Tim Harvey is Politics editor for Sonder and a second year English Literature student at The University of Manchester. He writes poetry and political analysis, with a focus on Western foreign policy and the Middle East.
In the wake of the Paris Attacks last month, British social media (as across the globe) erupted into a mesh of polemics, rooted in the predicates of received ideologies, as the country unearthed a whole host of previously silent experts on Islam and the Middle East in general. The diatribes, despite the differences between them, nevertheless generally fell into two camps, which are broadly defined by the social strata of their writers. The first of these posits Islam as the root cause of worldwide terrorism. This perspective draws connections between the attacks and the recent influx of refugees from Muslim countries, arguing that British culture (and indeed the cultures of other Western countries) are fundamentally incompatible with Islam and as such, in order to preserve the British nation and avoid the recurrence of such attacks in future, immigration must be stopped completely. More extreme proponents of this viewpoint may advocate the removal of all Islamic cultural elements from the country entirely, and no doubt most adherents to this particular narrative perception would have supported the extension of British air strikes to Syria.
The second narrative, and no doubt the most prevalent in the newsfeeds of university students, emerged largely in reaction to the first. It condemned the atrocities as the barbaric acts of people who misrepresent the religion of Islam to the extent that these fundamentalists’ interpretations distort the ‘true essence’ of the religion. Some nuances included passing references to inept and damaging manifestations of Western foreign policy, however the main focus of this narrative was on the stark contrast between ‘true Islam’ and the warped version which led to the November atrocities, as practiced by the fundamentalists. This latter group, so the argument goes, are not ‘true Muslims’.
The category into which people generally fell was determined by certain received ideologies which are in turn dependent on the particular social stratum of the individual, and both narratives are fundamentally false. The former is the more dangerous due to its propensity for generating sectarian violence; however the latter, informed as it is by a received ideology to the extent that its subscribers seek evidence to support a predisposition, as opposed to forming opinions based on the objective analysis of relevant evidence, wilfully ignores details which are crucial to understanding the interplay of Islamic fundamentalism with Western foreign policy.
Social strata, since the advent of social media and near universal internet access within the country (84% of British households had internet access in 2014, according to a report by the Office for National Statistics) has come to be defined less by money, and more by attitudes towards liberalism as informed by levels of education. As a result of an increased focus on political correctness since the 90s, as well as the inception and success of the ‘New Labour’ movement and its subsequent influence on mainstream politics in Britain, a social class has emerged which I will refer to as the ‘Liberal Clerisy’. This group posits Liberal thinking with regards to social politics as a synonym for ‘open-mindedness’. As such, any attitudes that contradict this stratum’s central doctrines of globalisation, multiculturalism and tolerance of all modes of sexual orientation are deemed as symptomatic of closed-mindedness. This stratum consists of virtually the entire political class, as well as nearly everyone with a university degree, who, depending on various sources, vary in number between 27% and 40% of the population.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the contradictions in some of these doctrines, in particular the relationship between the tenets of religious toleration and the acceptance of various modes of sexual orientation. In this regard, the Liberal Clerisy, which comprises predominantly of atheists, is openly critical of any Christian intolerance of homosexuality (evidenced particularly during the period of the legalisation of homosexual marriage), whilst remaining virtually silent with regards to Muslim attitudes towards the issue. This observation is not of huge significance for our discussion here, except that it is representative of the class’ unwillingness to cause offence except in the case of groups whom it perceives as of the same cultural stock as itself, yet which pursue different socio-political trajectories. This may be due to a perception that Islam, as an elementally ‘Eastern’ religion, as opposed to Christianity which has played a huge role in the formation of the cultural dynamic of Western civilization, is afforded greater leniency with regard to received ideologies which may be perceived generally as ‘intolerant’ or ‘outdated’. Moreover, the greater risks faced by British Muslims in regard to ethnic discrimination are viewed as sufficient reason to avoid fuelling the fire through criticisms of its many salient precepts. This, of course, is mere conjecture, and the underlying reasons for this binary are relatively trivial in relation to what I want to say here.
The Liberal Clerisy form the bulk of the apologists who refuse to recognise any relation between Islam and its fundamentalist manifestations. Such a refusal has led to the campaign pursued by much of the mainstream media in this country, particularly the BBC, to refer to ISIL as the ‘so-called’ Islamic State. The purposes of this campaign are twofold: namely, to delegitimise the organisation’s claims to be ‘Islamic’ as well as its claims to statehood. Such rhetorical nit-picking is, of course, irrelevant for those who suffer under its strict regime in the swathes of territory the group controls across Iraq and Syria, and who no doubt experience its claims to both concepts in a very real manner. However, this particular nomenclature has gone a long way to propagating the view that Islam’s teachings and IS are entirely incongruous; that fundamentalists are inherently evil people, without any religiously-informed mandate for their actions. This is, indeed, a naïve conception. To suggest that nine men who were willing to sacrifice their lives, in the process of killing 130 others, in the name of their religion are ‘not religious’ is a testimony to the powers of wilful ignorance. Islam is by no means an evil religion, and the vast majority of its followers abhor the methods of IS (indeed, it has been pointed out at various junctures that the majority of ISIL’s victims are, in fact, themselves Muslims). However, the success of this organisation lies in its ability to exploit the grievances held by many Muslims (and, indeed, many intelligent non-Muslims) worldwide with regard to Western intervention in Middle Eastern countries, through the advancement of a religiously-informed narrative that posits a dichotomy of ‘us and them’: warriors of God, and infidels.
