Monday, 25 July 2011

Does "extreme" ideology lead to terrorism?

Events in Norway have inevitably raised the question of the extent to which Anders Behring Breivik's murderous rampage was the product (predictable or not) of a warped ideology.

His ideology, as set out at tedious length in his "Manifesto" (which is largely a compilation of other people's writings, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski) has no agreed name, though it's quite familiar. It is not Neo-Nazi, or conventially nationalist, or (as some sources claimed) "Christian fundamentalist". Its principal targets are multiculturalism, immigration and "Islamification", the European Union and left-wing politically correct "cultural Marxists". It is culturally conservative (suspicious of feminism, pro-"family values", etc), vaguely libertarian (though libertarians might object to this characterisation), suspicious of conventional politics, generally a bit Daily Mailish.

There are many people who espouse all or some of these opinions on the Internet, and some high-profile writers and politicians who do likewise. Some (including our own Melanie Phillips) are quoted extensively and approvingly in Breivik's document. It is not their fault that a narcissistic murderer has taken inspiration from their ideas, any more than it was the Beatles' fault that Charles Manson was a fan of Helter Skelter. Any more than producers of video games should be held responsible for "copycat killings".

Does this not equally apply, though, to the "preachers of hate" whose hardline interpretation of Islam inspired the 9/11 and 7/7 suicide attacks?

The easy answer is that there's a clear distinction between actively inciting acts of terrorism and merely nurturing a sense of anger and grievance. No-one on Breivik's reading list, to my knowledge, has ever advocated murder or even violent resistance. There's no anti-multiculturalist Al Qaeda, no network of sleeper cells (unless Breivik's revived Knights Templar really exist). The English Defence League, an ugly organisation whose members have largely repellent views, do not blow things up and have never set light to anything larger than a Koran.

But then not all those characterised as Islamic extremists by the British security services incite violence, either. And they are often seen as a problem.

The latest version of the government's Prevent strategy aims to target the ideology behind Islamic terror. Those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam generally adhere to a strict and highly political form of their religion ("Islamism") that is shared by many Muslims who are not terrorists, or even terrorist sympathisers. It combines highly conservative views on such matters as women's dress or the alleged decadence of western society with a narrative of victimhood that sees Muslims as victims of Western foreign policy. They tend to be obsessed with Israel, a political passion that often slides into a more general hatred of Jews. Some dream of establishing a new Caliphate embracing all the world's Muslim societies, or of converting Europe to their faith. A proportion of them (a not inconsiderable proportion) entertain conspiracy theories about what really happened on 9/11.

Are these ideas "extreme", and do they lead to terrorism? Here's Tony Blair:

I believe we need a revolution in our thinking. I do not think it is possible to defeat the extremism without defeating the narrative that nurtures it. And there’s the rub. The practitioners of extremism are small in number. The adherents of the narrative stretch far broader into parts of mainstream thinking.

....It is a narrative that now has vast numbers of assembled websites, blogs and organisations. Of course many of those that agree with it abhor the terrorism. But as the support across the Middle East for the Muslim Brotherhood shows, far too many buy into far too much of the analysis of the extremists, if not their methodology.

This is the train of thought that underpins the Prevent strategy as well. The Home Office website tells us that from now on, "Prevent will tackle non-violent extremism where it creates an environment conducive to terrorism and popularises ideas that are espoused by terrorist groups." The previous version of Prevent was rather different: it involved channelling money to groups representing non-violent Islamists (sometimes described as "non-violent extremists", although "moderate extremists" would perhaps have captured the paradox more accurately) in the belief that they could better reach those young people who were "vulnerable" to radicalisation. As Douglas Murray complained, it became "a cash cow which any enterprising Muslim group could tap into."

Both versions of Prevent shared a similar analysis of the perceived problem: that there was a conveyor belt linking Islamist thinking with terrorism. At one end of the spectrum one found Muslims with strong views about the Israel/Palestine peace process; at the other, mass murderers. Opinions - both religious and political opinions - were potentially dangerous, because while most of those with such opinions would just grumble into their beards a deranged few would actually try to blow things up. It was the government's job, therefore, to interfere in Muslim religious and political discourse so as to promote "moderate" views and discourage "extreme" ones.

One of the many paradoxes in the previous government's response to the Jihadist threat was that the very groups which it promoted as representing mainstream Muslim opinion (for example, the Muslim Council of Britain) tended to be imbued with Islamist thinking. This was perhaps inevitable. The most politically self-conscious strands of "Muslim" opinion are Islamist almost by definition. Non-Islamists tend to identify politically as Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem, rather than as Muslim. Islamists also have control of many mosques: they tend to be more devout and religiously committed than the "average" Muslim. Finally, there's a notable overlap between the Islamist analysis of Western policy and that shared by many on the Left, which has often made Islamists welcome allies for political progressives prepared to overlook their reactionary views about the role of women or homosexuality.

The new Prevent strategy is less friendly to Islamists but every bit as concerned with moulding ideology. The present government, like the last, enjoys banning so-called "preachers of hate", the most recent of whom caused embarrassment when he entered Britain despite being on the official blacklist. He delivered speeches in London and Leicester and had been due to address Parliament - at the invitation of Labour MPs - when he was arrested. His views have been deemed terrorist-friendly, but in his time here he doesn't appear to have said anything particularly outrageous.

I've never supported such bans. The way to deal with uncongenial opinions is to argue against them, not to try to suppress them. Banning ideas only lends weight to the feelings of resentment, self-pity and powerlessness that do, in a few cases, lead people to acts of murderous violence. Even sympathising with an act of terrorism is very different from actually carrying one out.

To some extent, Melanie Phillips and the others are now getting a taste of their own medicine. They have been far too quick in the past to elide the distinction between Islamist opinions and violence, and also between Muslims in general and Islamists in particular. The spread of hardline Islam is largely a phenomenon within Muslim communities, and poses the greatest problem to other Muslims (female Muslims, gay Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims...). If "Islamophobic" writers are now being tarred with the same brush as the appalling Breivik... well, perhaps it will give them pause for thought.