The ISIS declaration has done more for counter-extremism than any government programme

Islamists in the UK don’t like what they see.

Islamists in the UK don’t like what they see

My very first exposure to Islamist ideology occurred in 1992 when I was 15 years old. I attended a study circle that was being held in my local mosque and heard a passionate and articulate member of Hizb ut Tahrir (HT) decry the evils of western society and the tragic state of Muslim-majority societies around the world.

The Khilafah or Caliphate, i.e. the notion of a global Islamic Empire, was presented as the ultimate solution to all the world’s problems and something every Muslim is obligated to work towards establishing.

Needless to say, my 15-year-old mind was captivated, galvanised and energised with this revolutionary new message and I set about doing all I could to help.

However, with age, experience and a little more research the novelty faded. I soon realised that HT relied on a heavily romanticised view of Muslim history and most of their members were largely politically illiterate, instead coming from IT or hard-science backgrounds.

They also failed to acknowledge simple facts such as there was no consensus amongst Muslims about the necessity of establishing an Islamic state and certainly no consensus about what an Islamic state actually was.

In the absence of such consensuses, working towards the establishment of a political entity reflecting the HT interpretation of Islam seemed futile; it would not work and would ultimately end up relying on the aggressive imposition of one interpretation of Islam on others.

In the 22 years since my first exposure to Islamism, I have encountered many Muslims that have argued for the Khilafah with passion and vigour. These individuals have been members or supporters of HT as well as HT off-shoots like al-Muhajiroun and other groups linked to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat al-Islami.

Incredibly, many of these have been seemingly smart, articulate, balanced and decent people who, for some reason, have desperately clung to this idea and resisted arguments that challenge it. Many of them have expressed their impatience with the current world order and how they can’t wait to move to a land free of western influences that is governed by shariah.

So you can imagine the first thought that occurred to me when ISIS claimed that they had finally established the Khilafah and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the new Caliph.

I immediately took to social media to ask those Islamists, that had still not grown out of what I saw as a teenage attempt at pseudo-intellectual political experimentation, when they would be pledging their allegiance to the new Caliph and moving to ISIS controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.

In spite of posing the question, I wasn’t naïve enough to expect members of groups like HT to sincerely adhere to their own ideology and follow it through to its logical conclusion. I had realised that their highly romanticised vision of an Islamic state resembled Switzerland with shariah-compliant financing, rather than the bloody and chaotic region now controlled by ISIS.

I waited for the excuses and, as predictable as night after day, they arrived.

According to HT, the Khilafah must be established in three distinct stages. The first stage involves what they call culturing, i.e. preparing a sufficient number of people in society for the Islamic state by convincing them it is a political necessity and religious obligation.

The second stage involves interaction with society so that the call for an Islamic state is public and political authorities are directly challenged.

Thirdly, and finally, the carriers of the call need to seek physical support, from those in a position to offer it, in order to establish a state. Once a state (Khilafah) is established and political authority is in the hands of Muslims, a leader (Caliph) who governs by shariah needs to be nominated and all Muslims globally need to pledge allegiance to him.

The above is exactly what ISIS have done. They began as ISI shortly after the US-led invasion and began recruiting and culturing individual members. They then publically challenged the Iraqi government and stated they would continue their fight until their version of an Islamic state was established.

Finally, they sought support from Sunni tribesman in central Iraq and with their help they established a state. Their leader has now been declared Caliph, he governs by his version of shariah and they are now awaiting the allegiance of Muslims around the world.

So let me ask the question again – what exactly are groups like HT waiting for? What about groups like al-Muhajiroun (AM) that have been far more brazen in singing the praises of a Khilafah? Even Ken Livingston’s favourite sheikh, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has waded into the debate, declaring the ISIS Khilafah null and void whilst still clinging to the idea that a better Khilafah, based on consensus, is possible and desirable.

Do these people really think a consensus on a political model and a single leader amongst 1.5 billion culturally and linguistically diverse people is possible? Their rejection of the ISIS Khilafah, in the case of HT and AM, is intellectually inconsistent with their own ideology and yet another sad and predictable example of cognitive dissonance in action.

The ISIS declaration of an Islamic state has done more for counter-extremism efforts than any government programme or civil society group could ever have hoped to have done. In one fell swoop they have exposed the futility of the Islamist struggle and laid bare what it really means to impose one interpretation of Islam on others using force.

Islamists in the UK now don’t like what they see; it’s ugly, brutal and savage but it was always going to thus. Seeking to resurrect a medieval political entity through medieval political means was always going to end in tears and bloodshed.

I have often wondered why people believe the things they do. Political positions and beliefs cannot be simply the result of intellectual reasoning, contemplation and research. Certain ideas just make us feel good and give us a sense of belonging and purpose. They give us a firm sense of identity and community whilst helping to frame and contextualise a complex and confusing world.

Dreams of an ideal Islamist state serve this purpose in the minds of many British Muslims who embrace the Islamist ideology, just as the ideal communist state did for many British communists in the past.

Absolutist and totalitarian visions of an ideal state that is capable of putting the world to rights through strict adherence to a pre-defined and unalterable ideology has proven to be not only unworkable but dangerous.

However, we humans have a habit of not learning from the past and repeating the mistakes of previous generations. Every now and then we are given an opportunity to learn these lessons once more. Right now is one of those opportunities.

Ghaffar Hussain is managing director at counter-extremism think tank Quilliam

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