How can we win if we don’t know what we’re fighting against?


Friday 20 November 2015

“Saying it louder and relentlessly is not going to make it true.”

Sam Harris

“Between the apologism of the far Left in this debate … and … the sensationalism of the far Right, the most important thing … is for us to remain level-headed … So let’s remain level-headed and avoid being, I’d say, blinded by our Left eye or popping a blood-vessel in our Right eye because both of those conclusions would render us blind.”

Maajid Nawaz

“The thing I’ve always said is we’ll win when an Islamist who is not breaking the law but is saying horrible and hateful things is treated in the same way that Nick Griffin is treated. That’s when we’ll win.”

Douglas Murray

The terror attacks which took place in Paris on the evening of 13 November have made us again ask why. Most of us don’t understand why Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh – whatever you want to call them) is attacking us. At the moment we are fighting an inexplicable enemy and, therefore, an unwinnable war. Most will have heard of ‘Islamism’ and ‘Jihadism’, but I doubt many know what the words mean or can identify their relevance to this discussion. This is because, currently, terrorist attacks are explained in one of two ways.

It is claimed that either terrorism is a very Muslim problem. So Muslim, in fact, that all Muslims are potential terrorists who comprise a fifth column. Or, the far more popular argument, is that the terrorists were not Muslims because terrorism has no religion and Islam is a religion of peace. The attacks, therefore, must have happened as retaliation for some foreign intervention or because the attackers were nihilists taking advantage of a downtrodden religion. Witness, for example, the unproductive discussion held on Question Time on 19 November. A memorable low-light was an audience member stating with gusto that “I take objection to the fact that we even refer to this terrorist group as ‘Islamic State’. If I call myself a zebra, do you then refer to me as a zebra?” Her remarks were met with applause.

I dare not opine as to whether these are firmly held beliefs or mimicry by those who absorb the words of others and claim them as their own (without fact checking). In recent times ignorance has been frustrating but not a hindrance to intelligent discourse about Islamism. There has been plenty written about it, some of which is superbly detailed, very well explained, and everyone should read – I’m thinking here of Paul Berman, Malise Ruthven, and Fawaz A. Gerges. Given a lack of opposition and ample minds to feed upon, however, the termites have spread far and wide. Simple but totally inadequate, if not outright false, explanations of terrorism have found fertile territory on social media (look, for example, at the #TerrorismHasNoReligion hashtag). Leon Trotsky’s poignant (mis)quote – “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” – has been repeated several times since Paris, and for good reason: war was very interested in Paris that evening. For the benefit of our discussion, I would introduce the Swiftian: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” To my mind, as someone who has grown up in the post-9/11 age, even the post-7/7 age, I see now as good a time as any to rid ourselves of flights of fancy, however comforting they pertain to be, and properly explain what it is we are fighting. What chance do we have of winning if we don’t know exactly what it is we are up against?  Since Paris there has been plenty of talk of extending bombing to Syria, even of boots on the ground. These may well be necessary steps; however, a military victory alone would not rid us of Islamism: only a dual strategy in which emphasis is also placed on an ideological victory can do that. And, before we form a strategy for that intellectual confrontation, we must explain what it is we are up against so that everyone understands.

Islam is a religion which, like all religions, has schisms and divisions within it. There are extreme fundamentalists at one end of a scale and at the other there are the moderates with liberal mindsets. This is comparable to Christianity which is currently split over issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

Islamism is a political movement best described as the desire to impose a version of Islam over society, bringing about an Islamic state (also known as the caliphate). Islamists see the divide between church and state as unnecessary because, they believe, Islam provides answers to any problem. For example, the Koran has rules on taxation. The divide between church and state is a curse from Christianity and the crusader west. It causes religion to become moribund, leading to decadence and immorality – ‘cultural schizophrenia’, as an Islamist scholar, Sayyid Qutb, phrased it.

Not all Muslims are Islamists, but all Islamists are Muslims. Similarly, not all Islamists are Jihadists, but all Jihadists are Islamists. Jihadism is the use of violence in the pursuit of the caliphate. Their use of violence will, according to Jihadists, either awaken all Muslims to convert to the one true Islam and join their cause, or it will cause non-Muslims to turn against the Muslims living among them, thus forcing them to seek refuge in the caliphate. This idea of insiders and outsiders is a part of the central myth of all totalitarian movements: the ur-myth. The ur-myth, as described by Paul Berman in his masterpiece, Terror and Liberalism, is originally found in:

the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine. There is a people of God, St. John tells us. The people of God are under attack. The attack comes from within. It is a subversive attack mounted by the city dwellers of Babylon, who are wealthy and have access to things from around the world, which they trade…

These city dwellers have sunk into abominations. They have been polluted by the whore of Babylon. … The pollution is spreading to the people of God. Such is the attack from within. There is also an attack from without—conducted from afar by the forces of Satan, who is worshipped at the synagogue of Satan. But these attacks, from within and without, will be violently resisted. The war of Armageddon will take place. The subversive and polluted city dwellers of Babylon will be exterminated, together with all their abominations. The Satanic forces from the mystic beyond will be fended off. The destruction will be horrifying. Yet there is nothing to fear: destruction will last only an hour. Afterward, when the extermination is complete, the reign of Christ will be established and will endure a thousand years. And the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.

