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Tom Holland: Scholarly explorer of Salafism (©Channel 4)

When I am at my weakest, first thing in the morning, uncharacteristically kind thoughts enter my defenceless mind. “The BBC isn’t so bad,” I think as the Today programme comes on at 6 am, and tries its best to present balanced and accurate news. “He’s not quite the drooling fool I always assumed,” I continue, as a Tory minister explains government policy.

This woozy tolerance holds until a broadcaster says “so-called Islamic State,” or a politician says “Daesh”, and I wake with a start. “Who do you think you are?” I mutter. “And who do you think you’re fooling?”

The BBC is breaking its own rules and giving us an opinion when it implies that Islamic State is not Islamic. It would not say the “allegedly Liberal Democrats” or the “so-called Democratic Republic of Congo”.  Or if it did, it would have to explain itself.

As for the politicians, Daesh has the small propaganda advantage of reminding Arabic speakers of daes (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and dahes (“one who sows discord”). But it is no help in the game of pretending Islamic State is an illicit name. “Daesh” is just the Arabic abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham — or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Saying “Daesh” to avoid calling Islamic State “Islamic State” therefore calls Islamic State “Islamic State”. Remember, however, that 99 per cent of their audience do not speak Arabic, so the politicians are being as deceitful in their way as the BBC.

Insistent resort to euphemism betrays a deeper anxiety, which comes in two forms. The first is that Western Muslims will join Islamic State unless Western societies tell them it is not Islamic.  As the mixture of criminally and fanatically-minded young men and women attracted to Salafism are unlikely to take any notice of their countries’ leaders and broadcasters, the attempt to deter them seems doomed. More seriously and more creditably, liberal politicians and perhaps the BBC must have noticed the drift of Western conservatism towards extremism. If you look at the Trump campaign or right-wing writing in this country, you everywhere see conservatives failing to make a distinction between Islam and Islamism.  All Muslims now are potential extremists because Islam in all its thousands of forms is extremist, they maintain. The shift away from respectable conservatism is clearest in the US, where mainstream Republicans bend the knee before Trump. Britain is not there yet. Here, right-wing newspapers prepare the ground by announcing that the Vichyssoise Marine Le Pen isn’t really far-right, or that Trump’s critics are worse than the corrupt President. 

The same process we saw on the Left in the last decade is now repeating itself on the Right. Ideas that begin on the extremes — all Muslims are aliens and potentially dangerous threats to Christian Europe, in this instance — move into the mainstream media. Theresa May does not take on the normalisation of prejudice today, just as Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband did not take on the far Left as it grew in influence before 2015. If and when Brexit turns sour, I can see how what’s left of  liberal conservatism will be swamped by the Right’s determination to blame foreigners rather than its own folly and we will have a Tory Corbyn, but this time with the power of the state behind him or her.

Tip-toeing around Islamic State in these circumstances is politically understandable but intellectually indefensible, as Tom Holland’s Channel 4 documentary Isis: The Origins of Violence made clear. I should declare an interest and say that I know and admire Holland, and my admiration grew as I watched his work. Scholarly and sympathetic, he explored the roots of Salafism without compromise. It may be tactless to argue that you can find Koranic authority for treating Jews and Christians as second-class citizens or for massacring and enslaving the “satanic” Yazidis. But the justifications are there in the Koran and versions of Sharia law, even if as, Holland says, the vast majority of Muslims would condemn Islamic State’s “monstrous crimes”.

To say that Islamic State isn’t Islamic in these circumstances  is like saying Opus Dei isn’t Catholic, or ultra-Orthodox Jews aren’t Jewish. It is a propaganda move because they all feast on obscurantist traditions in their religions. It may be a necessary propaganda move for liberal Muslims, Christians and Jews trying to reform their creeds. But for countries at war with Islamic State, not just in the Middle East but on the streets of our cities, it is wishful thinking we cannot afford. 

When you are engaged in a struggle, you have to be clear-eyed about the motives of your enemies. Yet the default mechanism remains to explain away religious totalitarianism by putting it in secular terms we can understand: economics, Western foreign policy, and poverty. Any explanation of apocalyptic religious violence will do as long as it refuses to recognise that totalitarian ideas have a life of their own.

