, their influence on the world is increasing. Non-Muslims fear being blown up, while Muslims fear being strung up. As a result, the terrorists are successfully doing what they set out to do: terrorising. Ideas are their deadliest weapon, so we cannot rely on soldiers to stop them. We must address the reason jihadism exists, which is the same reason ISIS continues to inspire lone wolf attacks across the world and recruit new “martyrs” to replace the lost.

So, what is the cause of jihadism? What causes otherwise logical people to commit beheadings and suicide-bombings? Is it religion? Is it politics? Or is it something else?

Determined to find out, I spent a year in the town of Luton, which might just be the most concentrated source of Islamic extremists in the UK.

Through the simple power of obsession, I worked out why people become jihadists. I discovered that Islamic extremism is not simply a product of religion or politics, but of something more bizarre — a phantasmagoria of delusions that we have been unwittingly nurturing in our schools, newspapers, parliaments, and even in our homes. Here is what happened.


II — THE MECCA OF TERROR?

Luton’s history is rooted in the Industrial Age. Originally centred around hat-making, it became in 1905 home to Vauxhall, the largest car plant in the UK. In the 1970s, many people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent congregated to the Bury Park area to work at the plant. Vauxhall Luton closed in 2000, and since then, the mainly Muslim ex-employees have remained in Bury Park, opening their own businesses to keep afloat, and forming a largely self-sufficient, self-contained community [13]. Bury Park is now almost exclusively Muslim.

In recent times, Luton has gained infamy as a hotbed of extremism. It was a stronghold of both Omar Bakri’s extremist group al-Muhajiroun and the hook-handed hate-preacher Abu Hamza. In 1999, Luton man Ghulem Hussein was convicted in Yemen of a bomb plot allegedly financed by Hamza. In 2001, locals Afzal Munir, Aftab Manzoor and Muhamed Omar were killed while fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2004, locals Salahuddin Amin and Mohammed Qayyum Khan were implicated in a plot to detonate fertiliser bombs throughout the UK. A year later, the 7/7 bombers met in Luton before launching their attacks on London’s transport network. In 2007, local Abdul Aziz Jalil was jailed for plotting to bomb Heathrow Airport and the London Underground. In 2009, Luton was the site of the abuse of British soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian regiment as they paraded upon their return from Iraq. The following year, Luton resident Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly carried out a suicide bombing in Stockholm. In 2013, locals Zahid Iqbal, Mohammed Ahmed, Syed Hussain, and Umar Arshad were found guilty of planning to bomb a Territorial Army base by driving a remote-controlled car packed with explosives under its gate. Last year, Abu Rahin Aziz stabbed a man in the head with a pen for insulting the prophet Muhammad, before skipping bail to join ISIS in Syria where he was killed in a drone strike. In April, Luton delivery driver Junead Khan was caught scouting locations for a planned beheading of US troops at a British airbase. Shortly after, a Luton Methodist church was revealed to be the site of a secret jihadist indoctrination programme for 80 men and children, 72 of whom are still at large…

St Margaret’s Church, Luton. Site of the secret jihadist indoctrination programme.

It is not only Islamic extremism that Luton has had to deal with. In response to the perceived Islamist infiltration of the town, the anti-Muslim group English Defence League (EDL) was founded. Both it and fellow group Britain First have organised rallies and “Christian patrols” in Luton.

Naturally, I was quite nervous about moving to the town. For the first few weeks after arriving, I just got on with my work (and began writing a book about Islamic extremism, which is pending). Occasionally, I ventured into Bury Park for the exotic food, and was relieved to find that, for the most concentrated source of jihadists in the UK, it was rather dull.

Bury Park’s most distinctive feature is Luton Central Mosque, its minarets dominating the low skyline. From their loudspeakers, the call to prayer (adhan) can often be heard on the breeze. But even without the mosque, the area is visibly Islamic. There are schools, but they are almost all madrassahs. There are newsagents, but they periodically close for prayer. There are clothes shops, but the mannequins are all well-covered. There is a clothing bank, where local Muslims give garments and other goods which are then distributed among the poor. There is a travel agent who only arranges trips to Mecca. Around the corner, there is a police weapons-disposal bin, for locals to give up knives and more under amnesty. A little further, there is a church, its stained-glass windows intact and its vicar (a woman) smiling.

The one time that Luton lived up to its chaotic reputation was shortly after I’d moved here, last year. I was passing through Bury Park on my way to see my new Muslim doctor when I glimpsed a commotion ahead. A group of white people — a rarity in the area — were shuffling along the pavement, holding up placards and crosses, while shouting. Muslims were gathered on the pavement, shouting back.

As I got closer, I realised I was witnessing a Britain First Christian patrol. These self-proclaimed soldiers of Yahweh were nothing like how they portray themselves in their Youtube videos; they were visibly terrified. I recall one protester, a young man with a shaved head, marching with swagger, doing his best to look strident, while strategically positioning his placard to hide his face from everyone. He almost tripped over.

The police were quick to intervene, and people were led their separate ways.

Since then, I’ve witnessed no more riots or protests. The main sources of tension are not in Bury Park, which is largely monocultural, but outside it. In the town square, one non-Muslim I recently spoke to was concerned that “Muslims keep to themselves” because “their book tells them they’re not allowed to mingle with infidels”. It is indeed rare to see Luton Muslims walking with non-Muslims, and some of this lack of integration may indeed have religious origins: observant Muslims typically avoid places where alcohol is served, or where people mingle freely with the opposite sex, or where sports are played in “immodest” clothing, so they might not get a chance to become part of Luton’s social life.

Another local non-Muslim I approached was angry that Muslims were “forcing their ways on everyone else”, pointing out a decision at the local Inspire Sports Village to segregate the swimming pool and impose a dress code in line with Sharia. The man claimed Muslims get special treatment here, at the expense of everyone else. He also believed violence was justified by the Qur’an. When asked why he didn’t accept the common argument that “Islam is a religion of peace”, he shrugged and said “That’s what they say. But I’ve heard lying is allowed in their religion.” He was referring to taqiyya — a special Islamic rule supposedly allowing Muslims to lie about their beliefs in certain situations, and which has been used by the far-right to paint Western Muslims as a fifth column.

I spoke to Dawood Masood, Head of Administration at the Al Hira Educational and Cultural Centre, and creator of the Not in My Name campaign, which seeks to distance moderate Muslims from jihadists. He was at first cagy, but after I reassured him I didn’t work for the Daily Mail, he eased up and spoke freely. He said that people generally got on with each other in Luton, but there were sometimes tensions, especially when groups like Britain First came to town. He believed both non-Muslims and Muslims were in danger of being taken in by a narrative of hate, and part of his work was to prevent this. As such, he is active on social media, and in the streets with leaflets, trying to show young Muslims that terrorism is haram (forbidden). He also organises open days for non-Muslims to learn about Islam, and interfaith community activities in which Muslims come together with Christians and Jews to celebrate what they have in common. He said that it was difficult to get his vision of a peaceful and tolerant Islam into the spotlight, because the media were only interested in selling papers, so they would rather show beheadings by ISIS.

