How Muslim Extremists Exploit European Liberalism
Islamism and Salafism have become part of Europe’s Muslim landscape, affecting its hues and shape.
Coming on the heels of the Manchester terror attack targeting British youth, the recent terrorist act in London is the last in a series of attacks across Europe that displayed the eerie savagery of violence carried out in the name of Islam. The Islamic State claimed credit and proclaimed that a detachment of its fighters carried out the terror attack. British prime minister Theresa May condemned the attack and assertively declared that “enough is enough.” She vowed to undertake a sweeping review of Great Britain’s counterterrorism strategy, even though the British security apparatus has formidable surveillance and security laws. This provoked a national debate about balancing civil liberties and security.
The problem, however, goes beyond fending off terror acts or revising counterterrorism strategies. The problem is about how to reverse decades-long policies of promoting unbridled multiculturalism that allowed the ideologies of Islamism and Salafism to permeate an inchoate European Muslim society, thereby militating against the creation of an European Islam free from the ideological baggage exported by conservative and Islamist individuals, groups and governments. The extent to which this problem has been difficult to gauge lies squarely in the haughty—yet self-loathing—contemporary thought of the West, which has prevented a civilized and honest critique of Islam’s inability to reform its perversions.
The earliest presence of Muslims in Great Britain can be traced to British companies recruiting foreign cheap labor in the middle of the nineteenth century to work in industrial cities such as London, Liverpool and Woking, where one of the first mosques were built in 1889. Nevertheless, the earliest and largest wave of Muslim immigrants came to Britain after World War II as a labor force from the Indian subcontinent. Commonwealth immigrants benefitted from the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted rights of British citizenship to all. Significantly, race—not religion—came to initially define migration policy, especially after the race riots of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Notably, Britain embraced a relatively liberal citizenship policy and passed progressive legislation to address racial pluralism. The state’s guiding principle had been multiculturalism, which encouraged migrant groups to establish their own organizations and maintain their cultural and religious traditions. Moreover, London issued the Race Relations Act 1976, which prohibited discrimination on “racial and ethnic grounds.” Though the state was silent on religious issues, the history of church-state relations and the state policy of multiculturalism created an environment in which religion as a social movement was directly or indirectly supported by the state.
The crown has maintained a close relationship with the church, expressed in pursuing concerted efforts over political and religious objectives since the sixteenth century. However, constant rivalries and tension among various religious denominations have gnawed at the will of the state to maintain an established church with significant power. Discrimination against religious minorities were eased with the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829 and the Jewish Relief Act in 1858, which granted the members of both religious groups the right to serve in government. These acts virtually superseded the Corporation Act (1661) and the Test Acts (1763), which had excluded Catholics and Jews from political participation.
Since then, the state has tried to minimize interreligious tension by accommodating newly arrived religious groups without extending to them the rights granted to established religions. While not established in principle to address religious issues, the state’s policy of multiculturalism only reinforced the entrenched pattern of accommodating incoming religions. As the Muslim community grew and its various organizations, supported by the state, worked to integrate Islam into the state as an established British religion, the community protested the 1976 Race Relations Act on the grounds that it only protected particular religious minorities (Jews and Sikhs), while leaving other religious groups at the mercy of xenophobes. Moreover, a 1997 report for the government by the think tank Runnymede Trust coined the term “Islamophobia” to describe the nature and extent of anti-Muslim prejudice in Britain. Ironically, the term and its application have been broadly used not only to resist Islamophobes but also to silence those who have been critical of Islamism and Salafism in the growing British Muslim community.
Consequently, the state has made a consistent effort to accommodate Islam as an integral part of Britain’s pluralistic society. No other issue reflects the failure of Britain’s multiculturalism than its approach to education. Though in principle, the Education Reform Act of 1988 is supportive of developing a Christian character in public schools, the state, in practice, encouraged local authorities to take into account the religious makeup of the school population and the wishes of the parents and religious leaders when drawing up syllabi for religious education. The hijab, unlike in France, was never an issue. In fact, Muslims have raised questions about school dress codes for girls, swimming with boys, participating in physical education, provision of halal meat and time off for religious holidays. Broadly speaking, school officials have accommodated Muslim requests. Significantly, Muslims pressed the state to provide Muslim religious schools with funds on par with the public funding given to Anglican, Catholic or Jewish schools.
