Hands up all those who would like to live in an Islamic Caliphate under Sharia law? Mm – I don’t see many takers. Wouldn’t you enjoy living somewhere where you could be executed for apostasy, being homosexual or insulting the Prophet Muhhammad? Wouldn’t you be thrilled to have our women subjugated as second class citizens, unable to move around in the community without the approval of their menfolk and often requiring one to accompany them, being subject to genital mutilation and forbidden education? (Appropriately I am beginning this essay on International Women’s Day. I am sure the Caliphate will ensure this date will be preserved for celebration!) How uplifting it would be to see thieves have their hands amputated and adulterers stoned to death and unfortunates subjected to slavery!
Now I suppose when you put it like that, it doesn’t sound such an attractive proposition. Then you might wonder why we have thousands of radical Islamists in the Middle East pursuing just this ideal. What’s more we have hundreds flocking to join the cause from Europe, USA, Australia and other liberal democratic countries! Just this weekend two young Australians, allegedly fleeing to the Middle East to join the Islamic terrorists, were intercepted by Customs officials.
It is tempting to believe that in any contest of ideas the ideals of a modern, liberal democracy should easily conquer the ideals of an Islamic cult with uncompromising, mediaeval beliefs. Unfortunately we often lose this contest. Why should this be so? It is a question that I have been giving some thought to lately. In this essay I will explore some of my thoughts on this issue.
At our cost, some of us when confronted with this dilemma want to take the easy way out. Their reaction is to ban the so-called “hate preachers”. I am always wary of any curtailment to free speech, and whilst as a last resort I would support banning incitement to violence I am happy to have these people rant away and expose the paucity of their thinking.
Now one way that the extremists are winning the battle is because too few of us are challenging their ideas. When we challenge them at the very least we will be branded as Islamophobic or at the worst have our lives threatened. But these obnoxious ideas must be challenged! If we don’t challenge these ideas on a broad front we expose those brave people who do. They become isolated and easy targets for the extremists to harass and sometimes murder. We need to show them that our whole society is antithetical to their ideals. So I urge you to speak up against this scourge whenever you can.
The other notion which liberals are espousing which confuses the issue is to maintain that it is not a religious problem. President Obama, in particular, has done us a great disservice in taking this stance. When Obama talks about the problem he insists that we are not at war with Islam, Islamism or even Islamic extremism. But this is not the case. Of course there are many Muslims who have been able to engage with modernity and not resort to the abominations of the Islamists. We applaud them! But it is ridiculous to assert that Islamism is not a religious movement. It is one interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. In fact some learned Islamic scholars endorse this interpretation. It is only a small percentage of Muslims who support this Islamic extremism but it cannot be denied that every Islamic extremist is indeed a Muslim!
However some of the motivation of the Jihadists has nothing to do with religion. There is a lot of literature which suggests running off to war is attractive to some young men. Our own history, particularly of the First World War is replete with stories of young men falsifying their age and exercising other subterfuges just to be able to go and join the “great adventure”. Even Winston Churchill recounting his experiences in the Boer War said something to the effect that there is nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed!
In a personal communication (recounted with his permission) the good Dr Phil had this to say:
“One other thing that I think is driving the increasing number of young people to participate in the Islamic Jihad is the desire for adventure. To test oneself against dangerous things is a great ‘trick’ of the egoic mind. This was the case of many who voluntarily joined up in the first and second world wars. Yes, loyalty to one’s country, pressure from peers, and one’s ‘honour’ all played a role, but there was also the very naive belief that they were going off to a ‘great adventure’ – what a collective delusion that was! This ‘going off to a great adventure’ would hardly have been limited to the allies, but would also have been the case with the Axis powers as well.”
And I offered in response:
“You are right about the attraction of young men exposing themselves to danger. I have read reports of Australian and American young men who after being sent to Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever could not settle into ‘normal’ life once having experienced the hype of putting themselves at mortal risk. War experience is like a drug. It seems these young men can’t do without it and yet in many ways it destroys their lives.
Very few who have actually been involved in mortal conflict seem able to again to comfortably integrate back into the societies from whence they came.
But as you always say it is the ideas that are dangerous. The courageous people defending Kobane reported how difficult it was to repel the enemy. The Islamist were fearless. They had no fear of dying. Why would you if you had the simplistic notion that dying for the faith gave you automatic access to paradise?”
So we do come back to the religious question.