He may have had a point: A study conducted by the Cardiff School of Journalism found that nearly two-thirds of all themes of news articles about Muslims involved:

“[E]ither terrorism (some 36 per cent of stories); religious issues such as Sharia Law, highlighting cultural differences between British Muslims and others (22 per cent); or Muslim extremism…These stories all portrayed Muslims as a source of trouble. By contrast only 5 per cent of stories were based on problems facing British Muslims.” [14]

Masood said that the media’s constant conflation of Muslims with terror was what spawned groups like Britain First and the EDL. When I asked Masood what he thought was the main cause of Islamic extremism, he said it was alienation and disenfranchisement among today’s youths.

Around Bury park, there are signs of alienation and disenfranchisement. Although the council has funded anti-extremism initiatives at Luton Central Mosque and other religious centres, the infrastructure itself appears to have received little investment. The grass is overgrown in places, the roads are cracked, and there is often more litter than usual, including objects like car seats.

Metaphor, Bury Park.

The police presence in Bury Park also seems to be sparse, at least ostensibly. Bedfordshire Police operate a policy known as Faith Watch, whereby community liaison officers work with faith leaders to encourage civilian reporting of crimes among local Muslims. This scheme appears to be conducted in the stead of open police patrols, which are notably rarer than patrols in other parts of Luton. It would seem that local authorities are afraid of appearing too oppressive or heavy-handed, which may be shrewd foresight.

Even so, the failure by authorities to invest or intervene in Muslim quarters can lead to problems, as evidenced by a recent report suggesting electoral fraud has gone ignored in some Muslim communities due to political correctness [15]. But could the lack of government investment also be to blame for terrorism? Could disaffection among Muslims in places like Bury Park lead them to seek enfranchisement elsewhere?

Inevitably, some social misfits are attracted to ISIS for the sense of belonging it offers. As barbaric as the group is, their claim to be an unbreakable ummah (sacred community) unbound by race, location or class (as long as you’re male) has a certain familial appeal to those who might not feel they fit in their home countries.

Except, ISIS doesn’t just appeal to loners, vagrants and outcasts. The Islamists I once knew at university, and with whom I often debated, were not poor, or forsaken, or socially immobile — they were middle-class, well-to-do university students with rich social lives (I saw them at every bar and night-club).

This fact is not just anecdotal; while researching his book Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman found that the majority of active jihadists (between two-thirds and three-quarters) were middle-class, well-educated professionals within stable social circles [16]. This finding has been confirmed by numerous studies conducted since, most thoroughly in Alan B. Krueger’s recent book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Clearly, if Islamic extremism is appealing to the well-fed, well-read, and well-cared, then it isn’t solely an issue of alienation or deprivation. There has to be some kind of intellectual appeal to it.

I decided to begin my investigation in the obvious place; with the claims by local Britain First supporters that terrorism is justified by Islam.


III — POT CALLS THE KITAB BLACK

In my inquiry into Islam, I began with the central text, the Qur’an (the version I used can be found at Quran.com). From my six-month study of The Qur’an, I identified the book’s central themes as discipline, harmony, and compassion. It has many verses that preach such things, such as this one:

“And the slaves of the Most Beneficent (Allah) are those who walk on the earth in humility and sedateness, and when the foolish address them (with bad words) they reply back with mild words of gentleness.” (Qur’an 25:63)

And this one:

“And they [the righteous] give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive, [saying], ‘We feed you only for the countenance of Allah. We wish not from you reward or gratitude’.” (Qur’an 76:8–9)

For most Muslims, the Qur’an’s authority is matched only by one other source: the example of the life of Muhammad, known as the Sunnah.

The Sunnah is articulated primarily from the ahadith (singular: hadith), or hagiographies of Muhammad, each of which is carefully graded by Islamic scholars on the reliability of its chain of transmission. I will quote only from those ahadith that are generally regarded as sahih (trustworthy) or hasan (generally sound). The translation of the ahadith I used can be found at Sunnah.com, unless stated otherwise.

When one reads through these ahadith, it becomes clear that there are things to admire in Muhammad’s story. He went from lowly merchant to ruler of his own empire in a matter of years. He also had some ethical standards that were remarkably progressive for his time. For instance, he was anti-racism:

“O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness.” (Musnad Ahmad bin Hambal 6:22978)

On this issue, he practised what he preached, freeing the ridiculed black slave Bilal ibn Rabah and making him his muezzin (chief prayer-caller) — a revolutionary act at the time.

Muhammad was apparently also a great believer in generosity. As he preaches in a hadith:

“When you make broth, add more water and give some to your neighbour.” (Sunan ibn Majah 4:29:3362)

So, both the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two sources of earthly authority for Muslims, preach peace and compassion to all.

Except, sometimes they also preach death:

“And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:5)

This passage, part of the infamous “Sword Verse”, seems to be calling for the deaths of polytheists, and though the second sentence has been used by some Muslims to mitigate the severity of the first, it really only changes the verse’s meaning from “slaughter the infidels” to “slaughter the infidels unless they convert to Islam”.

Furthermore, some of the Qur’an’s verses seem to sanction the taking of sex-slaves from among prisoners of war:

“O Prophet, indeed We have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have given their due compensation and those your right hand possesses from what Allah has returned to you [of captives]…” (33:50)

Muhammad lived by this philosophy, when, for example, he took sex-slaves from the conquered Banu Qurayza tribe, including the Israelite Rayhana bint Zayd, who was forced to make love to Muhammad as her family was executed. She was one of the lucky ones; a leader of Rayhana’s old tribe, Kinana ibn al-Rabi, was tortured by having his eyes put out and a fire kindled on his chest so he would reveal his tribe’s treasure to Muhammad. The prophet then had him beheaded, and took his widow as a sex-slave [17].

So, when Muhammad went to war, he was very different from the one who professed unconditional compassion. And, even when not at war, he prescribed punishments that are at odds with general notions of mercy and compassion, like stoning:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death — the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife.”

Except, the passage I just quoted is not from the Qur’an; it’s from the Bible (New International Version), specifically Deuteronomy 22:23–27.

And here are the Old Testament’s rules of engagement:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labour and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.” (Deuteronomy 20:10–15)

The Biblical God, Yahweh, also sanctions slavery:

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” (Leviticus 25:44–46)

Deuteronomy, a particularly bloody book of the Bible, also has rules that suggest the writers had bad personal experiences:

“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11–12)

Furthermore, if we are going to talk about the wartime atrocities committed by Muhammad, we cannot ignore the savageries perpetrated by the biblical prophets. Moses, for instance, instigated the mass-butchery of the Midianite males and the enslavement of their women and children, while David enslaved and massacred tribes like the Moabites, and even arranged the death of an ally (Uriah) whose wife (Bathsheba) he took a liking to.

A recent study by Tom Anderson, using special textual analysis software that he created, concluded that the Old Testament contained more than twice the number of violent passages as the Qur’an [18]. Although it didn’t account for the relative sizes of the books, it will be clear to anyone who examines both texts that the violent verses in the Old Testament are often more brutal even than those in the Qur’an (they were, after all, written over a millennium earlier).

Tom Anderson’s diagram comparing the perceived emotional content of passages in the Qur’an and Bible.

