We have become fixated on violence as a key counter-extremism policy determinant, but it is not the only thing that matters.
Ideology is politically purposeful. When I was asked by then UK Prime Minister David Cameron in early 2014 to undertake what became known as the Muslim Brotherhood Review, I made it clear that I would approach the matter as a history not simply of events but of an ideology.
That was at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its affiliates elsewhere were particular objects of concern because of the Arab Spring and its discontents.
Yet this concern never produced policy coherence: governments are bad at dealing with complexity.
They have since been faced with the more urgent challenge of mutating and often violent exclusionary Salafisms, which have adopted decontextualised and dehistoricised versions of jihad, takfir and al-wala wal bara that support claims to absolute jurisprudential and — in the case of Isis — legitimately prophetic caliphal authority over Muslims everywhere.
This authority is supported by a selective, restrictive, literalist bricolage of Islam’s foundational texts, particularly the Quran and certain Hadith, but also the works of canonical scholars.
This has been matched by a change in the way such issues are studied in the policy community — a shift towards the measurable. The role of social media, complex individual paths to radicalisation and the socio-economic discontents at the roots of the attraction of such movements for ordinary people in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere have become major objects of study. Such data-driven work has helped define the policy challenges for governments.
This is valuable. But a focus on micro-level distinctions has tended to divert attention from the underlying challenge that the basic ideology of Islamism — common to all its forms — poses to the international and domestic state order. It has also given an opening to those who claim that socio-economic oppression is the root of all radicalisation and that the ideological threat comes instead from Western and other attempts to combat it.
In parallel, policymakers have become fixated on violence as a key policy determinant. The violence is real and undoubtedly needs a robust and proportionate response, which incorporates effective legal, intelligence, policing, societal and, in some cases, military activity. But violence is not the only thing that matters.
All forms of Islamism, from the Muslim Brotherhood onwards, have had a theory of physical force and have applied violence in pursuit of their aims. The important point is whether this violence is tactical — designed to be deployed at times of maximum political opportunity against defined targets — or integral to the performance of a movement, as it has seemed to be with Isis. Even when it is performative, however, violence still serves an ideological purpose.
This ideology is triumphalist, totalitarian and apocalyptic. It is founded in revelation, not reason. And however much its proponents may claim to exercise forms of reasoning in interpreting sacred texts, these texts are closed to the sort of foundational interrogation that lies at the heart of liberalism, derived inter alia from late Roman and Germanic secular law, Augustine’s two cities, mediaeval Aristotelianism, Renaissance humanism, the scientific revolution and natural rights theory.
This is the precise opposite of the Islamist conception of history as a cyclical process that leads a select few to salvation through the establishment of an exclusive community of the just.
And that seems to be a problem. Observers as different as Graeme Wood and David Thomson have drawn attention to this issue through their work on the ideational basis of what is loosely called Salafi-jihadism, and they have been roundly attacked for it. Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy have fought a fierce if highly entertaining war of words in the French press.
And it may be one of the reasons there is once again in the UK a move in central and local government, the police and the counter-terrorism community to reconsider the decisions by previous governments not to engage with organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain and Mend. Associated with this is a push by some in the British parliament to sponsor a comprehensive definition of Islamophobia, supported by such groups. This would make critical debate about such matters far more difficult.
This debate will characteristically draw attention to the dismissive attitude of many jihadis towards the Muslim Brotherhood. But jihadis fall out with each other constantly over points of doctrine, illustrating their own regard for ideology. It also ignores the ideological commonalities — especially through Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb — between the shared ultimate destination and the observable Muslim Brotherhood genealogies of many prominent theorists and practitioners of jihadi violence. That does not look like a firewall: it looks like an osmotic membrane.
There is a foreign policy dimension to this, too, which policymakers seem to need to relearn every decade or so, going back indeed to the 1930s.
It is a mistake to think that hard and fast lines can be drawn between violent Islamist ideologues who aim to implement sharia and establish a caliphate through vanguardist brutality, on the one hand, and pragmatic Islamist ideologues who seek to implement sharia and establish a caliphate through a Gramscian war of manoeuvre, on the other.
In doing so, policymakers risk misconstruing the positions that some in the region — including the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia since at least the 1990s — have taken against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.
These positions are at least partly a response to the ideological challenge to governments’ efforts to develop security-based and highly nationalist states. It is also a challenge to their efforts to grow their economies through a managed engagement with the global economy.
For their critics, they are simply unreconstructed authoritarians who suppress all dissent and call it Islamism. Yet they have the evidence of the disasters of Islamist rule on their doorsteps: in Egypt after 2011, in Sudan since the 1980s and, most particularly, in Iran since 1979.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei translated Qutb; and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reads Qutb, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (an epiphanic Shia analogue to the Brotherhood’s founding father Hassan al-Banna and Qutb) and the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Ummah ideologue, Abdullah al-Nafisi, for pleasure.
Former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was close to Fedaian-e Islam, a Shia version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Nizam Khaass. Hizb al-Dawa, which emerged from clerical circles in Najaf after 1958, was modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood and spread similarly. These show ideological continuities and the mechanisms of transmission in a different light.
This is emphatically not an argument in favour of proscription or mass-arrests. Nor is it an excuse for assassinations or the persecution of academics. Proscription does not answer the arguments of Islamists, nor does it stop terrorism. Mass-arrests criminalise dissent and undermine the rule of law. Assassinations are punishable crimes. Academic freedom underpins liberty. It is also not an argument that all these states are going about the task of constructing a form of secular resilience particularly well.
But the challenge is real. What policymakers need is realism about the ideological sources of the challenge posed by all forms of Islamism, a renewed effort to understand Islamism more fully than they seem to at the moment, and a far more robust defence of the liberal ideas — rooted in the separation of church and state and the moral, ethical and legal autonomy of the individual within a secular not a sacralised community — that underpin Western socio-political systems.
It is a profound ideational as well as a security challenge. Governments are better at policing and intelligence. Societies are resilient. Militaries are capable — though they are not the long-term answer.
What is lacking is a structure for combining expertise across government into a collective policy resource to defend the liberal idea of the state. Instead, policymakers operate on a day-to-day, reactive and often disaggregated basis. If we take ideology seriously, as we should, then that needs to change.
Sir John Jenkins is Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former diplomat. This article was originally was written for the The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change as part of a collection of essays titled ‘Extremism in 2019: New Approaches to Facing the Threat’