Big Deal

ISIS Is Just One of a Full-Blown Global Jihadist Insurgency

Want to fight ISIS? You’ve got to start by recognizing what it really is: part of a worldwide campaign to impose a religion by gunpoint.

11.20.15 3:52 AM ET

The first female jihadist suicide bomber to blow herself up on European shores struck this week in St. Denis, France. The pope and King Abdullah of Jordan have both named ISIS’s assault on Paris as the start of World War III.

I disagree. Those two horrific World Wars involved states and conventional armies. Until now—and our reaction will determine whether it stays this way—this has been a conflict involving an asymmetric non-state actor, which by its sheer audacity is forcing states to reconsider the precarious status quo of international relations today. I believe it is safer, more accurate, and more productive to name this a global jihadist insurgency. And after the latest events in Paris, it’s time to recognize that this insurgency has reached European soil.

Recognizing this as an insurgency affects entirely how we react to it. We cannot simply shoot or even legislate our way out of this problem. Unlike war, counter-insurgency rests on the assumption that the enemy has significant enough levels of support within the communities it aims to survive among. Recognizing the source of that support means avoiding the apologism of the far left or the sensationalism of the far right. Both of these reactions will render us blind to the real wellspring of this insurgency’s appeal: the Islamist ideology, as distinct from the religion of Islam.

President Obama, and many liberals, shy away from calling this ideology Islamism. Their fear is that both Muslim communities and those on the political right will simply hear the word “Islam” and begin to blame all Muslims. Instead, the mantra that is repeated is “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.”

Phrasing things in this way rests on an understandable concern. But it exacerbates the very problem it seeks to avert. To explain this, for a while now I have been using a reference from popular culture, which I am glad to say has now made the Urban Dictionary. I call it the Voldemort Effect, named after the villain in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The people in Rowling’s fictional world are so terrified, so petrified of this evil that they do two things: They refuse to call him by name, instead referring to him as “He Who Must Not Be Named,” and while refusing to name him, they also deny that he even exists at all. Of course, that only increases the fear and worsens the panic and public hysteria, thus perpetuating Voldemort’s all-powerful myth even more. Refusing to name a problem, and failing to recognize it, is never a good way to solve it. We know that from the Weimar years of appeasement to Nazism, as much as recovering alcoholics will understand it from their 12-step programs.

I say this as a liberal, and as a Muslim. In fact, I speak as a former Liberal Democrat candidate in the U.K.’s last general election and as someone who became a political prisoner in Egypt due to my former belief in Islamism. I speak, therefore, from a place of concern and familiarity, not enmity and hostility to Islam and Muslims. In a televised discussion with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on the issue, I have argued that of course ISIS is not Islam. Nor am I. Nor is anyone, really. Because Islam is what Muslims make it. But it is as disingenuous to argue that ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” as it is to argue that “they are Islam.” ISIS has something to do with Islam. Not nothing, not everything, but something. If you’re going to talk to a jihadist—and believe me, I have spoken to many—you’re not going to find yourself discussing Hitler’s Mein Kampf. You’ll be discussing Islamic texts.

It is important to define here what I mean by Islamism: Islam is a religion, and like any other it is internally diverse. But Islamism is the desire to impose a very particular version of Islam on society. Hence, Islamism is Muslim theocracy. And where jihad is a traditional Islamic idea of struggle, jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Defined in this way, it becomes easier to understand how this global jihadist insurgency seeks to recruit from Islamists, who in turn operate among Muslim communities.

The danger of not recognizing this relationship between the ideology of Islamism and the religion of Islam is twofold. Firstly, within the Muslim context, those liberal reformist Muslims, feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, dissenting Muslims, and minority sects—all these different minorities-within-the minority of the Muslim community—are immediately betrayed. By failing to name the ideology and isolate it from everyday Islam, we deprive these reforming voices of a lexicon, a language to deploy against those who are attempting to silence their progressive efforts within their own communities. We prevent a conversation around ending Islamism’s appeal while also reforming traditional Islam. If it has “nothing to do with Islam,” there is nothing to discuss within Islamic communities. In this way, we surrender the debate to the extremists, who meanwhile are discussing Islam with impunity.

The second danger is in the non-Muslim context. What happens if you don’t name the Islamist ideology and distinguish it from Islam? President Obama in his last UN speech referred to a “poisonous ideology,” yet failed to name it. Most people, who are understandably in need of some guidance on such topics, may well assume that the ideology they must challenge is Islam and all Muslims, ergo the rise of current populist xenophobic trends within Europe and America.

We should be able to distinguish Islamist extremism from Islam by clarifying that Islam is simply a religion and that Islamism is a theocratic desire to impose a version of that religion over society. And once we do that, we are then able to clearly identify the insurgent ideology that we must understand, isolate, undermine, refute, and provide alternatives to. It is precisely this distinction that I have spent the last few years advising Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron on, and I would like to think that is why Cameron corrected Obama on this very issue at the United Nations.

Many non-Muslims claim that they are powerless to address Islamism, let alone refute it, because they are outsiders. However, just as one does not need to be black to care about the struggle against racism, one need not be Muslim to speak against theocracy. To do so, after all, would be in defense of Muslims first and foremost. Europe and Europeans are especially well placed to speak in a secular way about why theocracies were never really good for humanity. (Just look at the Inquisition.)

As for my fellow Muslims, many have pushed back against the call to address Islamism head on and refute it by asking why they should apologize for something that they have little or nothing to do with. Again, this is an incredibly unhelpful and inconsistent rebuttal to what is everyone’s social duty. Just as we Muslims expect others to speak up and defend us against anti-Muslim bigotry—even, and especially if, they are not Muslim—likewise we must speak up against Islamist theocracy. It is not only our duty but the least we can do to reciprocate the solidarity we rightly expect from our fellow citizens.

Our political leaders have been restricting the definition of this problem to whichever jihadist group is causing them the biggest headache at the present time, while ignoring the fact that they are all borne of the same Islamist ideology. Before ISIS emerged, the U.S. State Department strangely took to naming the problem “al Qaeda-inspired extremism,” even though it was not al Qaeda that inspired the radicalism. Rather, Islamist extremism inspired al Qaeda. And in turn, ISIS did not radicalize those 6,000 European Muslims who have traveled to join them, nor the thousands of supporters the French now say they are monitoring.

This did not happened overnight and could not have emerged from a vacuum. ISIS propaganda is good, but not that good. No, decades of Islamist propaganda in communities had already primed these young Muslims to yearn for a theocratic caliphate. When surveyed, 33 percent of British Muslims expressed a desire to resurrect a caliphate. ISIS simply plucked the low-hanging fruit, which had been seeded long ago by various Islamist groups, and it will now require decades of community resilience to push back. But we cannot even begin to do so until we recognize the problem for what it is. Welcome to the full-blown global jihadist insurgency.