“Islamist” or what?

20th July 2020

The Times carries an article today which reports that the police are currently pondering dropping the terms “Islamist terrorism” and “jihadist” as a descriptive term for attacks by those who claim Islam as their motive.

I am quoted in that article:

David Toube, of the counterextremism think tank Quilliam, who attended, told The Times: “People do not like to feel that they are being told only the partial truth . . . there is a serious problem with Islamist terrorism. The use of any term that obscures that fact risks damaging public trust in the police.” 

That point is amplified in a further comment from an unnamed source, who shares my concern that playing silly games with terminology will provide an opportunity to the far Right:

A counterterrorism expert said afterwards that the far right already exploited allegations that police officers pandered to political correctness by ignoring gangs of Pakistani-background men using children for sex in Britain. “It creates ambiguity, that you can’t say this because it’s Muslim,” the expert said. “There will be a lack of trust and confidence in public discourse. You are trying to avoid saying it because it is true.”

I thought it would be helpful to set out in this piece, my concerns with the suggestion that the police should refrain from using the terms “islamist” and “jihadist”. 

The first point is this. It is important for public servants to be open and precise when they describe threats that our country faces. That is a rule which cuts both ways. So, for example, I would not use the term “islamist” in a case involving a stabbing, where it was reported that the assailant shouted “Allah hu Akhbar”: but that was all we knew about them. In the hours after an attack, there is always a scramble for motive. It usually takes a day or so before there is anything sensible to say. I have made that argument here.

However, when motive becomes clear, as it was in the case of the first and second London Bridge attacks, where the killers’ politics were well known, it would have been absurd to have adopted a euphemism such as ““faith-claimed terrorism”, “terrorists abusing religious motivations” and “adherents of Osama bin Laden’s ideology””.

“Islamism” is a commonly used term. Dominic Kennedy, who wrote the article, adds some helpful analysis: but it is not all that can be said about its use and history. Dominic says:

Even the terrorists are bemused to be called “Islamists”. 

Groups such as the self-styled Islamic State prefer to label themselves according to their religion rather than a political movement. Rachid Ramda, convicted over the 1995 Paris Metro bombing by the Armed Islamic Group, which killed eight, scoffed at the term, telling Libération that after 9/11 the world “pretended to discover” Muslim resistance movements “by calling them Islamists”.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Islamist terrorist groups will often say that they are doing no more than implementing the requirements of Islam. They regard Muslims who do not share an Islamist understanding of Islam as in grave error,and sometimes not as Muslims at all . But that does not mean that we should play along. Islamism is clearly not the only reading of Islam. 

Sir John Jenkins, in a short piece published on Friday by Policy Exchange, makes the point that Islamism is a term that is used extensively in Arabic:

Islamism, far from being an invention of the “Islamophobic Right”, is actually a thing.  It has a highly specialised vocabulary in Arabic (for example, al islam al siyassii, al tatarruf al islamii, al tayyar al islamii, al islamiyyuun, al taharruk al islamii, al islam al jihadii, al jihadiyyah al harakiyya, al sururiyya, al ikhwanjiyya and so forth) which has migrated to Turkish, Persian and other languages spoken in Muslim-majority countries: I don’t see why we should deny ourselves the same pleasure in English. It is a modernist, social-revolutionary ideology based on particular, decontextualised and often literalist readings of ancient Islamic texts.  It’s not “Islam”.  Many – perhaps most – Muslims think it a rigid, impoverished, textualised and joyless distortion of an extraordinary civilisational tradition.  But others believe profoundly that the goal of a universal Islamic state where non-Muslims are subordinated to Sharia is both desirable and achievable. 

Indeed, Kamal Helbawy, who founded the UK chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, established a magazine which he called Islamism Digest. He chose that title, presumably, because it well captured the political current with which he associated his own politics. Similarly, the Tunisian political party, Nahda, recently announced that it was no longer Islamist, having previously followed that political tradition, and described itself as such.

Sheikh Usama Hasan and I set out the key features of Islamist political thought in Mainstreaming Islamism: a paper we produced for the Commission for Countering Extremism. In short, Islamists are focused on the political goal of creating an Islamic state, that “implements the Sharia” and in particular applies the hudood punishments. They typically argue that there is a religious obligation on all Muslims to support the creation of such a state, and to defend it. 

Why, then, is there resistance to the use of a purely descriptive term that is used globally, by policy makers, police, and the security services, and universally within Arab and Muslim politics? 

National Association of Muslim Police representative Alexander Gent, who is also quoted in the piece, believes that we need “a change in culture by moving away from using terms which have a direct link to Islam and jihad. These . . . do not help community relations and public confidence.”. I am sure that he is sincere in that belief. 

But it is important to appreciate that it is Islamist groups that have most strongly advocated for public bodies to drop the term “Islamist” as a description of this category of terrorism. These terminological debates were had ten years ago. It was thought that they were settled. Such groups similarly argue that it is unfair to associate any sort of political violence with a religion. However, it is difficult to avoid the strong suspicion that their greater objection is to any sort of link being made between domestic terrorism and their own political philosophy. 

That is not a persuasive argument. It was correct to describe Irish Republican terrorism as such, notwithstanding that this term also caught Irish Republican politicians who were opposed to the violence of the IRA. In any case, I can think of no Islamist groups which do not support terrorism in overseas theatres such as Israel/Palestine or Kashmir by groups which share the Islamist goal of an state governed according to their interpretation of the requirements of the Sharia, even if they oppose it at home. 