So, if the Old Testament has verses as barbaric as any in the Qur’an, and if Moses butchered captives and took sex-slaves just like Muhammad, why do Christian or Jewish extremists not make the headlines? Why, when we see reports of terrorism, sex-slavery, and honour killings, do we immediately think of Islam?

We sometimes hear of Christian extremism: abortion clinic bombings in the US, various atrocities committed by Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army or India’s National Liberation Front of Tripura. Furthermore, Tony Blair’s and George W Bush’s Christianity may have informed their decision to invade Iraq [19][20].

In addition to the occasional Jesus-loving terrorist, we also sometimes hear of Jewish extremists, such as the Zionist demagogue Meir Ettinger, who tried to bring about an Arab genocide, and the Israeli terrorist Amiram Ben-Uliel who perpetrated the Duma arson attack.

Historically, both Jews and Christians have shed just as much blood for their faith as Muslims. But Judaeo-Christian extremism is gradually vanishing from the civilised world. Islamist atrocities are on the rise.

Perhaps the difference originates in the fact that the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, clearly states that warriors get preferential treatment:

“So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory — We will bestow upon him a great reward.” (4:74)

This great reward is described in the ahadith as entry to Firdaws, a paradise within paradise, a kind of celestial VIP lounge:

“‘There is also another act by which Allah will elevate the position of a (pious believing) slave in Jannah to a grade one hundred degrees higher. And the distance between any two grades is equal to the distance between heaven and earth.’ He asked the Messenger of Allah what it was and he replied, ‘Jihad in the way of Allah; Jihad in the way of Allah’.” (Muslim 12:1301)

Even though “Jihad” in this context refers explicitly to violent warfare, and not a spiritual inner struggle (as will be made clear to anyone who reads the whole passage), I still had trouble believing offers of paradise were a sufficient explanation for the inordinate number of Islamic terrorists. After all, the Norse Eddas tell of fallen warriors entering Valhalla or Folkvangr, the Viking paradises, where they will feast on the finest boar and beer alongside voluptuous Valkyrie forever. But we don’t see many Nordic suicide bombers. (Islam may be far more popular than Norse paganism, but Odin’s word is not objectively less credible than Allah’s.)

I also wondered why jihadists ignored the verses that stated they had to be compassionate to non-Muslims in order to reach paradise, such as this one:

“The Prophet said, ‘Whoever kills a mu‘aahid (a non-Muslim living under Muslim rule) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its smell is perceived from a distance of forty years’.” (Bukhari 4:53:391)

And, this one:

“The Prophet said: ‘Spread peace between yourselves. By the one in whose hand is my soul, you will not enter Paradise until you are merciful to others’. They said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, all of us are merciful’. The Prophet said, ‘Verily, it is not only mercy between yourselves, but rather it is mercy for everyone’.” (Sunan al-Kubrā lil-Nasā’ī 5760)

One argument that I heard from one EDL member was that the violence in the Qur’an is far more radicalising than the violence in the Bible because it is interpreted using a different set of rules that leads to validation of warfare.

Let’s see if there is any truth to this.


IV — SAFE FROM HARAM

Anyone who flicks through the Bible or Qur’an will see that they’re filled with contradictions. This is not a controversial point: religious scholars will be the first to admit it. In fact, much of their work involves trying to resolve the contradictions. The most common tool by which they do this is known as abrogation.

The concept of abrogation is something most Christians will be familiar with. According to Biblical exegesis, different periods are given for God to apply different laws. These periods are known as “dispensations”. A clear example can be found in the New Testament’s abrogation of the older Mosaic covenant, as summed up in Hebrews 8:13:

“In that he saith, a new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”

The general rule in all three Abrahamic faiths is that later passages abrogate earlier ones. Thus, the relatively peaceful New Testament abrogates much of the more violent Old Testament, and it gives Christians one reason not to murder their children for talking back (as Deuteronomy 21:18–21 commands).

As with Christianity, abrogation is also essential to understanding the Qur’an:

“We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except [unless] We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it.” (2:106)

Now, here lies what critics of Islam might regard as a central problem of Islamic scriptural violence: the Qur’an differs from the Bible in that it becomes chronologically more violent, not less, as Muhammad goes from a meek merchant in Mecca to a mighty warlord in Medina.

The notorious Sword Verse (9:5), which calls for death to the unbelievers, is also among the last verses chronologically. Noted hadith compiler al-Tabari claims Muhammad received this revelation in the year 631, a year before his death [21]. Al-Tabari’s claim is backed up by another approved scholar, al-Bukhari, who states that surah (chapter) 9 was the last revealed to Muhammad [22].

So, unlike the Bible, the Qur’an’s violent verses are newer than its peaceful verses, and thus take precedence. Or do they?

The rule of naskh, which stipulates that newer Qur’an verses abrogate older ones, is an invention of medieval scholarship, reaching its peak popularity at the hands of the 14th Century scholar ibn Kathir, who wrote at a time when Islam was at war with Christendom.

Thus, naskh would be valid only to those who hold to a medieval version of Islam, such as Wahhabism — the sect followed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and others — which seeks to return Islam back to the “purity” of the 7th Century, when it was untouched by worldly innovation.

Most Islamic terrorists are Wahhabis, but most Islamic scholars are not. And there are plenty of ways scholars have construed the Qur’an’s violent verses besides the medieval interpretation offered by the extremists.

One liberal reading goes like this: abrogation does not exist in the way we understand it. Instead, it is determined by context. The violence perpetrated by Muhammad was necessary because in his medieval desert environment it was kill or be killed — resources were low, danger was everywhere, communities were constantly on either the offensive or defensive — and to survive, they had to be ruthless. Muhammad was bound by the brutal exigencies of his time, just as he was (mostly) bound by gravity, because although he was a paragon of men, he was still only a man. He conquered in self-defence. He took concubines because he was a product of his time. He made mistakes, for us to learn from. And with the onset of a relatively modern, peaceful age, the ruthlessness with which he established his religion is no longer necessary — Muhammad today would be a benevolent peacekeeper, not a wrathful warlord — and one would be free to practice Islam’s central creed of order and harmony without any need for brutality.

Thus, the Qur’an’s warlike verses are descriptive, not prescriptive — they serve to illustrate the world in which Muhammad existed, not the world as it should be. The rules Allah gave Muhammad were exclusively for medieval desert warfare under a very specific set of circumstances, and the peaceful, compassionate verses are for all other times. This view generally falls under the umbrella of “Islamic modernism”, and it was the one taught and studied by most Muslims I spoke with in Luton, including at Luton Central Mosque.

But is this just cherry-picking? Should we not just take the Qur’an’s words at face-value, like the Wahhabis? After all, how nuanced can the sentence “Kill the disbelievers wherever you find them” really be?

Quite nuanced, it turns out. As I researched deeper and deeper into Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), I found my head hurting. The Qur’an, like the Bible, is an immensely complicated book. It is not read like a normal text; instead, every sentence is analysed and cross-checked and interpreted around a wider context constructed from analysis and cross-checking of companion works. The concepts of hadith-grading and abrogation are just the tip of the iceberg; the Qur’an has a surface message (zahir) and a cyphered message (batin); each of its passages also have to be considered mukhamat (having one clear meaning) or mutashabihat (having many meanings); and this is before we even get into the deeper exegesis of working out what those meanings are, and how they interact with each other and the ahadith.