The question I started off my essay with, “Would you prefer to live under Sharia Law or in a liberal democracy?” is rendered irrelevant by religion. Many religions,including Christianity and Islam, admonish us not to seek the earthly pleasures of this life but live out the dictates of the faith and reap our rewards in the “next life”. The Islamists have stated this proposition in the most dramatic fashion promising those who would martyr themselves access to paradise. As we saw above this renders them a very difficult military target because the “true believers” are not afraid to die.
The American philosopher and psychologist William James published a very influential book in 1902 titled The Varieties of Religious Experience. In this work he explored the mechanisms by which people acquired beliefs and how in their desire to belong to a certain group one must “accept certain beliefs and accept them so wholeheartedly as to experience them as one’s own.” This tendency is probably true of most religions and it is certainly true of Islam.
Now the cause of Islamism is advanced by a narrative that suggests the Muslims have been victimised by the West who have largely kept them in subjugation and exploited their resources. They react to modern borders and maintain that such borders are a construct of modern states that owed their existence to certain historical trends in recent European history. The struggle to establish a worldwide Caliphate is thereby seen as a noble act of liberation on behalf of all Muslims. It is portrayed as a movement to restore their rightful place in the world. As strange as it might seem, whilst the Islamists make noises about fighting the Crusaders, most of their ignoble war is waged against other Muslims!
A disenchanted young man with little status in a Western community might see the opportunity to join in this struggle as adding meaning to his life. Even if he gives no thought to the final outcome and makes no judgment whether a modern democracy or a mediaeval Caliphate presents a better environment for its citizens, he feels more significant, involved in the noble struggle rather than languishing without purpose in the democracy. Indeed the attraction of engaging in the struggle is such that it seems many convert to Islam just to be part of it. Many of the young Western men flocking to the battlefields in support of Islam are recent converts, which supports the thesis of William James mentioned above.
There is something distinctive about the Islamist identity. Islam is a global religion, allowing Islamists to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world.
The Indian born, English writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Kenan Malik, writes:
“What draws most wannabe jihadis to Syria is, to begin with at least, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.”
It is fitting to ask, therefore, what should our response be to this atrocity?
My answer is to suggest that we give thought to perhaps three responses.
Firstly we have established without any shadow of doubt (President Obama’s misgivings notwithstanding) that this is a religious problem. As far as I know there are no Islamists that are not Muslims. There are many Muslims who have integrated well into modern Western society. We need them to speak out about why they are happy to live in a liberal Western democracy rather than to rush off to join the Caliphate and be subject to Sharia law.
One of the difficulties in dealing with Islam is that it largely believes that the Koran is an inerrant expression of the word of Allah. The other traditions of “The Book”, Judaism and Christianity have had many centuries of critiquing their religious writings. This has served to clarify and refine the beliefs of these traditions. But Islam, believing that its book expresses the direct word of Allah does not allow such interpretation. It will not admit that metaphors and analogies might be devices to enlighten the believer and consequently Muslims are mostly constrained to believe that the Koran is literally true. Consequently when the Koran states that believers should “smite the neck of the infidels”(8:12) recent atrocities would seem to indicate that Islamists take this literally.
It is tempting (and many commentators have fallen to the temptation) to suggest that Islamists are either poorly educated, and therefore misinformed, or deranged, and therefore incapable of making rational decisions. The evidence doesn’t suggest this is the case at all. It would seem that the Islamists are in the thrall of a very bad (religious) idea. Many of them are in fact well-educated and their very bad idea is such that they can rationalise their appalling behaviour. In fact what is striking about the jihadist recruits is that there is no “typical” recruit.
If, as indeed it seems to me, this is a religious phenomenon it would be more than useful for us to have those Muslims who have been able to integrate successfully into mainstream Western society help us with the religious argument. In addition we should seek the assistance of those who initially were attracted to the cause, joined the fray but then became disillusioned by cruel and immoral conduct of the Islamist extremists.
The second response that seems entirely justified is to lend material support to those who are struggling to physically overcome the Islamists in their military expansionism. When we see the atrocities and the suffering that comes in the wake of the Islamist victories it is eminently justifiable that we should do what we reasonably can to halt the Islamist advance. This is reinforced by the fact that they try to discourage our resistance by the perpetration of atrocities in our own country.
Finally, I believe that we need to do more to combat the “bad ideas” that underpin Islamism. We saw from the opening paragraphs, that living in a Caliphate under Sharia law is not appealing to the majority of us. It would seem to me that even the majority of Muslims wouldn’t want that fate as well. But the issue becomes confused with the introduction of religion. Many Muslims might be persuaded to pursue such an outcome not because they want it but because they believe Allah requires it of them. We need to not only promote our liberal democracy but help them counter the arguments of the religious extremists seeking to impose it on us all.