When Faith Becomes a Political Force
© 2009 FrontLine Security (Vol 4, No 1)

Muslims should be prepared to kill "every single person on earth, in order to eradicate shirk." (idolatory)

These are the words of Abu Sulayman, one of Britain’s lesser known radical website preachers. The most pressing threat from terrorism is the risk of attack from those who accept violence as a legitimate tool for bringing about what they believe to be a divinely ordained end. The more insidious threat from Islamist extremists, however, is that which arises from political activities within Western democracies which aim to transform them into components of an Islamic empire. This is a threat which has largely gone unchecked by counter-terrorism strategies ­hitherto focused on those who preach and participate in militant jihadism. As extreme as this sounds, there is no denying the fundamentalist message which drives the ambitions of Islamists.

Iraqi Shia Muslims walk with their families to Najaf, Iraq as part of the Arba'een pilgrimage.

"… we one day want to see in the UK the black flag of Islam over Ten Downing Street."

While the threat is particularly acute in the UK because of demographic factors, no secular democracy should underestimate the threat to its institutions and values posed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran and the political and militant activities it enjoins. Believers are called upon to restore Allah’s sovereignty on earth and achieve final victory in the historic struggle between the ‘Party of God’ and the ‘Party of the Devil’ (those who are not followers of Islam). The path to this victory is the practice of a puritanical form of Islam which Islamists claim accords with the pious ways of the Salaf – the first generations of Muslims.

The real threat in this absolutist view of human history and its vision for the future lies in the idea that the man-made laws of nation states should be subservient to an historical interpretation of divine law, or Shari’a. While there are strategic differences in the variants of Salafist ideology … militant, political and apolitical … they share the same ambition: the demise of any the supremacy of God’s law in the world.

When believers are convinced that their acts are sanctioned, if not demanded, by the highest authority, there is no room for accommodation or debate with others. The fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, with all its certitude and zealotry, has led some to perceive the religious ideology of Islam as totalitarian and fascist, with practices, the treatment of women for example, as contrary to the cultural traditions, if not the laws, of secular democracies. The term Islamo-fascism has come to be associated with such views and is used, both by the populist right and sections of the liberal left, to denote intolerant if not fanatical actions and behaviour.

The term also alludes to the disposition of Muslim extremists to believe in conspiracies, in particular, that the Jews are plotting to achieve world mastery. The irrational fears and the tendency to victimhood, which feed such distorted views of world events, have recently found expression at York University and in other campus demonstrations, ostensibly held to ‘debate’ Israeli/Palestinian issues. These have escalated into ideologically-driven opportunities to express hatred of the Jews under the guise of opposition to Zionism. Dangerous new alliances are forming such as that between anti-Israel evangelical Christians and radical Muslim groups.

The threat to secular democracies is clear but should not be overstated. The most effective means of countering it is to give support to Muslims whose interpretation of Islam is more tolerant and less ­confrontational. Although recent legislation has had the effect of curbing the jihadists’ ability to incite violence in many countries, a new generation of ­political extremists, widely dispersed and infiltrated within Muslim communities, have been doing their best to stifle any doubts or criticism of the fundamentalist narrative. How much comfort can we draw from the fact that the ‘vast majority’ of Muslims reject this narrative?

The reluctance of orthodox or mainstream Muslims to condemn the activities and behaviour of extremists no doubt stems from ambiguities and divisions within Islam itself which can expose moderates to the charge of being critical of the Salaf and disloyal to the Muslim ummah. Nevertheless, Islamists, whose creed is that no society is legitimate unless it imposes shari’a, will continue to draw strength from their silence just as Sinn Fein and its armed wing, also a ‘small minority,’ once did in Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, when moderates do condemn violence or proclaim their commitment to peaceful coexistence and the rule of law, some counter-jihadists ­suspect that they are merely practicing “taqiyah” – a policy of dissimulation to hide their real feelings.

The suspicion is that mainstream Muslims are merely choosing a pragmatic expedient until such time as they are no longer a minority living among the ‘infidel’ majority in the West. Whereas the fundamentalist agenda requires the populations of Western states to convert to Islam or accept subservient or ‘dhimmi’ status, the longer term ambitions of moderates are more obscure especially as they become majority populations in many European cities. Will peaceful coexistence continue to be their modus vivendi?

Melanie Phillips, author of ‘Londonistan,’ fears that multiculturalism is leading the slide into ‘dhimmitude,’ while highly respected Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis, claims that government policies, vis a vis the extremists, amount to an ‘appeasement’ comparable to Chamberlain’s deal with Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Programmes designed to combat violent extremism have empowered and paid extremists on grounds that only they have the credibility to speak for and influence militants. Critics suggest that such anomalies, which undermine the Muslim majority, arise from misguided political correctness and multicultural policies which constrain how officials describe, monitor and engage in issues concerning minority ethnic communities. As a consequence, in countries like Canada, political Salafists have been free to pursue their subversive agenda unchecked – an agenda which includes encouraging believers to distance themselves from their infidel secular hosts and to refrain from participating in democratic ­organizations and institutions. They argue that the requirements of Islam are incompatible with democracy and undermine policies designed to build social cohesiveness.