It took Muslim scholars years, even decades, of Qur’an and hadith study to gain any real understanding of Islam, and even then they were often in debate with one another. It didn’t seem plausible that the terrorists had grappled with such nuances and complexities.

Masood told me that the vast majority of Luton’s young Muslims had almost no knowledge of the Qur’an, and it was these people who were most likely to become extremists, because they were more susceptible to ill-informed, superficial readings of the Qur’an’s apparent justifications for violence — readings that made them seem clearer-cut than they actually are.

Masood’s statement was confirmed by recently leaked ISIS files, which show that 70% of new recruits had next to no knowledge of the Qur’an let alone the ahadith [23].

It seemed that although some tenets of Islam could be interpreted to justify violence, they alone could not account for radicalisation. Rather, deeper knowledge of Islam seemed to be linked to less violence, not more.

And, after all, if it really was as simple as the Qur’an justifying terrorism, why were only a fraction of the world’s one and a half billion Muslims terrorists? And why were some young people drawn to Wahhabism in spite of the general scholarly consensus that regarded it as simplistic and outmoded?

There had to be something else besides theology that was attracting young Muslims to Wahhabism. I wondered if it was political.

Earlier this year, I encountered an activist dressed in traditional Islamic attire, handing out leaflets. The leaflets apparently showed the mutilated child-victims of a drone strike. They were entitled, “This is democracy”.

I asked the activist what he thought about ISIS. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know them personally.” I asked him if he agreed with their aims and actions. He prevaricated, and when I pointed this out, his breathing became stertorous, like a furnace bellows.

He then employed the fallacy of relative privation: “What about what the West did in Iraq and Afghanistan, what about dropping bombs on babies — isn’t that terrorism? What about what the Zionists are doing in Palestine, how come we never hear about that? The West are the true terrorists. It was the West that spread terrorism everywhere.”

Every sentence the man said was factually incorrect. Except the last one.


V — PROPHET AND REVENUE, or, BEWARE SHEIKHS BEARING GIFTS

I once knew a man who told me, “it won’t be guns or bombs that defeat the terrorists, but ordinary shopping”. In his view, Islamic extremism will end when late capitalism has saturated the Middle East, and people are perpetually distracted by shiny things. He may well be right. But it should be noted that shopping also played a significant role in the spread of modern jihadism.

Wahhabism is named after the 18th century preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who eked out an existence among the barren and sun-baked wastes of Najd in Saudi Arabia, where life was short and brutal. Given the region’s inhospitability, the creed didn’t initially spread far.

But Wahhab was extremely fortunate in his friendships. He first formed an alliance with ibn Saud, the conqueror of Arabia and head of the House of Saud, and convinced him to help spread his puritanical religion. Saud agreed and, in line with Wahhab’s violent ideology, his forces swept the desert, butchering rival tribes and taking sex-slaves, until he had much of Arabia in an iron grip.

In the 1940s, the US paid the House of Saud hundreds of billions to access its oil. The Saudis spent much of this money to further Wahhabism, by printing books and pamphlets, creating propaganda campaigns, offering scholarships for the right academics, and building hundreds of Islamic universities and mosques. This “Petro-Islam”, as it came to be called, spread Wahhabi ideas across the Middle East and South Asia.

At the onset of the Cold War, US policy-makers decided that the Wahhabi ideology could be exploited to serve their ends. In 1954 the US began an aid programme to Pakistan, at the expense of India, whom it regarded as too cosy with the Soviet Union. It poured billions of dollars into the development of Pakistan’s military, hoping to create a bulwark against South Asian socialism. Decades later, the Pakistani military had become so powerful it staged a coup, and General Zia-ul-Haq became its dictator.

Zia initiated a reactionary Islamic reform of Pakistan, in which liberal elements were purged and puritanism was enforced. He gave many seats in his government to members of Jaamat e-Islami, a Wahhabi Islamist organisation that would later participate in the Bangladesh genocide and spread its poisonous ideology across South Asia.

US policy-makers came to see Zia as a useful asset in the fight against the Soviets. Under Operation Cyclone, the Reagan administration funnelled $3 billion dollars through the Pakistani ISI to the Afghan Mujahideen, a jihadist group fighting against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Further funds came from the US’s other Wahhabi ally, Saudi Arabia. The investment paid off; thousands of new Jihadis joined the war from across the Middle East and North Africa. Among the holy warriors lauded for heroism in Western papers was a man named Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden praised in the Independent, 1993 (license: Creative Commons)

In time, the US got what it wanted; the old liberal and socialist movements of the Middle East had been purged into obscurity, the puritanical thugs had annihilated the secular intellectuals, and total power now resided with reactionary Islamist governments.

There was of course a price; the religious fervour stoked by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia didn’t end with the war. The Mujahideen fractured into hundreds of lethal shards — including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Haqqani Network. These groups needed a new enemy, and they quickly found it, in their biggest patrons.

And that was when the bombings began.

One would think this Frankensteinian lesson would’ve sobered both Western and Eastern governments out of support for jihadist proxies. But, it hasn’t.

In 2011, Hillary Clinton oversaw the armament and funding of al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Libya in an attempt to oust then-ruler, Muammar Gaddafi [24]. And within the last few years, the US has directly or indirectly supplied jihadists fighting against Iran’s secular satrap, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria [25]. Furthermore, the US and UK are now providing materiel and support to Saudi Arabia and its jihadist proxies so that they can better slaughter the pro-democracy Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen [26].

Recently, the West has found yet another authoritarian Islamist ally in Erdogan’s Turkey. In August, the US effectively retracted support for secular democratic YPG and SDF Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Jarablus and Manbij, so that it could get behind Turkish forces and their jihadist proxies such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and al-Zenki. These groups are hostile to secular democracy, and are known to have committed atrocities such as beheading children, but are not designated as terrorists by the US [27][28].

So, clearly, the US and its allies have done much, and are still doing much, to propagate jihadism. But are they, as the Bury Park activist told me, actually responsible for terrorism?

Firstly, no one can ever be responsible for terrorism except for terrorists. To say otherwise is to deny certain human beings agency; to effectively see them as unable to make their own decisions. This is a typical fallacy of the left — seeing brown people as not being able to reach the same standards of responsibility as whites — and is so common that it has even been given a name: the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Fortunately, blaming terrorism on Western foreign policy is not only bigoted, but also false. Jihadism has existed long before the West’s interference in Muslim affairs, from Muhammad’s massacre of the Banu Qurayza, to the bloody atrocities committed by the Moors, Mughals, Barbary pirates, and Durrani Empire — all of whom claimed to be acting in accordance with their religion. Even after the West had taken an interest in Muslim countries, it played no role in the 1915 Armenian genocide or the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, both of which involved ruling Muslims slaughtering and defiling their non-Muslim subjects, drawing apparent justification from the Qur’an.