One can identify the roles certain groups played in Hitler’s or Stalin’s ur-myth. For Islamism the people of God are those who believe in the one true Islam. The Babylonian city dwellers are Muslims who do not. The role of the satanic forces at the gate is played by the crusader west, with a special hate kept aside for the Jews. Islamists long for a caliphate but state that the time for action will become readily apparent. Jihadists try to force Armageddon and resurrect the caliphate sooner.

Until the Paris attacks there used to be a pretty clear division between two sides of Jihadism. On one was al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda believed in striking the satanic forces, the far enemy, the crusader west, first. On the other side, ISIS created an Islamic state before all else to convince other Muslims to join their cause. This would render them in a stronger position to tackle the near enemy, the city dwellers. After defeating or converting the near enemy, they would take on the west, forcing Armageddon. The Paris attacks show how ISIS has changed tactics. This is a move likely born out of desperation because the city dwellers have not been defeated, nor are they rising up to join en masse.

To recapitulate, Islamists want an Islamic state. Jihadists use violence to achieve this end. All Jihadists are Islamists, but not all Islamists are Jihadists. All Islamists are Muslims, but not all Muslims are Islamists. For those who didn’t have a clue, I hope that helped.


Islamism is a far trickier concept to understand than preconceived notions of ‘all/no Muslims are terrorists’. Not appreciating the difference between Islam and Islamism, between Muslims and Islamists, however, leads one into mental paralysis. What’s more, one ends up both enabling Islamists and shutting down liberal Muslims.

By saying that the attacks had nothing to do with Islam, that terrorism has no religion, one is being blind to the differences between the varying schools of Islam. This forces all Muslims into a ‘bloc Islam’ and a picture is painted of a single united ‘Muslim community’, rather than communities. Identity politics and cultural relativism feature, which, in turn, plays into the hands of Islamists who claim that they speak for Islam and by definition all Muslims. By pigeonholing and putting Muslims in their box, one delegitimizes moderate Muslims who are fighting against the sexism, homophobia and bigotry of the Islamists, and instantly awards that same sexism, homophobia and bigotry the title of ‘culturally sensitive’. We cannot comment because it is their religion and anything said against it is ‘Islamophobia’ – “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.

What begins with a desire to protect Muslims from a perceived backlash of anti-Muslim bigotry ends up hurting the very people they had intended to keep safe. By not recognising that there is more than one Islam, the non-violent Islamists who live in our society end up being the winners. They are the ones who speak of the Muslim community and get asked to appear on television and write newspaper op-eds ‘from a Muslim perspective’. This is pandering to a minority within a minority. And, when the minority asks to suppress the majority because ‘it is their religion’, the enablers say go ahead, and ignore the pleas of liberal Muslims.

By going to the other extreme and saying that all Muslims are terrorists, then one is, without a doubt, a bigot who is destined to live in either constant fear of Muslims or will end up being one of those arseholes who takes the law into their own hands and attacks a person doing the groceries because they look like a Muslim. This harms liberal Muslims as well because anything they do – anti-extremism and de-radicalisation programmes, for example – must really be nefarious. The liberals should be good Muslims and live up to the stereotype of the angry, shouting Muslim who protests at the smallest incitement. This is a very narrow worldview and is, if anything, more toxic than its popular antithesis.

Of course, repeatedly saying that terrorism has no religion or is all religion does not make it true. Islam is neither a religion of peace, nor a religion of war. The attacks did not have everything to do with Islam, nor did they have nothing to do with Islam. They had something to do with Islam. The idea that Jihadism is an offensive, violent struggle against impurity in the world (rather than an internal, spiritual struggle) was argued by people like Qutb in the 1950s and 60s. The idea of ‘aesthetic terrorism’ – that a terror attack is more of a statement when more people are killed and that who was killed does not matter as much – goes back to the anarchism of the 19th century. These ideas are old, but we’re now in an age where – apparently – one can get hold of Kalashnikovs or AK-47s with apparent ease, so it is damn important that we understand what we’re up against so that we can form a plan and start putting it into action. Blinding your Left eye or popping a blood vessel in your Right is asinine.


The two major European totalitarian movements of the 20th century – fascism and communism – were defeated in different ways. Fascism took hold of several nations, the foremost of which were Italy and Germany, and a combination of events delegitimized it. The crushing defeat of the Axis powers in the Second World War was one factor, the other was the Holocaust. The cold, calculated nature of mechanised killing – the pinnacle being Auschwitz – mars fascism for the foreseeable future.

