‘Radical Islamic terrorism’? Problematic assumptions


It is a misconception that the Islamic State is focused on fighting the United States or the broader West, says Richard Stengel, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

“I led the State Department’s agency that sought to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda efforts and saw this firsthand,” he writes for The New York Times:

More than 80 percent of the Islamic State’s propaganda is in Arabic. Russian is the second-most-used language, while English and French are tied for third. The United States is not the Islamic State’s main audience. We have always been the distant enemy…. So, jettison “violent extremism,” but let our Arab allies know that “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism” refers only to the tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who have embraced violence. Tell them we need their help both on the military battlefield and in the information and intelligence space.

“It is not up to us to say what is Islamic and what is not. Only the voices of mainstream Muslims and independent clerics in Muslim countries can create a narrative that refutes the Islamic State’s and offers a more positive alternative,” Stengel adds. “A tweet from the United States government saying the Islamic State is a distortion of Islam is not going to hurt the group. Instead, it will help its recruiting.”

Problematic assumptions

There is a need to unpack the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” itself to gain deeper insights into this matter, notes one observer:

  • Firstly, the phrase “radical” needs re-examination. Terrorism scholar Alex Schmid suggests that an analytical distinction between “radical” and “extremist” is important. While radicals preach a root-and-branch transformation of society, they need not necessarily do so violently. They may be debated with and even won over to one’s side, such as the former British Hizbut Tahrir activists Maajid Nawaz [right] and Ed Husain, who nowadays engage in the ideological counter-attack against the likes of IS with the needed familiarity and nuance….
  • Secondly, use of the term “Islamic” is unhelpful. Islam the religion is not the problem. It is the power-driven, organised violent Islamists who are. Technically, therefore the Trump administration should be targeting Islamism and not Islam. At the moment, though, ambiguity seems rife. While some senior US officials have apparently identified the religion itself, rather mistakenly, as a “cancer”, others argue the real problems are “enemy doctrines” and the “ideology”….
  • Thirdly, the term “terrorism” seems rather narrow. The Trump administration appears aware that it is not just the physical networks but the “enemy doctrines” driving them that are of concern. Terror cells and extremist Islamist ideology aside, what terrorism scholar Scott Atran calls the “passive infrastructure” or the supporting ecosystem of Islamist extremism should also be targeted.


Islamic Liberalism: Real or False Hope?

Predominantly Muslim societies suffer from low levels of political, economic, and civil liberties. Authoritarian political regimes, rigid social structures, and radical religious movements that suppress human liberty in the name of God loom large in the Muslim world. Is this liberty deficit due to a “dark age” of Islam, which can be overcome with reform and a different religious interpretation? Can Islam make its peace with liberal democracy, as Christianity and other religions did after their own illiberal ages? Or is there something different about Islam, making it inherently incompatible with a secular government and a free society? Mustafa Akyol [left], a longtime defender of “Islamic liberalism,” is optimistic. Shadi Hamid is more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in the sense of being essentially resistant to liberalism.

Featuring Mustafa Akyol, Author, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), Visiting Senior Fellow, The Freedom Project, Wellesley College; and Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy Studies, Brookings Institution; moderated by Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute.

February 15, 2017. 4:00PM to 5:30PM. Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute. RSVP

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