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Thought-Stoppers for Policy-Makers

Are these the five hydra heads of the Islamist monster? For those addicted to conspiracy theories, probably, yes. Are conspiracy fears a sound basis for foreign and domestic policy? Well, no.

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language", wrote George Orwell in Politics and the English Language. "It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts". I doubt that he was referring to writing on religion, though this might warrant his strictures today.

Like a "cuttlefish squirting out ink" - Orwell's words - we retreat from religious threats into clouds of murky "isms": secularism, Islamism, extremism. The American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, uses the phrase "thought-stoppers". Orwell would have approved. Words whose meanings remain unexamined lend themselves to conflicts, imaginary and real; they fall into a peculiarly modern category of "thought-stoppers".

It is not just, as Madeleine Albright once said, that whenever the United States wages war on an "ism", it comes unstuck. She was referring to a well-defined term, terrorism. It is that undefined "isms" stop you thinking clearly. They squeeze complex changes and questions into the shape of a simple binary opposition. The world's conflicts become defined as undifferentiated, contending blocs, interlocutors for positions their adherents may not hold. And the resulting strategies for resolving these problems lead to more intractable problems and conflicts.

Take Islamism, one of the least happy of our recent "isms". Recently it seems to have displaced "political Islam" as the number one threat to western civilization. Muslims, like Christians, want the values of their faith woven into the texture of the societies in which they live. How this is achieved is the critical issue. "Islamism" is used to cover at least five different schools of thought promoted by Muslim theorists. Worse, each of these schools has been evolving over the decades. Each responds to the problem posed to a global religion by the nation-state.

The first, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ikhwan, has budded off political parties from its social movements. Members vary as to the value of the Islamic democratic strategies promoted by Rashid al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. But the price of national electoral success, governing, is high for those committed to a religious vision - and rhetoric - about the ordering of society. Just as European Christian Democrat parties soon lost specifically Christian content from their governance, so Islamic equivalents have to focus on the socio-economic achievement if they are to stay in power. Whether they are competent to do so, or whether failure leads by default to authoritarian rule, legitimized by religion, remains to be seen.

The second global network is Salafi, a pietistic movement but, in Egypt, thrust unprepared into party politics. Their emphasis is on transformation of the individual into - what is imagined to be - the model of conduct found in the early Muslim community. Despite a vibrant youth culture and innovative approaches to daw' a, calling youth to compliance with what Salafis consider Muslim normative behaviour, for large numbers of urban Egyptian Muslims, their party Annour (Light) is a threatening political project, and for Ikhwan, a confounded nuisance splitting the Muslim vote.

Neo-traditionalism, the third, has stuck to its principle of shunning party politics. The lay movement, Hizmet (service) founded by Fethullah Gulen in Turkey, is a good example, a remarkably successful network with powerful educational and communications outreach. There are similarities in membership growth and penetration of society with the Catholic movements Communio e Liberazione and Opus Dei. "Neo" because the movement aspires to a peaceful Islamic modernity more in keeping with a secular state than traditional ulama - led clerical Islam, but no less pious.

At the other end of the spectrum are takfiris (rejectionists) such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. With some million adherents, they demonstrate an aggressive rejection of democracy, a refusal to vote in national elections, and seek the establishment of a Muslim Caliphate and implementation of Shari'a law. The rejection of "western" culture and politics, the equation of decadence with democracy, are themes that impede social cohesion, play on alienation, and encourage a perverse and atavistic form of identity politics.

The fifth, tiny jihadi network casts its shadow over all the others. It proclaims that armed struggle and terrorism are an individual responsibility for all Muslims, the only realistic way to political power. Al-Qaida ideology promotes a global war for the universal Caliphate; the focus of other terrorist groups, such as Islamic Jihad and Boko Haram, is national - though sharing Al-Qaida goals. Jihadists are both anti-political and anti-traditionalist in their individualism and indifference to traditional Islamic law and practice.

Are these the five hydra heads of the Islamist monster? For those addicted to conspiracy theories, probably, yes. Are conspiracy fears a sound basis for foreign and domestic policy? Well, no.