Time for a British version of Islam . . .

Deep faith and commitment to country can mix.

The recent trial of those behind the failed 21 July outrage is a stark reminder of the terrorist threat that Britain faces. There can now be no doubt of the scale of the threat. The security services estimate, since this failed attack, that a further 30 plots have been detected and foiled. Few expect these kinds of numbers to fall soon. It will be a challenge for at least another generation.

The government is constantly striving to sharpen our response. Reshaping the Home Office will give clearer oversight to the government's overall counter-terrorism effort. We must be prepared to give the security services and police the powers they need to keep our citizens safe. But we recognise as well that a security response alone will fail. We also have to address the fundamental causes of this home-grown violent extremism to win the battle for hearts and minds.

I don't underestimate the difficulties we face. But I know, too, that the good sense and decency of the vast majority of people in this country have ensured that no type of extremism has ever really got a foothold here. Oswald Mosley's fascists were defeated by decent people coming together. It is how the BNP, time and again, has been beaten back. Similarly, success today will hinge on forging a coalition against violent extremism. It means, in particular, reaching out and including the overwhelming majority of British Muslims disgusted by terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam. It means ensuring that those courageous individuals and communities who make public this view are not drowned out or intimidated by the minority who disagree.

It was in order to help ensure that those who stand up don't stand alone that I am today publishing an action plan to help tackle the violent extremism in our midst. It sets out how new training will help imams, particularly those engaged by the state, take on violent extremists' messages. It signals a step -change in the role of madrasas in teaching about citizenship. It supports strong and inclusive governance of mosques and establishes a new role for the Charity Commission.

These proposals come out of many discussions I have had in recent months with members of our Muslim communities. I've spoken with scholars and thinkers about where we go from here. I've listened to those behind the inspiration of community projects up and down Britain. And I have heard the views of women and younger people who have too often felt ignored.

There were, of course, concerns about aspects of the government's policies. But I was also struck by the unanimous and resolute rejection of any notion that Islam justifies terrorism and agreement, too, that being a devout Muslim is entirely consistent with accepting the laws and values that come with being a British citizen. Many are proud to be British, proud to be Muslim, and want to help all young people understand this too.

The likes of Tariq Ramadan have written about these issues. And an interim report of work I have commissioned from an impressive young academic - Tufyal Choudhury - makes a powerful argument for why the ultimate response to extremism in the name of Islam is an emerging European or British Islam.

It is not for government to engage in theological debate. But we need to show that we understand how a deep faith can be combined with a deep commitment to one's country. And we should be working together with the people who are best placed to give a lead to the young people most at risk of being influenced by the arguments from violent extremists.

The progress so far, in forging this coalition against extremism, has been impressive. From the British Muslim Forum to local organisations such as the Bradford Council of Mosques, many, I hope, respect the balance that government is making here. It is the about government challenging and supporting, not seeking to take control or provide all the answers itself.

The vast majority in this country share a vision of a tolerant and fair Britain, where people from all backgrounds get on; where all communities can marry deep faith with commitment to Britain; and where extremists are resolutely isolated. We are already taking important first steps. There is a long way to go, but I believe it sets us in the right direction.

Ruth Kelly is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

Show Hide image

The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State