Were the police to change the terminology, these organisations will regard it as a “win”. It will be presented as evidence of their ability to impact state policy and practice. They will use it to demand further concessions, from the police and from other public sector organisations and from government.

However, such a change would not be a “win” at all. There is already a perception that there is a problem with Islam and terrorism. That is a product, not of terminology, but of what islamist terrorists say and do. The urgent task for us all is not to obscure the link but to throw light on it. 

It is necessary, repeatedly, to explain that terrorism is not the natural and inevitable consequence of Islamic doctrine, but is rather the product of a distinct political subculture which draws on some aspects of Islamic theology, but is very far from the whole of the religion. If the terminology is changed, the opportunity to educate people about the nature of Islamist political theory, and its place within Islamic thought, will have been lost. Worse, some will be drawn towards anti-Muslim demagogues who agree with the Islamists that their understanding of Islam is the only “true” one, and that the anti-Muslim rabble rousers are the only people “telling it like it is”.

There are, broadly speaking, two alternatives to the term “islamist”: an over broad euphemism, or an over-specific Arabic theological term. To take the second, first: “Irhabi” has been suggested by the National Association of Muslim Police. There is a niche set of theologians and counter-extremism professionals who understand that term. Most will simply be bemused by it.  Terms which are not well understood should not be adopted by public bodies. More to the point: what is the value of replacing one Arabic and Islamic term (“jihadist”) with another religious term, if the goal is to break the link between Islam and terrorism?

Euphemisms like “faith based terrorism” are similarly pointless. Their use will sound to the general public as an attempt to disguise the fact that the faith in question is Islam. One can foresee a situation in which “faith based terrorism” will be deployed as a snide and mocking term for “Islam”. 

Putting to one side the loss of confidence in the police that such options would produce, we will have lost the opportunity to make the case that Islamism is distinct from Islam. Ironically, Islamists also rarely make that distinction, either. Neither, for that matter, do far Right extremists. 

There is another aspect to the problem. The police operate as one agency within a network of other public bodies, as part of the CONTEST strategy. That network has its own language that it uses to categorise and describe terrorist attacks, and the term “islamist” is generally the term that they employ. The term is used by the Commission for Countering Extremism to describe a category of extremism. It is employed by police and national security agencies, worldwide. What that means in practice is that, if the police decide to stop using the term “islamist” in public, they will continue to use it within their discussions within the state anti-terrorism network. In other words, this would result in the police using the term “islamist” in private, while refraining from doing so in public. 

I am concerned that a practice of not saying in public what is said in private will seriously undermine public trust in the police. People do not like to feel that they are being treated with kid gloves, or that public agencies are not being frank with them. That sort of conduct, whatever the motivation, results in a huge cratering of confidence. It goes without saying that this would be a terrible outcome: it would result in the likes of Katie Hopkins claiming that they are the only ones who can be trusted to “tell the truth”. 

There is a basic point of institutional function at play. It isn’t the job of the police to make decisions as to the appropriate language that is used in the CONTEST strategy. That is the role of Government. The police should not be attempting to do so unilaterally. 

There are two other points that should be made. One is relatively minor. The other goes to the heart of the issue. 

The police meeting at which the issue of terminology was discussed featured a presentation by a speaker from the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring. There were MCB representatives attending the meeting. Those who participated in the discussion, online and orally, urged a change in terminology. 

The Government broke off relations with the MCB over a decade ago, although sporadic contact continues. The MCB continues to argue that the Government was wrong to do so. Indeed the CfMM’s director, Miqdaad Versi, recently belittled the reasons for that breaking off of contact as motivated by past Deputy Secretary of the MCB having “defended the right to self-defence if foreign forces enter Palestinian territorial waters”. The issue, as he well knows, is that those “foreign forces” included the Royal Navy, which was contemplating enforcing an arms embargo on Hamas. The statement that Abdullah signed was a response to that suggestion, and was properly read as supporting attacks on British forces by Hamas. It is for this reason that the MCB’s representatives should not be part of a consultation exercise with any public body. 

Finally, as Sir John Jenkins observes, what underpins this storm in a teacup is a rather bigger issue. It is necessary to name and describe a problem, and then to implement a policy designed to address it, in order to win. It is impossible to address the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism, without considering the ideological motivation that underpins it. Yet, even after decades of islamist domestic terrorism, successive governments have failed to do so, in a comprehensive manner. As Sir John says:

Nothing happened. Instead we bumbled on in the same old way.  Officials schedule regular meetings with known Islamists.  They listen to siren voices urging a ban on the words, “Islamism” and “Islamists”.  Some people who should know better suggest the press should tone down its coverage of Islamist violence to avoid upsetting anyone. MPs go out of their way to praise fatuous “interfaith initiatives”. Local councillors virtue-signal by adopting counter-productive and badly thought-through definitions of Islamophobia. Newspaper editors self-censor. The Foreign Office, the Home Office, the DfE, the MHCLG and the security agencies still fail to talk properly to each other.  And above all there is no central political grip.

In our Commission for Countering Extremism paper, we focused on the mainstreaming of organisations that hosted Islamist hate preachers. We found that such institutions had been working with the police, politicians of all parties, local councils, and civil society organisations. Some such institutions have received public money. The mainstreaming of groups which promote Islamist politics has undermined the pushback against the ideology that teaches that an Islamic state must be established, and that Muslims have a religious obligationt to create and defend it.  The explanation, in part, is that there is still no real understanding of the link between Islamist political thought and terrorism, or indeed, why Islamism is incompatible with liberal democracy. 

Islamist groups love to fight little battles which they hope will advance their cause, incrementally. It is the job of the government to ensure that they do not succeed.