To tackle Islamist extremism, we must rekindle pride in the British traditions of dissent, democracy and solidarity

The barbarism of IS can never be justified. Yet it is incumbent on political leaders in Britain to try to explain and tackle the very real appeal that fighting in Syria exerts for some.

The barbarism of IS can never be justified. Yet it is incumbent on political leaders in Britain to try to explain and tackle the very real appeal that fighting in Syria exerts for some.

As well as being anathema to human dignity and the right to life and liberty, the incubus of Islamic State (IS) should be understood as part of a particularly violent symptom of globalisation.

In a world that is witnessing, from Thailand to Russia to the United States, the reactionary re-assertion of cultural identities in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, the appeal of the idea of a worldwide community of Muslims, expressed in the concept of the ummah, should not be dismissed.

To argue, as Mehdi Hasan does, that ‘the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement’ is something of a denial of reality, since IS exploits the sectarian divisions that were first formed during the fight over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammed beginning in the 7th century.

Islamism also takes something of a fundamentalist warrant from the depiction in scripture of beheadings, the idea of jihad, of takfiri excommunication and the punishment of perceived apostasy.

However, Hasan is right to quote the belief that, alongside the cultivation of Islamist ideology, factors of ‘moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose’ are at work in helping to draw hundreds of young British Muslims to fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The hollowing out of British political discourse, in an era that has seen the country’s leaders prostrate themselves before the mores of neo-liberal finance, also has a role in clearing the path for extremist narratives.

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama suggested the year 1989 represented the ‘end of history’ because it symbolised the triumph of liberal capitalism; in the words of John Gray this was the apotheosis of the idea that ‘the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government’.

As Gray argues, this suggestion was ‘absurd’; the end of the Cold War heralded a period in which, in Tony Blair’s 2001 words, the kaleidoscope had been shaken, but in which fundamental cooperative efforts aimed at bolstering global democracy, accountability and the redistribution of wealth failed to be undertaken.

Instead this moment was the ultimate missed opportunity, wasted on mawkish Blairite soundbites and on further deregulation of the banks during US President Bill Clinton’s second term.

The barbarism of IS can never be justified. Yet it is incumbent on political leaders in Britain to try to explain and tackle the very real appeal that fighting in Syria exerts for some.

While being founded in a particular, fundamentalist view of Islam, this force also takes its raw energy from a revolt against the deracinating logic of a world that is institutionally geared in favour to control by the world’s richest states in the form of unaccountable bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

What is required is a shift in political leadership on two dimensions: democracy and spiritual reclamation.

Statements of principle about democracy need to be brought in line with reformed domestic practice. There needs to be a bolstering of what the late Labour MP Tony Benn called Britain’s democratic safeguards through reform of the EU and more transparent government.

Executive government and the increasingly presidential office of prime minister must be held to account by strengthened House of Commons select committees, by reform of the shadowy Royal Prerogative and by stronger protections for freedom of speech.

A new discourse also has to reclaim Britishness. It must re-inject energy into narratives founded in the humanistic, libertarian writings of John Milton and Thomas Paine, the battle for suffrage and trade union representation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the solidarity of the Second World War and the munificence of Britain’s rich immigrant experience.

Britishness means diversity, community and freedom; it means respect for free discussion and the exchange of ideas; it captures a particular type of liberalism that is proud of its pluralism yet rooted and confident in the finest traditions of its own history.

Robert F Kennedy once said United States GNP figures told people everything they needed to know about America except what it meant to be American. In a similar vein, Britain needs to reclaim its spirit of comradeship while repossessing the essence of our own battle for freedom of expression and democracy – whether this was against repressive troops at Peterloo or on the battlefield at Waterloo.

The best traditions of Britain, and the ones that still have the power to bind together our increasingly diverse community, are those that evoke the spirit of solidarity and dissent that was built during the long fight for British democracy.

Dr Benedict Greening is a guest researcher at the Quilliam Foundation. He also teaches international history at the London School of Economics and is a freelance journalist

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