In 1997, the Labour government approved the first Muslim state primary school, and Prime Minister Tony Blair advocated for a pluralistic faith school system. In September 2012, with much fanfare, the first taxpayer-funded Muslim school, the Al-Madinah School, opened its doors in Derby. The vision of the school (a brand-new Muslim faith school for kids ages four to sixteen) underscored:
A strong Muslim ethos will give the school its uniqueness integrated with shorter holidays and longer school days to maximize opportunities for pupil achievement and success. At the centre of our school is a community of pupils, able to enjoy learning in a caring Islamic environment which promotes a culture of high expectations and outstanding performance.
Before long, the school was embroiled in controversy. The school was accused of allegedly banning fairy tales because they are un-Islamic, forcing female teachers to wear head scarves, making female students to sit in the back of the class away from boys, making girls waiting for boys to get their lunches before they could and outlawing non-halal food.
In response to the outcry of parents, the principal issued a statement responding to what he termed as rumors. He emphasized:
Whenever we interview candidates, we draw their attention to our dress code, which we have based on our interpretation of modesty . . . In Secondary, girls are seated as a group, either at one side of the classroom, or alternately at the front or back of the room . . . Our intention is to respect both genders equally . . . As far as fairy tales and music are concerned . . . They are used sensitively with regard to the cultural aspects of the community.
Surely, the principal’s letter confirmed the unintended consequence of London’s policy of multiculturalism, which created a subculture more in line with a conservative Muslim society in a Muslim state than with the culture of western Europe.
In the meantime, attracted by British multiculturalism and “liberal” pluralistic policies, many Islamist and Salafist individuals and groups migrated to London, which some came to call “Londonistan.” The liberty with which they were allowed to operate allowed them to promote their fundamentalist ideologies in mosques, Islamic circles of learning, Islamic organizations, bookstores and even schools, all of which mushroomed across the country. This is not to say that Islamist extremism has taken hold of British Muslim society. But certainly, this ideological extremism affected a not insignificant segment within the Muslim community, and undermined the creation of a unique brand of European Islam. Broadly speaking, Islamism and Salafism have become part of the Muslim landscape, affecting its hues and shape.
The Islamist and Salafist organizations that have played a key role in radicalizing British youth can be divided as follows.
The Deobandi school of Islam, embraced by Muslims hailing from the Indian subcontinent, originated in Deoband, India. The school emerged as a puritanical, revivalist school of Islam in response to British colonialism. A Deobandi variant was influenced by Wahhabi-Salafi Islam, promoted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both schools strove to purify and cleanse Islam of all foreign influences and to restore it to its pristine form. The theological fusion of Deobandi and Wahhabi Islam in thousands of madrassas in Pakistan during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan gave rise to the Taliban movement. This puritanical school of Islam is still supported by Saudi Arabia.
Mawdudi-inspired Islam, embraced mostly by Muslims from Pakistan, as well as by some Muslims from the Middle East, is a radical school influenced by Abul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi believed in the undisputed sovereignty of God and the comprehensiveness of Islam, embracing both public and private life. He advocated the creation of an Islamic ideal/utopia as determined by God’s divine mandate in the Koran. He is credited with transforming the concept of jahiliyyah, the age of ignorance before God’s message to Muhammad, into a condition that could exist at any time and in any place where the Islamic utopia has not been realized. As such, he split the world between the abode of Islam and the abode of evil, as represented by jahiliyyah.
Muslim Brotherhood–inspired Islam, embraced mostly by Muslims hailing from the Middle East and North Africa, is an activist variant of Islam. It uses religion as a political ideology to mobilize society in order to bring about change in the form of an Islamic society governed by sharia (Islamic law).
Hizb-ut-Tahrir-inspired Islam is a missionary, transnational movement of Islam striving to restore the caliphate as a prerequisite to unify Muslims and apply Islamic law.
The Salafi school of Islam is a puritanical, transnational movement of Islam seeking to create an Islamic utopian state by returning to the authentic beliefs and practices of the first generations of Muslims (the “righteous ancestors”). The ideology of Salafism split into three schools in response to disagreement over the methodology by which to bring about an Islamic state. Quietist Salafists are apolitical, and favor creating an Islamic state by focusing first on Islamic indoctrination and education, based on ridding Muslims of reprehensible innovations (bid’ah) and on a strict interpretation of the Koran and the sunna. This school is represented by the Wahhabi-Salafi religious establishment, and is funded by Saudi Arabia. Activist Salafists assert their claim to politics in response to what they consider the miserable failure of the politics of Arab/Muslim rulers. Their ideology overlaps with that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, jihadi Salafists believe that the establishment of an Islamic state can only come through jihad in the path of Allah, and that quietists and activists are wasting their time. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are Salafi-Jihadi organizations.
In addition to these fundamentalist schools of Islam, several transnational organizations, inspired by these schools, such as Tablighi Jamaat, Jamaat-e-Islami and Al Muhajiroun, have been active in Muslim society. They share the belief that Muslims in the West should not lose their Islamic identity and should identify with Islam, including adhering to its tenets and principles. Al Muhajiroun, similar to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, strives to create a global Islamic caliphate. No less significant, charismatic radical preachers have played a decisive role in promoting these schools of Islam and in radicalizing a significant number of British Muslims. Among the most radicals of preachers are the following:
Abu Qatada, a Salafi cleric and a Palestinian-Jordanian émigré to Great Britain, was considered Osama bin Laden’s ambassador to Europe. He was reportedly a spiritual leader of the Algerian Salafi-jihadi Armed Islamic Group. His sermons attracted terrorist figures such as Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, and his video sermons were found in the Hamburg apartment of Mohamed Atta, leader of the September 11 terror attack. After several unsuccessful attempts, in 2013 the United Kingdom deported him to Jordan, where he was cleared of terrorist charges. In 2016, he released a video on his YouTube account in which he accused the Jews of world domination and asserted that the so-called “Blood libel” against them is true.
Omar Bakri, a Syrian Salafi cleric, played a key role in organizing Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun, which was disbanded in 2004. He underscored Muslim supremacy and promised to “fly the Islamic flag over Downing Street.” In 1999, he called for the murder of Prime Minister John Major. He also justified suicide bombings. He escaped to Lebanon in 2005, whereupon the British government banned him from returning. In 2010, Lebanese authorities sentenced him to life in prison on terrorism charges, but he was released when testimony against him was withdrawn. In 2014, Lebanese authorities sentenced him to six years in prison for supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Egyptian cleric who reportedly lost an eye and an arm in Afghanistan, entered London on a student visa in 1979. In the 1990s he fought alongside the Bosniaks against the Serbs. He was a preacher at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, which was funded by Saudi Arabia. He is a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole. In June 2001 he proposed killing President Bush. He is considered as a spiritual guide for Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”; Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian who attempted to bomb the U.S. embassy in Paris; and Ahmed Ressam, who attempted to bomb Los Angeles Airport at the millennium. Among the worshippers at his mosque were three of the 2005 London bombers. In 2012 Britain finally agreed to extradite him to the United States. Al-Masri was found guilty of supporting terrorism by a court in New York in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison.
Anjem Choudary is a British-born Islamist who, along with Omar Bakri Muhammad, helped organize Al Muhajiroun. Following the closure of Al Muhajiroun, Choudary reportedly helped found couple of Islamist organizations, including Al Ghurabaa, which was subsequently banned. Choudary then became the spokesman for Islam4UK. He vocally criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and lauded the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, and July 7, 2005, terror attacks. He supports the application of sharia in Great Britain. In September 2016, Choudary was sentenced to five years and six months in prison for his support of the Islamic State. Khuram Shazad Butt, a perpetrator of the London terror attack in June 2017, was associated with Al Muhajiroun.