ISIS, in its propaganda magazine Dabiq, claims that Western foreign policy, while a source of anger, is not the main reason for its hatred of the West:

“The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.” [29]

Jihadists may not be fond of Western democracy, or the laissez-faire capitalism that fattened them, but it’s not why they fight.

So what is the real reason?


VI — SUBH KAZIB

From my research thus far I had concluded that jihadism was not strictly social, political, or religious, but was influenced by each of these factors. The social explanation didn’t explain why so many jihadists came from stable families and well-to-do backgrounds. The political explanation didn’t explain the prevalence of Islamic extremism prior to Western interference in the Middle East, including at times of relative peace and prosperity. The religious explanation was also lacking; almost all Muslims are peaceful. Sure, the Qur’an and Muhammad can both be construed to be violent, but so can the Bible and most of its prophets. And Islam is far too diverse, complex and nuanced to be owned by the literalists, both Wahhabi and far-right — neither of whom have the patience to understand exegesis.

I tried to work out the fourth element, some kind of connective tissue for the different explanations. What I really wanted was to speak to an actual jihadist. I’d briefly spoken with a leaflet-dealing Islamist in Bury Park, but he had not been too accommodating. I wandered around the area every day for several weeks, hoping to find more activists. My efforts were fruitless.

The leaflet-dealing Islamist I’d spoken to had said the West was waging a war against Muslims. During a taxi journey one night, I broached the subject with my driver, a middle-aged Bangladeshi immigrant called Sharif. He told me that while he didn’t agree with ISIS, he too believed the West was waging a war against Muslims. He cited the same evidence that the leaflet-dealer had: the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Israel/Palestine. He did not know that the evidence he cited actually disproved his claims.

The invasion of Afghanistan was the only time in recent history that the West sought to take down a Muslim regime. The invasion of Iraq was not an attack on Muslims; Saddam Hussein had often claimed to be Muslim, but in practice he showed no real belief in religion except the pursuit of Arab nationalism and his own personality cult. Gaddafi, too, had been a secular Arab nationalist, despite demagogically painting himself as Muslim in his usual theatrical style. As for Assad, he is allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but in practice is a strongly secular nationalist leader who, even if he were religious, would be considered an enemy Alawite of ISIS and their ilk.

Given that three out of four of the countries attacked by the West have been secular states, and that the West is still allied with strongly Muslim countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the bombing campaigns of the last two decades can hardly be considered a war against Muslims.

When I pointed this out to Sharif, he shook his head. I pointed out further evidence to rebut his claims of a Western assault against Islam, such as the appointment of a Muslim mayor of London. Again, Sharif shook his head. I struggled to understand how he could ignore facts and remain so convinced of a war that didn’t exist. Finally, he told me: “I know because it’s all in the Qur’an.”

Claims about the prophetic power of the Qur’an were not new to me; I was well aware that Islam is the most teleological (purpose-driven) and eschatological (concerned with the end) of the Abrahamic religions, and that among its most potent signs and symbols are those that supposedly foretell human destiny.

But Sharif went further; he named specific things that he believed the Qur’an had augured; climate change, the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS. He then said the world was becoming increasingly more chaotic, and that this was a sign we were living in the last days.

Over the course of a year, I interviewed exactly 100 local Muslims, on the streets, at the mosques, and even in the local gym. I learned that belief in an impending apocalypse was almost taken for granted in Luton: 36% of the Muslims I interviewed said they believed that the Last Hour would occur in their lifetimes, and of these, 89% had concluded this primarily from news of events in the Middle East. These numbers become even more disturbing when one considers that many interviewees would likely have downplayed their belief in apocalyptic prophecies out of distrust toward me.

In any case, 92% of those convinced of an impending apocalypse were below the age of 30, and 75% were unable to answer simple questions about the Qur’an. Furthermore, when I pressed these people for details regarding the Judgement, they usually had little or nothing to say. It seemed that in most cases their conception of apocalypse, while certain, remained nebulous. Even so, I wondered if the belief, at its most obsessive, might be the flashpoint at which religion ignites into violence.

Apocalypse sky: Guildford Street, Luton.

Apocalyptic ramblings have long led to violence: during his wars of conquest, Muhammad often relied on prophecy to justify invasions and keep the morale of his troops up, promising them victory even when the odds seemed against them. At the Siege of Constantinople in the 15th century, the imam Aksemseddin’s prophecies lifted the spirits of Sultan Mehmed’s fatigued troops, helping them to crush the remaining forces of Byzantium. And, at the dawn of modern jihadism, abd al-Wahhab won over ibn Saud by telling him his ascent was prophesied by Allah Himself, galvanising his conquest of Arabia. Throughout history, religious prophecies have helped Muslim autocrats achieve political ends, their golden promises luring new followers and restoring lost morale, so that their forces could conquer and defend with renewed strength, convinced destiny was on their side.

Back in Luton, Masood had once mentioned to me a story about his last trip to Pakistan. He had gone to visit his uncle, in a small village at the foot of the Hazara mountains. There was a young man at that village, who had become “tired of life” and wanted answers. He began to seldom leave his house, obsessing over rumours that major events were at hand in the world, and that they had been predicted in a code within the Qur’an, which was being deciphered at a place on the other side of the mountains. He would calmly tell his family how the events in the Middle East — particularly the war in Syria — were occurring in line with Muhammad’s pronouncements one and a half millennia ago, and that the events presaged the end of reality itself. The young man subsequently vanished. Later his father learned he had joined a Salafi seminary with links to the Taliban, and went to Afghanistan to get him.

I could not ascertain how that man had been radicalised. When I asked Sharif how he’d learned of the Qur’an’s prophecies, he admitted he’d never actually read the book, but had instead “seen it on the Internet”. Naturally, I began to frequent Islamist blogs and chatrooms, paying particular attention to the politics pages. Like Sharif, most of the posters on these forums had only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam — though many did quote the holy texts in their signatures. More importantly, I noticed a pattern, and the first signs that I was looking in the right place: the posters unanimously believed that the Qur’an and ahadith had predicted — were predicting — modern times.

In particular, they believed the holy texts presaged such things as HIV and climate change, both of which they regarded as punishments for Western decadence. I searched for the prophecies to which the forum posters had referred. When they spoke of climate change they were likely referring to this passage:

“Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].” (Qur’an 30:41)

The line that “predicted” HIV was not actually in the Qur’an, but in an obscure translation of a hadith that is considered da’if (untrustworthy) by mainstream Islamic scholars:

“It never happens that permissiveness overwhelms a people to the extent that they display their acts of sex shamelessly and they are not uniquely punished by God. Among them, invariably, pestilence is made to spread and such other diseases, the like of which have never been witnessed by their forefathers.” [30]

It took me some weeks before I had gone through every prophecy in the Qur’an and ahadith. Many did not refer to modern times, many were not regarded as sahih by scholarly consensus, yet some were both regarded as authentic and vaguely accurate enough to be interpreted to describe the modern age. For instance:

“From among the portents of the Hour are (the following): 1. Religious knowledge will be taken away (by the death of Religious learned men). 2. (Religious) ignorance will prevail. 3. Drinking of Alcoholic drinks (will be very common). 4. There will be prevalence of open illegal sexual intercourse.” (Bukhari 1:3:80)

According to many online Islamists, that verse refers to Western debauchery, and is another sign that the West is the ultimate enemy. Yet it was not as important to them as the prophecies that seemed to augur current events in the Middle East. One hadith line that was discussed at length apparently predicted the Iraq War, and tied it to the End Times:

“The Last Hour would not come before the Euphrates uncovers a mountain of gold, for which people would fight.” (Muslim 41:6918)

In addition to pointing out to these Islamists that they were not taking into account scholarly issues like hadith-grading and exegesis, I would have liked to have pointed out that their beliefs in prophetic fulfilment were simple confirmation bias, the tendency of the brain to notice evidence supportive of one’s beliefs, while ignoring evidence against. Or perhaps it was pareidolia, an evolutionary by-product of audio-visual pattern recognition, which causes one to hear whispers in rustling trees, and faces in clouds.

