Muslim women and girls at a funfair during Eid ul-Fitr in Wanstead, north-east London. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty
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“The battle is among Muslims themselves – a battle for the very soul of Islam”

The British Muslim academic Mona Siddiqui writes about the “Arabisation” of Islam and changing attitudes to Muslims in the west.

If you were to assess much of the current coverage of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Islam, you could be forgiven for thinking that the three are defined respectively through the issues of gay clergy, child sex abuse and violence. The talk of homosexuality and child sex abuse, however, can be understood as expressing institutional and social concern; they are divisive and damaging to the churches and their congregations and leave victims, but by no means are they a threat to world peace. Furthermore, although both Protestant and Catholic Christianity are growing predominantly in the global south, they are perceived as western religions. Much of the language about Christianity still makes sense to Europeans; it is familiar territory even if some of the thinking and traditions are contested in the paradigm of debates about human rights.

By contrast, Islam has gradually come to western consciousness as a religion of another world, essentialised, archaic, its own European significance largely absent from any modern understanding of European history. Many are unaware of its complex histories of empires, civilisations and intellectual life. Rather, its presence in the west has been felt through uncomfortable socio-ethical concepts that modernity finds baffling – sharia, jihad, forced marriages, honour killings, and so on.

All kinds of socio-ethical issues are lumped together irrespective of country, culture or context, because the words “Islam” and “Muslim” become the common denominator. Islam isn’t the only religion facing internal conflict but it is widely seen as the only faith marked by conflict alone. Millions of Muslims struggle to show that their Islam is open, just and generous, compatible with all the liberal freedoms the west holds dear, but this is not headline stuff because, let’s face it, these sentiments just aren’t that interesting.

In many ways the Muslim presence in the west didn’t mean much until the beginning of the new millennium. Before then it was embedded within the migration story of multiculturalism. We didn’t think much about multiculturalism because most people growing up in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t realise they were part of any political experiment. Issues around the significant and uncomfortable visibility of Islam began not with the arrival of the first generation of Muslims from south Asia but with the distinct wearing of the headscarf (hijab) on European streets from the 1980s onwards. Some recognised early on that this rising trend would force a different and more narrow kind of discourse about Muslim societies, where piety and modesty would be judged largely by clothing alone. Any thinking person knows that what women wear matters in all societies, but for Muslim women, clothing began to symbolise far more than individual piety.

The discussions about veiling in Europe are now immersed in complex ideals of freedom, femininity and faith. Irrespective of the diverse motives behind the gradual “Arabisation” of Islam in all walks of life, the wearing of the hijab and the niqab, perhaps more than anything else, has had the unfortunate effect of defining Muslim otherness in the west.

For many years, “multiculturalism” was less about tolerating difference and more about ignoring it. But all that changed with the emergence of what is now called radical Islam. This is an Islam that uses religious texts to preach conformity, violence and, worst of all, treachery. It is because of violence and radicalisation among certain communities that multiculturalism is seen by some as the failure of the past and the impasse of the future. Whereas 30 years ago, multiculturalism was defined through food and festivals, especially the Indian takeaway, today it is examined through the prism of terror and terror is seen in everything – from jihadist rhetoric to Muslim schools to a piece of black cloth.

So great is the association of Islam with violence today that many see the religion only as a radical ideology full of groups perpetually plotting – against their own in sectarian violence, against corrupt governments and to bring down the west. Its violence isn’t the violence of civic unrest and internal factions, but apocalyptic violence, symbolised most shockingly and dramatically in the 9/11 attacks.

The subsequent attacks – whether it be the London bombings of 7 July 2005, the Boston Marathon killings or the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby – have confirmed in the eyes of many that not only are some Muslims a threat to peaceful coexistence, but they bear no loyalty to the country in which they were born or live. Their only loyalty is to the notion of a global Muslim brotherhood. For some, the impetus is to seek justice for those suffering in Muslim countries and to accept the high cost of taking that risk. That is why young men of school age, such as Abdullah Deghayes, leave everything to fight and be killed in civil wars such as Syria’s. Deghayes’s father called his son a martyr but that is a word that now rings pitifully hollow for many of us. The pattern is all too familiar, with so many young men lured by the wrong video and the wrong message.

Western foreign policies, geopolitics, sectarian violence and Muslim societies disenfranchised by their own corrupt governments are central to any debate about the rise of militant Islam and civil unrest across the world. We see it in south Asia, the Middle East and across Africa. Over the past decade or so, all kinds of words, from “moderate” to “extremist” and from “secular” to “fundamentalist”, have been used to assess religious sensibilities in the Islamic and western world. Although much scholarly research has explored the spread of radicalism, there is still no clear explanation why a certain kind of religious rhetoric has won the hearts and minds of many of today’s youth.