Much has been said previously of the key differences between Islam and other religions with regard to its capacity to inform terrorist ideologies, particularly by the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who hold too simplistic a notion of religions as the root-cause of all of the world’s evil. The arguments they put forward about the Qur’an’s claim to be the literal word of God, His final revelation and principally unalterable, are of only academic significance in relation to Islamic fundamentalist groups. The root cause of organisations like ISIL lies in the interplay between Qur’anic quotations and Western foreign policy. In his excellent book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Michael Scheuer delineates three key aspects of American foreign policy (which, considering the dynamic of Britain’s ‘special relationship’ can be read, in extension, as akin to British foreign policy) which provide an ideological basis for fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda. The first is ‘Challenging God’s word’ through concerted pressures on Muslim educational authorities ‘to teach a brand of Islam more in keeping with modernity and […] U.S interests’, insisting that Muslim countries ‘limit, control and track’ charitable donations to certain organizations (conflicting with one of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat); and on the suppression of all forms of Jihad, the meaning of which has become irrevocably obscured in popular discourse. The second is ‘Attacking the Islamic Faithful and their Resources’, through the support (tacit or otherwise) of the oppression of Muslims in various places across the world, including India, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. This includes the support for ‘apostate Islamic governments’ in the likes of Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan, the imposition of sanctions effecting Muslims in the likes of Iran and Iraq, and the attempt to establish control of oil prices in the Arabian Peninsula to the benefit of Western nations. Finally, Scheuer cites ‘Occupying or Dismembering Muslim Lands’ as an influential factor, specifically in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing support for Israel. In the end, what Scheuer’s text makes clear is that there is a vast pool of ideological impetus from which groups such as ISIL can draw support. In the context of Western involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance, one can think particularly of quotations from the second sura of the Qur’an: ‘…drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing.’[2:191] and ‘Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God. If they cease hostilities, there can be no [further] hostility, except towards aggressors.’[2:193]
The main fallacy that Scheuer identifies as pervasive in Western discourse on Islamic fundamentalism is the perception that such fundamentalists wage war on the West because of what we stand for, as opposed to what we do. It is not our practice of liberal, secular modes of governance that causes Islamist extermism; it is, rather, our perennial attempts to intervene in Muslim countries in a manner closely resembling the colonial, which inspires such violence. These concepts are glossed over by such news outlets as the BBC who, in the case of the vote on Syrian air strikes, for instance, were more interested in the split within the Labour party than the debate itself, symptomatic of the bizarre Euro-centrism which informs the agenda of an organisation that is an archetype for the Liberal Clerisy as a whole. This group has a teleological conception of history as a ‘narrative of progress’, viewing the world through the lens of inevitable globalisation which ultimately benefits the bourgeoisie far more than the working class, and as such interventionist policies are deemed generally as acceptable, or even – perhaps most often – as ‘our duty’ in a narrative which rehashes the colonialist mind-set of the ‘white man’s burden’. This group generally refuses to openly criticise religions whilst remaining principally antagonistic to any ideas derived from religious modes of thought. It declines to take issue with individual religions purely because it believes that modernisation and globalisation will, in time, inevitably sweep away cultural modes of community identification, such as religious and national groups.
The points made here are, of course, general observations and do not apply to everyone who could conceivably belong to the Liberal Clerisy. It is possible, for instance to be anti-interventionist and belong to this class, whilst likewise, many who do not belong to it support intervention. Nor does the existence of a class that isn’t based on income negate the existence of traditional class divisions entirely. However, as this article attempts to analyse general trends, generalisations are permissible for the purpose. Such trends as have been observed herein inform the nature of general discourse concerning Islamic fundamentalism, which at once refuse to implicate Islamic doctrine, or recognise the impact of Western interventionism. The implications for foreign policy and ISIL will merely be a continuation of the miserable cycle of war and murder, however, the consequences of the existence of a political class which posits ‘Liberalism’ as synonymous with ‘open-mindedness’ are potentially catastrophic for freedom of thought in general. We have already reached the stage where those with an ‘anti-immigration’ stance are deemed as ‘anti-immigrant’ and, consequently, racist, and the angry rhetoric that was used by students in response to the Tory election victory earlier this year (based largely on the erroneous assumption that the Tory party is actually socially conservative) suggests that any mode of political thought, even within the mainstream, can land a person with a label of ‘hating the poor’, or any such similarly oppressed group.
The irony of Western attitudes to the Middle East has been shown no more clearly than by the recent Syria debate. The whole of Westminster is united in its unique hatred of President Assad, which has polluted the nature of debates over action towards Syria. Hilary Benn spouted a spurious comparison of the battle against ISIL as a rerun of the Second World War, however, the differences between the expansionist aims of one of the world’s greatest powers and those of ISIL, a comparatively weak organisation, are stark in terms of the threat they pose to our society. Unfortunately, the perception of ISIL seems to be entirely informed by its force in numbers, as opposed to its real strength which lies in its potential ideological pull, which will always attract more recruits. The idea that we can somehow bomb ISIL fighters to death quicker than the resulting smear on our reputation from the inevitable civilian casualties draws fresh recruits to the extremist cause is pure fantasy. ISIL and its progenitor organisations like al-Qaeda derive their principle force from Western interventions in Muslim countries. The idea that the military action voted through on Wednesday will make our streets any safer is ludicrous; it will only put us more at risk.