Unfortunately, bias has a logic-proof hold on those who are determined to believe, as you will now see.

One Islamist blogger, writing anonymously and eponymously for Newsrescue.com [31], quotes from several hadith, having diligently cherry-picked the plausible-sounding ones from amongst all the fanciful ones. He (I’ll assume he’s a he) presents his first quote as describing the current situation in Syria and Iraq:

“There will be such troubles and calamities that nobody will have a place to shelter from them. These calamities will travel around Sham (countries in the Middle East including Syria, Jordan, Palestine, etc) and settle over Iraq. They will bind the Arabian Peninsula… As they attempt to eliminate these calamities in one place they will arise in another.” (ibid.)

He then quotes another verse from the same book, as further evidence for his discovery:

“Doomsday will not take place until Iraq is attacked. And innocent people will seek places to shelter in Sham. Sham will be reconstructed and Iraq will be reconstructed.” (ibid.)

He goes on to quote from another hadith, claiming it refers to the division of Iraq among Kurds, Shia Iraqis, and Sunni Iraqis (respectively):

“The people of Iraq will be divided into three groups. One part will join the looters. One part will leave their families behind and flee. One part will fight and be killed. Prepare yourselves for doomsday when you see this.” (ibid.)

The blog continues, finding many more of these superficially compelling connections. Normally, we could dismiss such blogs as conspiracy theories. But, as I learned, their warped worldview is taken very seriously by actual jihadists, and not just the so-called keyboard warriors.

ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, is named after the Syrian town they eagerly captured in April 2014, where the forces of Allah and Shaytan are prophesied to meet in battle and bring about the emergence of the Mahdi — a kind of deputy-messiah — who will then summon Jesus himself, who will in turn “break the cross” to demonstrate the fallacy of Christianity, before the archangel Israfil blows a horn and everyone falls dead and the Judgement begins.

In order for all this to pass, ISIS believes there has to be a final reckoning between Muslims and Christians in Syria. Thus, jihadists pay special attention to verses that speak of interfaith enmity in the Last Days. Like this one, found in ISIS’s magazine, but originally from Muslim 41:6924:

“The Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them).” [32]

Jihadists believe “Romans” refers to Western Christians, though the actual meaning is the subject of debate among mainstream scholars.

Another hadith verse (which is accepted by ISIS but considered da’if by mainstream Islamic scholars) goes thus:

“‘Three will fight one another for your treasure, each one of them the son of a caliph, but none of them will gain it. Then the black banners will come from the east, and they will kill you in an unprecedented manner.’ Then he mentioned something that I do not remember, then he said: “When you see them, then pledge your allegiance to them even if you have to crawl over the snow, for that is the caliph of Allah, Mahdi.’” (Sunan ibn Majah 5:36:4084)

It is easy to see how ISIS chose the shade of its flag; it regards itself as the Mahdi’s spearhead, come to liberate the sacred ummah from the forces of Shaytan — the debauched, depraved West — which have been secretly oppressing humanity by manipulating world events, but whose eventual defeat has been prophesied by divine destiny (though not necessarily by the Qur’an or ahadith).

Victim, persecutor, rescuer: it’s a narrative that neatly fits the Karpman drama triangle — a model of human interaction in which people cast themselves and others into roles to simplify a reality that would otherwise be too complex for them to deal with. We see it constantly in the tabloids, in reality TV shows, and in Hollywood movies, perhaps because people find this world too big, too layered, too variegated and nuanced to comprehend, and so they seek out narratives that shrink the world down to a manageable size.

The prophetic-apocalyptic narrative serves much the same purpose for some restless young Muslims. It isn’t strictly about foreign policy or Islam, but it assimilates elements of both — using Wahhabi literalism and the cacophony of the Internet to draw parallels between decontextualized Islamic prophecies and misunderstood current affairs — thereby distorting and simplifying two complex narratives so that they neatly fit each other, and reach the hearts and minds of those who would never normally have an interest in religion or politics. The new narrative’s simplistic fairy tale makeup enables it to be transmitted through tweets, forum posts, and word of mouth — unlike policy papers or Qur’anic exegesis — and its vague references to both scripture and real world events give it a mask of plausibility.

Thus, ISIS doesn’t offer jihadist neophytes an understanding of the Qur’an, or any real solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. It offers them a comforting simplification of reality, in 140-character instalments; an easily digestible story of revenge and redemption in which they can be the hero and win the ultimate prize: an identity. The identity offered to them is filled with all kinds of indulgences: a special snowflake destiny, an unbreakable brotherhood, a world-encompassing conspiracy, a scapegoat for the state of the world, a VIP pass to paradise.

In short, jihadists are not ascetics; they are hedonists. They are neither theological nor political; they are dreamers. And they dream of vengeance and hope: for a past that never happened, and for a future that will never come.

I was sure I’d found the link I’d been searching for, the primary intellectual appeal of jihadism, and the reason it was reaching so many young people in Luton and elsewhere. The jihadists, having neither the patience for Qur’anic exegesis, nor the understanding for international politics, had been sucked into a quasi-political, pseudo-religious prophetic-apocalyptic conspiracy theory. To defeat jihadism, we’d have to kill this narrative.

It is most unfortunate, then, that we’ve instead been feeding it.


VII — THE GREAT CULTURAL SUICIDE BOMB

The jihadist narrative — transmitted via social media, conspiracy theory websites, and most of all, word of mouth — uses unscholarly readings of Islamic texts and uninformed readings of the news to depict the West as a depraved, megalomaniacal servant of the Devil, manipulating world events in order to oppress Muslims and bring about a prophesied age of fitnah (strife, chaos) ahead of the Hour.

Normally, a conspiracy theory like this would quickly die out. The reason it hasn’t is that we, the West, have inadvertently played the part that the jihadists assigned us.

Over the past century, the West has lavished upon the Muslim world a significant supply of historical grievances: The Algerian Occupation, The Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the deposition of Mossadegh, the destruction of the al-Shifa plant, the Iraq War, and on and on.

It is not just that these events have made some Muslims angry — it is that they have formed the very core of the jihadists’ prophetic narrative.