Holland tried to remedy our ignorance by invoking the terror of the French Revolutionaries. He could equally have looked at Communism or fascism. I doubt many of his viewers would have seen the connection. One of the strangest aspects of modern Europe is that although histories of Communism and fascism are everywhere, hardly anyone understands that millenarian ideologies can exist in changed forms now. The apocalyptic belief in a world cleansed of impurity when the kufr are annihilated is not so different from a heaven on earth achieved when the bourgeoisie or the Jews have been slaughtered. You only have to look at the Western-born and educated Muslims who flocked to Syria to see the same messianic spirit, the same belief in the purifying power of violence.  We see it, but we don’t recognise it, let alone understand it. And without understanding we will not be able to fight it.

Holland ended on a gloomy note. Millions of Muslims believe in democracy and human rights, he concluded with words even the BBC might have broadcast. But Holland understands what the BBC does not. Rival traditions in Islam do not take other Muslims’ modernity as a sign of defeat and accept that they are now just “so-called” Muslims, but as a reason to scour their religion clean of such impurities. After the Caliphate in Syria falls, which it will, they will turn their attention to what IS calls the “grey zone” of Muslims living in the West. I am not sure we are ready for them.

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May 25th, 2017
10:05 PM
I had always though the "so-called" aspect of so-called Islamic State, was to emphasis it is not a real state.

May 25th, 2017
4:05 PM
Very good article - I'm sympathetic to lots of this; especially the final paragraphs about the links between millenarian cults where Cohen channels Norman Cohn's seminal In Pursuit of the Millennium. But there is one essential bit of the argument missing; the recognition that in their essence none of the world's great religions are seamless codes but vast lumber rooms of contradictory stuff (Sura of the Sword/No Compulsion in Religion, Eye for an Eye/Turn the other Cheek) etc etc, which their adherents selectivity interpret in vastly different ways according to their own impulses and the spirit of the time and place; crudely put, violent interpretations are begot in violent times, and peaceful ones in peaceful times. I'm not joking. Not the same bits, obviously. But the Koran nonetheless. For more on this see Dennett - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. So of course ISIS has 'something to do with Islam'. I mean, they quote the Koran, right?.... But then so do the authors of the Islamic Karma Sutra and the Islamic Ontology of Pleasure and Wine (I'm not joking.)Not the same verses. Obviously. But the Koran nonetheless. And of course causality runs from ideas to acts as totalitarian ideas have their own vitality as Cohe states. But it is equally true that causality runs the other way from individual and societal conditions to the selective interpretations of religious texts; just as Cohn pointed out re the ultra-violent Christian medieval cults that always emerged and their ideas took wing in times of societal stress; as did Nazism and Bolshevism. Why does this matter? Because it is a trite point that the successful strategy here is to separate the extremists from the mainstream the better to deal with them. There. Is. No. Other. Way. Easier said than done, no doubt. But you sure ain't going to get anywhere if you either deny the links between extremism and some strains of Islamic thought, and equally if you go around condemning Islam across the board as productive of extremism and ignoring societal factors and differing interpretations of Islam - that way lies a clash of civilisations between billions in which there is no victory. This is not appeasement, It is reality. Any successful strategy has to make allies of the biddable and deal with the irreconcilable - not conflate the two. Nuance and complexity in pursuit of such an objective is essential as these are nuanced and complex issues, and is not the same as the sort of refuge in apologism and refusal to face facts Cohen rightly condemns. Instead, it is looking at facts straight, and dealing with them as they are, and not as we might wish them, to identify what compromises might be necessary, and which impermissible, to win this fight.

May 25th, 2017
2:05 PM
Is it really the case that people don't understand this or is it just people are afraid of being vilified for their views which no doubt circulate in the privacy of people's homes? This then begs the question, do British muslims want a relationship with wider British society where they are mollycoddled or treated like children?

May 25th, 2017
8:05 AM
No, we are not, for the simple reason that wishing things away and ignoring the evidence that is staring in your face for the sake of non-existent community cohesion doesn't work. If it's not clear now, it will be clear soon - another Manchester, another 7/7, slowly and painfully we will pay the price for ignorance and delusions...

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