Last year, Fatima Houda-Pepin, Canada’s first elected Muslim woman politician, expressed dismay at the spread of the fundamentalists’ interpretation of Islam and its harsh ideology. She referred to the indifference of Canadian authorities to extremism and to the vulnerability of moderate Muslims who were scared to confront the “Islamists.” That indifference and the ignorance of authorities, she claimed, is allowing militant radicals the freedom to impose religious and cultural apartheid on their communities while presenting themselves as their representatives. It was, she said, the perceived failure of authorities to recognize and combat this subversive influence which was giving rise to the concerns of counter-jihadists.

Sleep-walking to Segregation
The lack of a fundamental understanding of the factors which lead to ethnic enclaves led Trevor Phillips, the UK Commissioner for Racial Equality, to suggest that the UK was “sleep-walking its way to segregation.” He was not speaking principally about Muslims, but they have become the most dominant ethnic minority in British society and there is concern that such enclaves are rapidly being defined and isolated by Islamic values, education, politics, religious practices and law. A multitude of shari’a councils and courts exist to deal with family issues, and are creating an unofficial parallel legal system. Critics argue that multi-culturalism has indirectly facilitated separatism, thereby assisting extremists in their aim to transform the UK into part of an Islamic empire.

Influence which the Muslim lobby exercises over government policy-making, and demands by activists that Islam be accorded a special place within mainstream secular society, has given rise to unease on several counts. Ontario’s recent flirtation with the notion of where Sharia Law might apply, and statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the same matter are examples. Another is the public funding of Muslim organizations which often lack accountability and turn out to be supportive of extremist views. Tareq Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, has highlighted the dangers of funding groups that, under the guise of multiculturalism, promote a foreign policy agenda which is detrimental to Canada.

Free Speech
A liberal society by definition enshrines the right of dissent, and the freedom of speech and assembly. Curtailing those rights in order to counter threats to public safety, secular values and the rule of law entails a compromise yet the liberal impulse is to acknowledge that freedom of speech cannot be an absolute right but must be tempered by criminal law where the lives and well-being of people are at stake and there is a ‘clear and present danger.’

While extremists are assiduous in claiming the protections of free speech and human rights for themselves, they are unwilling to extend the same rights to others. The stridency of their demands and their refusal, within a free society, to allow any criticism of Islam has often been expressed through organized demonstrations and threats of violence rather than ­traditional democratic channels. This has polarized the issues and inhibited serious political debate.

The following snapshot accounts illustrate types of actions labeled as ‘Islamo-fascist’ and correspond­ing responses which have given rise to concern.

In 2005, Islamist fundamentalists orchestrated world-wide riots in response to a satirical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. Claiming that the images were blasphemous, they ­successfully organized mass Muslim support despite threats to bomb the paper’s offices and kill the ­cartoonist.

In 2007, Cambridge University Press destroyed unsold copies of the book ‘Alms for Jihad’ after being sued by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi-Irish business­man whom the book accused of financing al-Qaeda.

In February 2009, the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), an organization supported by federal and provincial funding, was accused of promoting hatred of Israel, defending terrorist groups and engaging in propaganda for one side in the Middle East conflict – branding anyone backing a ‘two-state’ solution in Palestine a traitor to the Muslim cause. Rather than serving as a voice for Arabs of all nationalities and ideologies within Canada, it appears to be a mouthpiece for Hamas and Hezbollah. Among other unacceptable comments, CAF’s president has called Canada’s Immigration Minister a “professional whore.” The government may now carry out a review of the federal funding which supports such venomous views, but any back-pedalling will be seen as weakness.

That same month, the exclusion of Dutch MP and film-maker Geert Wilders from the UK on grounds that his admission would “threaten community harmony and therefore public security,” has disturbed both pundits and public alike. Wilders had been invited by members of the House of Lords to give them a private showing of his short film entitled Fitna. The film, tracing a direct link between certain verses of the Quran and violent acts of terrorism, is available on the internet. This censorship of a message critical of Islam through the abrogation of the right of free speech was seen by many to be detrimental and clear evidence of the power of the Muslim lobby which had threatened demonstrations. In other words, the government-caved in to a form of blackmail. A less critical interpretation sees the exclusion as a pragmatic move aimed at establishing consistency against a future need to debar Islamist extremists.

To call the Quran “fascist” as Wilders has done, is needlessly offensive, but to say that some of its teachings, taken literally, are unacceptable in the UK or any democracy, is merely to report a fact. There is no denying that certain verses in the Quran advocate violence and that these contradict earlier verses which are tolerant and peaceable. The real issue, and one that is consequential to social cohesiveness, is the basis on which moderate Muslims choose to interpret Islam.

British Government policy in the Wilders case has been contrasted with its robust defence of free speech in 1989 when the publication of the book ‘The Satanic Verses’ led to violent demonstrations against Salman Rushdie and his publisher and the issue of a fatwa authorizing Rushdie’s murder. These actions were justified by Muslim extremists and moderates alike on grounds that they deemed the book to be offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.