In his essay, David Selbourne warns that “the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision”. It is an alarming statement and one that he feels is being dangerously ignored by the liberal left. But the more important issue here is that this view is also harboured by many Muslims, much to the dismay of their co-religionists.

However, there is no single Islamist threat. There is no unified vision of implementing sharia, and the word “caliphate” plays to people’s simplistic imaginings of ritual and piety far more than it does to the complex realities of their lives. In these conflicting aspirations, the battle is among Muslims themselves; a battle for the very soul of Islam.

Selbourne paints a bleak political landscape and although many might disagree with his tone they will agree with his warnings. For me, as a Muslim, the issue is the conversations that Muslims are not having. Notwithstanding the current fears around terrorism and the power struggles in so many Muslim countries, there is a reluctance, even fear, of diverse ways of thinking and living in Islamic societies. There is also a propensity among many people in Islamic societies to undermine any kind of intellectualism, or critical inquiry about beliefs, traditions and institutions. The willingness to equate modernity with westernisation, and regard only certain cultural norms as the true expression of Islam, ensures a fear and control over people. People are either silenced or threatened.

Generosity and the spirit of intellectual inquiry, once hallmarks of Islamic civilisation, are being eclipsed by a gradual intolerance on so many levels. These are not symptoms of a yearning or a nostalgia, but a malaise that has made Islam appear a social and political anomaly in the eyes of many outside and inside the faith.

Several years ago, a senior member of the UK security services asked me: “What would you say to white, middle-class, British families who pretend to be liberal and inclusive but talk of Muslims only as a problem at their fancy dinner parties?”

I understood the question to be more about the clash of values than the threat of terrorism. I’m not sure what he expected me to say but replied that I couldn’t stop anyone from thinking and saying what they felt about the Muslim presence – but it was my duty as a British citizen to act locally and contribute to society in some small way. Home and religion were both important and the safety of one was tied to the safety of the other. Integration has become a buzzword, almost meaningless, but I know that being British shouldn’t make you feel any less Muslim. The choice between loyalty to state and loyalty to religion is false and dangerous. Yet religious extremism creates this division, destroying the possibilities of constructive relations in the community, in the nation and internationally.

For the time being at least, Muslims don’t have the luxury of sitting back and hoping all the negativity will just go away. This is the challenge for ordinary Muslims who don’t wish to be drawn in to these debates and who are tired of having to explain and reject jihadist imperialism and violence in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, there is no point in dismissing local and global events as having nothing to do with Islam.

However misguided many of us think terrorists are, to their followers they are heroes. Their propagation of an Islam v the west ideology is not only a false, but a toxic distinction, in which there are no winners. If we want to make this distinction meaningless, to show that there are voices of men, women, young and old who are speaking up for peaceful coexistence and not for an isolationist Islam, we can’t be disengaged from important conversations in public life.

The relative social and intellectual freedoms we all enjoy in the west should neverbe taken for granted. Pluralist societies flourish because of people’s commitment and civic engagement, not their indifference.

In the current climate, religious faith, especially theistic faith, is often seen as something that directs us to an intolerant past of conflict, whereas secularism grounds us in individual freedom and orients us towards a hopeful future. The debate has a simple premise, which is that a gradual secularisation of most of the western world has been realised through a conscious and enlightened distance between church and state, especially after the bloody religious wars of early-modern Europe, leading eventually to healthy, liberal democracies.

At the end of the cold war, Francis Fuku­yama’s thesis was that the liberal idea, rather than liberal practice, had become universal. Fukuyama argues that no ideology is in a position to challenge liberal democracy and that although Islam constitutes a coherent ideology, with its own code of morality and political rule, “this religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with”. Yet, as Fuku­yama contends, we may want peaceful lives but as individuals we are mostly restless and passionate beings, in search of causes. For Fukuyama, our primordial instincts for struggle, our restlessness, are such that even if the world were full of liberal democracies people would struggle for the sake of struggle, out of boredom with peace. He contends that the struggle will be not for democracy but against peace, prosperity and democracy. We may be a long way off from a tyranny-free world but I do wonder whether part of the appeal of terrorism – the shunning of modernity for so many young Muslims – lies in that most basic of human conditions, boredom and the constant search for a new struggle.

Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror