It’s time to stop calling jihadists ‘radicals’

It would be a mistake to see IS as a latter-day national liberation movement acting under the guise of religion


Those who talk of the ‘radicalisation’ of Jihadi John, the British recruit who does the voiceovers for Islamic State decapitation videos in the sort of mockney accent American girls reportedly find irresistible, are missing one blindingly obvious point.

There is no meaningful sense whatsoever in which Mohammed Emwazi can be categorised as a radical. He is very much a political reactionary, and indeed a living exemplar of the dictionary definition of that word.

Of course both concepts – like many other elements of contemporary political discourse, including left and right as points on an ideological spectrum – trace their origins back to the French revolution.

The designation ‘reactionary’ refers to one who advocates a return to an earlier social order. There can surely be no more accurate summation of a movement out to secure the restoration of an Arab variant on feudalism, directly modelled on the seventh century.

It is a mistake to see IS as some latter-day national liberation movement acting under the guise of religion, a twisted reincarnation of the FLN or Viet Cong or Umkhonto we Sizwe, resorting to armed struggle to secure an essentially just end, and thus in possession of some claim on the moral solidarity of the western left.

Its is a movement of theocratic totalitarianism that aims is to impose, by force of arms, an absolutist reading of Islam of anyone unlucky enough to come within its grasp. The parallel drawn by Kenan Malik with the long-forgotten creed of nihilism strikes me as at the very least a suggestive one.

As IS has already shown in the territory in which it holds sway, it is ready to murder religious and sexual minorities, violently enforce patriarchy, destroy non-Muslim antiquities and to amputate and execute for infractions of its particularist interpretation of sharia. The kicker is, it wants to extend its domination across the entire planet.

Asim Qureshi of advocacy group Cage yesterday described Emwazi as “extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”.

It cannot be excluded that he once really was a smashing bloke who used to give his mother flowers and that, and only wanted to visit Tanzania out of a burning desire to witness giraffes in the wild.

But Emwazi is now a suspected mass murderer, complicit in and very likely responsible for taking at least seven lives for the benefit of the camera.

To brand such actions as ‘radical’ runs against every usual connotation of a word coined by a whig politician in 1797 to describe a demand for electoral reform.

Radicalism ever since have generally been a description of patrician progressives, dispensing benefactions de haut en bas to the grateful masses.

In British history, the phenomenon has been broad enough to encompass Tories such as Oastler and Liberal radicals such as Lloyd George.

But most reasonable people would recognise the difference between advocating factory legislation and pensions, and hacking the head off a hapless taxi driver seeking to deliver aid consignments to Syria.

More recently, ‘radical right’ has sometimes been used as a label for post-fascist formations such as Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale and France’s Front nationale, although most political sociologists prefer to call these parties populist right.

It does not usually fall to me to insist on fairness towards such unpleasant figures as Gianfranco Fini or Marine Le Pen, but they have worked within the democratic process to secure their ends. Not even that applies to Jihadi John.

The boundaries of radicalism, then, clearly are somewhat flexible. But they should not be stretched beyond breaking point.

Aneurin Bevan once noted that a reactionary was ‘a man walking backwards with his face to the future’. Let us be clear that Emwazi is precisely that, and that is not the least of the reasons why the left should not be lining up behind his apologists.

David Osland is a London-based journalist and writer

13 Responses to “It’s time to stop calling jihadists ‘radicals’”

  1. Kryten2k35

    When do we start calling them murderers and lunatics?

  2. damon

    His accent isn’t mockney, it’s called ”multicultural London English”

  3. mdjcole

    The Viet Cong established a one party dictatorship which ruthlessly murdered its opponents, causing millions to flee on improvised rafts. Algeria seems to be a less formalised oligarchy. South Africa turned out much better, but its democratic reconciliation approach is clearly the outlier in terms of outcomes of “national liberation” wars, not the norm.

    So is there really a difference here, or has JJ merely not receded far enough into history for his crimes to be forgotten and his victories celebrated? Would you say that JJ is significantly different from, say, Mugabe, or the Kim dynasty? Or Idi Amin, “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, a purported uxoricide and cannibal, who ordered his military to murder an elderly British Jewish lady in retaliation for Israeli freeing hostages he conspired to be held prisoner in one of his military bases? Or have they been posthumously and involuntarily expelled from the movement?

    The particular ideological and rhetorical drapery of Marxism may have been replaced by Islam, a new theology for a new time. But in terms of his means and ends of war, this is what “national liberation” does and is. What it has always been. I see no evidence that anything has changed.

  4. John Morgan

    How can that be, Damon. Islam is the antithesis of multiculturalism, so jj musn’t be expected to speak such a tongue, surely?

  5. JoeDM


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