The West, by relentlessly meddling in Middle Eastern politics, has given many young and naive Muslims the impression that it is manipulating world events toward some sinister end. It has only bolstered this impression with its numerous acts of perceived aggression, from bombings to arms sales to propping up dictators to drone strikes. Such acts of faceless carnage, combined with a lack of effort to provide a positive context for them, have done more to convince Muslims that the apocalypse is at hand than anything written in the Qur’an.

Most beneficial of all to the jihadist narrative were the wartime Western torture programmes. As the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report shows, the US carried out systematic physical and psychological abuse of Muslims at “black sites” throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some, perhaps many, of the victims were simply picked out at random by a “witness” looking for reward money, such as the taxi driver Dilawar, who was beaten to death by US servicemen and women over a matter of days, despite not being found guilty of a crime [33]. Even allowing for such horrific extremes, the torture programme itself seemed to lack any real strategy, so that it ended up as casual sadism.

In addition to the infliction of physical pain, the torture programme included a policy known as “Pride and ego down”, which involved sexual and religious humiliation. Among other things, prisoners would be stripped naked, leashed like dogs, ridden like donkeys, forced to masturbate, forced to pray to Jesus, forced to wear women’s knickers over their faces [34], anally raped with different objects [35], urinated on, forced to eat from the toilet [36], smeared with fake menstrual blood [37], and used for soldiers’ sexual pleasure while others took photos (victims may have included children) [38]. One policy, designated “invasion of space by a female”, specifically involved male Muslim prisoners being raped and sexually degraded by servicewomen. The purpose of this orchestrated hell was to utterly transgress Muslim principles; the better to break down a prisoner’s sense of self — which is one of the primary aims of any torture programme.

Later, many of the hostages, their bodies broken, their souls desolate, were determined to be innocent and released back into the population, to whisper their stories of hell at the hands of the “evil westerners” who raped and tortured them, seemingly for fun. To make matters worse, pictures emerged of some such atrocities, at Abu Ghraib. We all know the ones — and we should note that there were many others we didn’t see, as the Whitehouse considered them too shocking to ever release.

For jihadists, the Abu Ghraib images were a gift, not only because they caused shock and resentment, but also because they appeared to confirm the prophesies of Western oppression and sexual degeneracy.

It wasn’t just the US’s supposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan that have fed the ISIS narrative. Following the end of both wars, the Western powers approved the wrong candidates to take over power. For Afghanistan, they greenlit Hamid Karzai, who was involved in a string of scandals: among other things, he was involved in electoral fraud, nepotism, the appointment of thugs and criminals [39], and he accepted tens of millions of dollars from both the CIA [40] and MI6 [41] for “services” (MI6 also paid £60,000 to an Afghan conman, thinking he was an important Taliban warlord [42]). News of Karzai’s corruption got around, enabling the Taliban to paint him (not inaccurately) as another Pahlavi-like debauched Western puppet.

Even worse than the West’s careless attitude toward post-war Afghan politics was its nonchalance toward Iraq, which led to the Iran-backed Shia Islamist Nouri al-Maliki becoming president after corruption-fuelled “elections”. Upon his inauguration, he was warmly praised by George W Bush and other US officials, before setting about the systematic oppression of Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, effectively turning them into second-class citizens. His stoking of ethno-religious tensions played a significant role in ISIS’s recruitment programme. Furthermore, like Karzai, he was corrupt: while in office, he reportedly siphoned off £500 billion from the Iraqi treasury [43]. His dishonesty, incompetence, and divisiveness caused him to be regarded by the Sunni jihadists (and even many moderates) as yet another decadent Western puppet, tasked by the kuffar to spread corruption and oppression throughout the Muslim world, in line with prophecy.

The many failures of Maliki were compounded by further mistakes by the West: most notably the disbanding of the Iraqi army, and its replacement with a legion of amateurs. The new “army”, untrained and unorganised, could only crumble when faced with the crazed hordes of thanatophile jihadists at Ramadi. As a result, ISIS managed to steal many high-tech weapons that had been loaned by Western powers to the Iraqi military, and they subsequently said in their propaganda magazine that this was yet another fulfilment of a Qur’anic prophecy, which states:

“Indeed, those who disbelieve spend their wealth to avert [people] from the way of Allah. So they will spend it; then it will be for them a [source of] regret; then they will be overcome.” [44]

It is not just in foreign policy that the US and its allies have fed the prophetic narrative: Western governments have also made serious missteps in domestic affairs. The ill-conceived attempt by the French executive at banning burkhinis in August would not only have done nothing to curb terrorism, it would also have only helped convince moderate Muslims that the West is oppressing them. Fortunately, the law did not pass the courts.

However, some gambits that actually have passed the courts are just as problematic: the UK’s Prevent strategy, which has allegedly resulted in a Big Brother style CCTV network throughout Muslim areas [45], and led to Muslim teachers being “reported for innocuous comments in class” [46], is being used by Islamists in Luton and online to illustrate their tale of victimhood at the hands of the state. Prevent itself is a necessary strategy, and may well have saved us from terrorist attacks, but errors have been committed in its presentation, so that it appears stifling, ham-handed and broad-brush to the group best equipped to fight terrorism: The Muslim community. When I asked Luton locals what they thought of Prevent, they universally derided it as oppressive. Masood told me: “Muslims want to help the government fight terrorism — we see it as our duty — but Prevent gets in the way of that, by taking power out of the hands of community members, and giving it to bureaucrats.”

Unfortunately, Western governments are not the only non-Muslims helping fulfil the jihadist narrative; the public themselves are also to blame. Internet comments are nowadays filled with anti-Muslim bile, and, combined with the aforementioned street attacks on mosques and Muslims, an atmosphere of bullying has developed. Although being bullied is no excuse for joining ISIS, it does help ISIS tell their story of prophesied fitnah.

So, if our recent actions have only helped ISIS’s narrative, how do we break the cycle?


VIII — AFTER SEPTEMBER COMES AKH TAWBAH

Communism only ended as an influential ideology when the Soviet Union failed. Likewise, the end of the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative will require its heroes — ISIS — to fail. A military defeat would show up the jihadist prophecies to be a lie.

More importantly, ISIS must be defeated militarily because at this very moment it is indoctrinating a whole generation of children into its narrative, with the intention of making them West-hating mass-murderers. We know that they are impregnating sex-slaves en masse, in order to bolster their numbers and fulfil a hadithic prophecy of “the slave-girl giving birth to her master” [47]. We also know that they have indoctrination programmes for their young [48]. We’ve seen the pictures of ISIS children beheading hostages. If this is what they are capable of now, imagine the atrocities they will commit when fully grown.

Crucially, however, the military campaign against ISIS cannot be won by the West. Any invasion by non-Muslims of Syria or Iraq would just become another chapter of Western oppression in the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative. Instead, we must support moderate Muslims who are fighting ISIS, like the Kurds and the Iraqi Army (and not Islamic extremist dictators like President Erdogan or King Salman). If ISIS is defeated by moderate Muslims, it will delegitimise them in a way no Western victory could.

Yet, despite the need for a military victory over ISIS, the primary battleground in the fight against jihadism is not Iraq, or Syria, but the Internet. After all, this is not really a war between peoples, but between conflicting narratives — the secular Western narrative vs the prophetic-apocalyptic one. And if we don’t end ISIS’s narrative, then a military victory over it will be hollow and short-lived, as new jihadist groups take its place, with new interpretations of prophecies.