In March, Islamist demonstrators in Luton, a city in southern England, barracked a parade of soldiers returning from Iraq. Their banners carried slogans such as “Muslims Rise Against British Oppressors,” “murderers,” “butchers” and “Soldiers go to Hell.” While Muslims have defended their right to conduct what they describe as an ‘anti-war’ protest, the real purpose of the demonstration has been called into question, not least because it was organized by a group linked to al-Muhajiroun banned for ‘glorifying terrorism.’

Muslim extremists used the guise of an anti-war demonstration to further their own agenda – waging a political war against an open secular society which is antithetical to its view of the world. Mainstream British Muslim opinion is not represented by the Luton demonstrators, but it has been evident from subsequent interviews and commentary that the nuances of acceptable legitimate protest in a democratic country and the grossly offensive nature of these protests were little understood.

The right to protest is a precious one, and there is general agreement that the police had little option but to allow the demonstrators to picket the parade and express views, provided they did not cross the line of criminality. The only people arrested at Luton were members of the public that had turned out in support of the soldiers and who, in their rage, had thrown objects at the pickets.

As The Times pointed out, the disaffection felt by groups that seek the overthrow of the State, and campaign for the defeat of Western forces in battle, is more than dissent and the liberal State is entitled to defend itself.

In February this year, following violent demonstrations by a group of Muslims, the editor and publisher of a major Indian newspaper ‘The Statesman,’ were arrested for “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims after they reprinted an article from the British Independent newspaper entitled “Why should I respect oppressive religions?” The editor stood by his decision saying that he would rather cease publication with honour than compromise the basic principle of upholding secular values and providing space to all viewpoints, even contentious ones. The author, Johann Hari, said he believed the right to criticise any religion was being eroded around the world.

Demonstrations are clearly designed to stifle any criticism but the readiness of Islamists to avail themselves of human rights protections to silence opposition is also a cause for concern. Critics maintain that such provisions are being deliberately exploited by Islamists and that court rulings on human rights cases are out of touch with this reality.

The Canadian Islamic Congress brought a human rights complaint last year against Mark Steyn, a Canadian journalist, on grounds that an article he wrote for Maclean’s magazine in 2006 entitled ‘The Future Belongs to Islam’ contributed to Islamophobia and promoted societal intolerance towards Muslim, Arab and South Asian Canadians. Steyn denounced the ruling against him as comparable to that of an apparatchik in a police state finding a citizen guilty of dissent from state orthodoxy.

A blow was struck for free speech in March when the Supreme Court at The Hague acquitted a man of insulting Muslims although he had dubbed Islam “a tumour.” In deciding that “insulting Islam is not insulting Muslims,” the Supreme Court found that people expressing themselves offensively about a religion are not automatically guilty of insulting its followers, even if the followers feel insulted.

In March, Islamist demonstration in Luton, southern England baracked a parade of soldiers returning from Iraq.

The ruling will have consequences for all future court cases which concern alleged insults to followers of a faith or ideology, including that of Geert Wilders. Islamists will take comfort from the fact that whereas the Public Prosecutor’s Office originally stated that none of Wilders’ statements constituted a punishable offence and therefore prosecution was not warranted, in January an Appeal Court in Amsterdam reversed that decision on grounds that his film was an incitement to hatred and discrimination. Public figures and private citizens who hold views which some Muslims deem to be ‘offensive’ are on notice that they leave themselves open to mass protests, prosecution on human rights grounds and possible violent retribution. The concern is that the net effect of self-censorship in response to such threats will be to enhance the power and influence of extremists.

Drawing the Line
Those who speak of the fascist nature of Islam are referring to attempts by extremists to impose their perverse ideology onto mainstream Muslims and intimidate critics in Europe and across the Western world into a passive acceptance of their demands. Governments stand accused of appeasing if not promoting political extremists as a counterweight to the influence of militants. Many perceive that excessive ­concern for political correctness and public safety constrains officials from defending secular values at the very time when fundamentalists are aggressively seeking to undermine them.

The perceived failure of governments to respond effectively to this threat is fueling potential extremism from the counter-jihadist lobby which views Islam as an ideology, and all Muslims as a threat to Western societies. Islamophobia is on the rise, and with it the risk that Muslim extremists will win further tacit ­support from the moderate majority.

At the recent Quebec trial of a propagandist for al-Qaeda, the defence claimed that in making available online ideological and recruiting materials, his client was merely exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion. Mr. Said Namouh was said to have been driven by a fervent faith to portray as enemies Christians, Jews and other Muslims who did not share his desire for pan-Islamic rule. Accepting that Mr. Namouh’s activities might appear repugnant to some, the defence nevertheless posed the question, “where do you draw the line?” Where indeed! Somewhere, it is to be hoped, between the extremes of Islamo-fascism and Islamo-phobia.  

Angela Gendron was a former intelligence professional in the UK. She is now a Senior Fellow at the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Buckingham in England.
© FrontLine Security 2009