Taken all this under consideration, it is safe to argue that Islamist and Salafist organizations and preachers have exploited Britain’s liberal pluralistic policies to entrench their ideologies in a segment of the Muslim community. These Islamist and Salafist organizations are transnational missionary movements that have been active in various European capitals. Significantly, Islamists and Salafists have been successful not only in promoting their extremist ideologies but also in undermining the fealty of Muslim youth to their homelands. This absence of loyalty, coupled with the incubation of the Islamist and Salafist triumphalist ideology in the minds and hearts of Muslim youth, has emotionally and psychologically detached radicalized Muslim youth from their British non-Muslim compatriots. They became the sinful, infidel others, whose fate should be murder. What other explanation can one posit for the drivers who indiscriminately plowed their cars into innocent people along London Bridge and Nice’s Promenade des Anglais? This lethal line of separation, where “you” is Britain and “we” is the Muslims, was put on full display by a posthumous videotape featuring British-born Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 2005 London terror bombing:
Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood . . . Therefore, we are going to talk to you in a language you understand . . . We are at war and I am a soldier. Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our target. Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight.
Ominously, London, like other European capitals, has been complacent in curbing the missionary activities of Islamist and Salafist organizations, which dissociate themselves from violence yet promote the ideological path to violence. A cursory look at the ideological affiliation of mosques in Great Britain betrays the widespread of Islamist and Salafist mosques, even though their numbers pale in comparison to mainstream mosques. Out of a total of approximately 1,800 mosques and prayer halls, 754 are Deobandi (bearing in mind that not all Deobandi mosques adopt a fundamentalist version of Islam), fifty-one Mawdudi-inspired, 121 Salafi and eight Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood). No less significant, a significant number of these mosques have a capacity of over three thousand, making them not only large religious venues, but also central for social and cultural activities.
No wonder, many Muslim Europeans have gone to Syria to fight within the ranks of ISIS and sister Salafi-jihadi organizations. By the same token, ISIS and Al Qaeda have found within Muslim Europe’s community a fertile and receptive environment to disseminate through social media their theological views, to publicize and justify their actions on Islamic grounds, and to recruit European Muslims. In fact, both ISIS and Al Qaeda have been adept at using social media and transforming it into a virtual, transnational mosque, connecting radicalized Muslims and inspiring so-called lone-wolf terror attacks. To be sure, the defeat of both ISIS and Al Qaeda will not bring about the elimination of extremism in Europe.
London, among other European capitals, needs to curtail Islamist and Salafist schools of Islam, regardless as to whether or not they support jihad. In this respect, European capitals, in addition to beefing up their security and bettering their intelligence sharing and cooperation, have to promote their individual and collective cultures as integral parts of Western civilization. At the heart of this undertaking European capitals should endorse constructive and honest criticism of Islam’s perversions, instead of indiscriminately casting the epithet of Islamophobia on concerned activists or scholars. This is what makes both the insolence and probity of Western thought the critical vessel for continuously advancing Western culture. In other words, Europe needs to help shape a European Islam in line with Western culture and more, and therefore must not shy from confronting Islamism, Salafism and their apologists.
As Franck Salameh argued, “One ought to imagine the assaults that Voltaire, Rousseau and other eighteenth-century luminaries mounted against Christian dogma being described as ‘racism’ or ‘Christianophobia’ by their contemporaries—and their modern offspring. Indeed, it is likely that Christianity might have remained ossified, unable to evolve, had it been left to its own devices, immune from criticism.”
Europe is facing today in as much a struggle for its own soul and mind as a struggle against the creeping despotism of Islamism and Salafism. To shy away from this two-pronged struggle is to lapse into what Islamists call “jahiliyyah”!
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon; Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East; Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism; Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism; and most recently The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities. He tweets at @robertgrabil.
Image: Sri Lankan mosque at sunset. Pixabay/Public domain