Communism took longer to discredit. When man has a chance to cheat the system, more often than not he will. The communist system provided the opportunity for the powerful to exploit the weak. The promise of economic equality being replaced by the concept that “some animals are more equal than others” was only the beginning. Stalin’s Great Terror and forced starvation of the Ukraine exhibited how truly inhumane the system had become. Eventually, after being pulled into an economic game of chicken with the west, the communist house of cards collapsed and, when the Iron Curtain fell, the secrets of the inhumanity poured out.

Unfortunately, we don’t have time to grind Islamism down through economic power, and we cannot afford a Third World War and genocide like that of the Holocaust. We need a different way of showing that Islamism is an inhumane, immoral, futile project.


The problem is that for a long time journalists and politicians have suffered from the same senseless jabbering in the aftermath of an attack as is seen on Facebook and Twitter. Remember George W. Bush after 9/11? Tony Blair after 7/7? They both said that Islam is a religion of peace, or that the attacks had nothing to do with Islam, or that the terrorists were operating in the name of Islam. It is disheartening to note that we have so much work to do.

That being said, we are making progress. It’s just so damn slow. On 14 November, fewer than 24 hours since the attacks in Paris, Newsnight, the flagship news programme of the BBC, broadcast a special show live from the French capital. I hope that it will be remembered for the closing remarks of Emily Maitlis, the presenter.

“Well no one expected to see attacks here, on the same city, twice in one year. We were here in January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. And what’s striking is how we tried to make sense of them then. Was it, we asked, about press freedom? Was it about satire? Was it about causing offence? The answer, in the light of what’s happened here now, is clearly, no. This is a war on all our culture and all our countries. And it almost certainly won’t end here in France.

I’ve always been one to take a person at their word, so I read Maitlis’ statement with optimism: hopefully the BBC are beginning to gather that we’re not fighting a religion, nor are we fighting extreme literary critics.

In politics, the ruling Conservative Party appear split on the issue. After many years of unhelpfully stating that Islam is a religion of peace, David Cameron – finally – named Islamism as the problem in a speech earlier this year. In doing so he admitted, correctly, that Islamism has something to do with Islam. Not nothing, not everything, but something. In the wake of the attacks in Paris, the Prime Minister gave a superb speech in which he said that “it is not good enough to say simply that Islam is a religion of peace and then to deny any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists.” These are all steps in the right direction. A few days ago, however, the home secretary Theresa May declared that the attacks “have nothing to do with Islam.” So there appears to be diverging opinions within Britain’s most informed party on the threat of Islamism.

The Tories are ‘informed’ because it is a mess outside of government. There are those who believe that Islamic State is not an Islamist death cult and that, like rational human beings, it will listen to reason. The Green Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Tony Clarke, said after Paris that “the weapon these terrorists fear most of all [are] peace talks.” I don’t have a direct line to Raqqa, but I’m almost certain that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t afraid of peace talks. In fact, I’m pretty certain they don’t even register on his radar. The premis of peace talks is that compromise is possible. There can be no compromise with Islamism – it is Islamic State or bust. Nonetheless, imagining a summit meeting between Natalie Bennett and Baghdadi will make me chuckle for some time.

I make light of the Green Party, but at least they have a plan. It’s ridiculously impractical, but it’s a plan nonetheless. The Labour Party is too busy arguing with itself to form a cogent sentence. Jeremy Corbyn entertains fantasy when he declares that it would have been better to arrest Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. Jihadi John. Well, yes, Jeremy, but would you have authorised Special Forces operations in Syria, immediately putting British people in immense danger? I doubt it somehow. On the topic of Islam, the unctuous MP for Leicester East, Mr. Keith Vaz, decided on 12 November that reintroducing the blasphemy law should appease those speaking for the ‘Muslim community’, a.k.a. the Islamists. The Liberal Democrats do not have a policy worth speaking of, neither does the SNP, the leader of which, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated a few months ago that if she was in charge she would avoid military action in Syria and instead seek a democratic one. Sturgeon sitting down with Baghdadi and Bashar al-Assad? That’s even more laughable than Clarke’s idea. Maybe they can find common ground over a hatred of Westminster?

Some think-tanks are doing great work and it would be remiss of me not to mention the Quilliam Foundation, which continues to impress. Nonetheless, the wheels of change are moving very slowly. Hopefully you see what we are up against. Politicians and the media are beginning to perceive the problem of Islamism, but I worry that we will end up with a ‘military only’ strategy to deal with Islamic State, or, worse, no strategy at all. If you take anything away from this article I sincerely hope that it is an understanding of the differences (and the similarities) between Islam, Islamism and Jihadism. If we, the people, learn what we’re fighting then we will drag the politicians and the media along with us. Once we reach a consensus based on fact, not desire, we can write a coherent strategy which illustrates that Islamism is as rancid as fascism and communism.


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