The jihadists’ narrative may be simplistic, but it is extremely well-crafted, drawing on a multitude of sources, from scripture to history to current affairs, and meshing them together into a story that is compelling and easy to understand.

In response, the West has two prominent counter-narratives, one propagated by the political right, and the other by the left.

The left narrative portrays terrorists as a reaction to the oppression of Muslims, either by rich white politicians intent on establishing a neo-colonial occupation in Muslim lands, or by poor white xenophobes intent on defeating multiculturalism.

It is not only wrong, but dangerous, to agree with the extremists that we are to blame for terrorism. It’s exactly what people like al-Baghdadi want to hear. As counter-terrorism campaigner and former extremist Maajid Nawaz ominously writes in his book Radical:

“I watched as our ideology gained acceptance and we were granted airtime as Muslim political commentators. I watched as we were ignorantly pandered to by well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists. How we Islamists laughed at their naïveté.” [49]

Or, as Christopher Hitchens used to say of the West-blaming narrative, “This is masochism, and it’s being offered to you by a sadist”.

We can and should acknowledge that we have made serious mistakes in the Middle East, without condemning ourselves to the role of villain in this narrative.

Another mistake made by the left is to avoid talking about Islamic extremism altogether, out of fear that it might lead to some kind of Kristallnacht for Muslims. However, leftists would be more likely to prevent this if they acknowledged that, while terrorism is not fundamentally Islamic, it does draw on certain regressive schools of thought within Islam, schools which must be criticised by all progressive people, whether liberalist, socialist, or moderate Muslim. The left would also do well to remember that the victims of jihadism are overwhelmingly Muslims.

In stark contrast to the leftist position, the right’s narrative, most vehemently articulated by the emergent subgroup known as the “alt-right”, portrays a West paralysed by political correctness as it is assaulted by evil Muslims who are trying to establish a fifth column in Western countries as part of a theocratic conspiracy to take over the world.

Unlike many on the left, rightists tend to understand the severity of the extremist threat. However, they employ divisive rhetoric that leads to the scapegoating and demonization of all Muslims. We cannot alienate moderates. It is precisely what ISIS wants. We must support the moderates by supporting their counter-narrative that Islam need not be a violent, literalist, medieval apocalyptic religion. If we insist that because the Qur’an contains violence that Islam must therefore be violent, we are discrediting moderate Muslims and legitimising ISIS; in fact, the alt-right and the jihadists, with their insistence that Islam and the West are at war, propagate the very same narrative.

If leftists should remember that most victims of jihad are Muslim, rightists should remember that Muslims — Iraqis, Syrians, and Kurds — are doing the most to physically combat ISIS.

Some on the right may point out that terrorism aside, many Muslims also believe in stoning, child marriages, and punitive amputations. While we may regard such beliefs as repulsive, conservatives and alt-righters must accept that they do not have the right to stop people holding barbaric views about the way society should be run — unless they want to be called “PC brigade” or “Social Justice Warrior” or “Thought Police” — terms they hate so much and often level at the left.

Our constitution compels us to be committed to free expression, which entails letting other people believe things we don’t like (so long as they don’t act on those beliefs). Thus, we mustn’t suppress Islamist ideas, we must confront them head-on, by allowing them into the arena of ideas, where they can be debated, and shown to be inconsistent with logic, justice and compassion.

So, both the left and right counter-narratives are wrong. Generally speaking, the left agree with the jihadists that it is all the West’s fault. The right agrees with the jihadists that the West is at war with Islam. The left wants to suppress all criticism of Islam. The right wants to suppress all of Islam. The left ignores the root problem. The right exacerbates it.

We need a middle-ground between the two extremes, one that neither paints us as the oppressors nor victims of Islam. We need a third narrative. And there is no better narrative than the truth, which is that nothing is ever simple, and no one is an angel or a devil.

The newspapers — the loudest voice in the West — are in the best position to proliferate this counter-narrative. They can assuage the accusations of oppression by pointing out what the West has done right; for instance, saving hundreds of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks from genocide in the 1990s, allowing citizens freedom of culture and religion, and recently appointing a Muslim mayor of one of the largest cities in Europe.

The media must also do more to promote liberal, secular strands of Islam rather than theocratic, apocalyptic ones. Perhaps, instead of sensationalising the actions of ISIS, as the jihadists want us to do, the tabloids could from time to time report on charity work and interfaith action being conducted by moderate Muslims in places like Luton. It might not sell as many papers as “Jihadist psycho-bloodbath!” but it will surely serve society better.

The media gave Anjem Choudary an inordinate amount of airtime because he was entertaining, like a comic book villain. But news should be about views, not view count. And so, for every extremist the papers give a platform to, they should also give a platform to a moderate Muslim scholar, many of whom will be needed to demonstrate that Islam is far more complicated and variegated than what the jihadists and far-right paint it as.

A particularly important school of Islam that is not being given enough publicity is called Islamic modernism. It was founded by Muhammad Abduh, who recognised the compassionate, humanist core of Islam, closer to secularism than authoritarianism, and famously proclaimed that “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”

Islamic modernism is slowly but steadily growing, and it is a direct challenge to the central tenets of Wahhabism — that abrogation is absolute, that the Qur’an is literal and infallible, that hadith prophecies are authentic and refer to the modern age, and that Muhammad’s wartime Sunnah is an ideal to be followed for all times (and not just wartime in 7th Century Arabia).

In order to spread this narrative as widely as possible, Muslim scholars and religious leaders must also do more to engage with non-Muslims. I found that while there were helpful Muslim leaders in Luton, the mosques rarely made an attempt to answer my emails or phone calls, and of those who did, most seemed content to put out blanket statements such as “Islam is a religion of peace”. Imams and Qur’anic scholars would do well to remember that if you don’t define yourself, other people will.

I stand outside Luton Central Mosque as it undergoes refurbishment. Islam will also need renovation.

Whichever way we choose to shape our counter-narrative, it will only be effective if it is honest. To this end, we must always act in line with our values as a rational, free and open society, and never resort to anger, hatred or bigotry, which would only serve jihadist propaganda. While a military defeat of ISIS may be necessary, we will only stop future Muslims becoming jihadists by winning the ideological debate, and we will only do this by showing our opponents that the world is more complex and nuanced than they have been led to believe.

There is an episode within the Qur’an in which Muhammad has a vision of Heaven, known as Mi’raj. Travelling between the “layers of the sky”, Muhammad meets Jesus, Moses, and other Biblical prophets, before ascending to the throne of Allah Himself. Allah instructs the prophet that his followers must pray 50 times a day. Muhammad relays this back to Moses, who says it is too excessive, and that human beings wouldn’t be able to bear it. So Muhammad goes back to Allah, and asks Him to reduce the number of prayers, to lift the burden on humanity, for whom life is already tough. Allah agrees to reduce it to 5 times a day.

The moral of the story, at least to me, is that nothing is simple or set in stone. And if even Allah can be persuaded by discussion, perhaps people can too?



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