On ISIS, Islam and Terror: Why Honesty and Bravery is Needed

It’s been several week now since the Paris attacks, and I have bided my time to say my piece, which is a nice way of saying I haven’t got round to finishing it. In the aftermath of such a visceral event it is easy to slide into an angry and emotional narrative that makes one feel better when faced with such threat. This can be “all Muslims are terrorists, send them home!” or “this is all the West’s fault, we are a disgrace!” Both these interpretations were rife, at least on my newsfeed of well-educated lefties, and both are false. One should wait and reflect before pinning the blame on whatever group ones sees as nefarious and villainous, be it immigrant Muslims or Western powers. Life, unfortunately, is never that simple.

What is to follow is my take on this whole affair. I will attempt to attribute blame and responsibility where I see it lies, discuss some of the issues involved, critique much of the reaction – mainly on social media – and offer some very tentative and vague solutions. I believe much of this will indeed centre around left-wing reactions to the attacks that I see as wrong. This is not because I have now set up camp in the opposite side of the political spectrum, but because I feel that if the left doesn’t sort itself out – and quickly – then the electorate will be tempted into the arms of far-right parties. As Nick Cohen says in this informative video, conservative groups have much more success with an electorate when they can say how their left-wing counterparts hate their country, and many on the left seem to be crippled by self-loathing.

One final point before I get started: I am a humanist and want I want, above all, is the progression of the human race. I have no other agenda: I am not Islamaphobic, nor am I racist or xenophobic, and I am fully aware of the West’s shortcomings in foreign policy. The fact I have to make these caveats clear is a frustrating aspect of politics at the moment, as discussed by Sam Harris in this podcast, but this is the environment in which we find ourselves at this moment in time. So, anyway, let us begin.

Who is to blame?

When 130 innocent people are killed in streets of one of Europe’s most iconic and well-loved cities, a day after 41 people were blown up in Beirut, and the day before 147 people – innocent as well – are murdered in cold-blood in Kenya, it is quite natural that people want to attribute blame. In such instances, I think the blame is very clear-cut: it lies with ISIS and the insidious spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, the disastrous war in Iraq created a political vacuum that these black-hearted monsters have occupied with glee, but to blame the attacks on the West, to suggest that we are ‘reaping the rewards of Western intervention’, is, in my opinion, extremely churlish, weak and wrong, particularly as France wasn’t involved in Iraq at all. That mode of thought is dangerous. Children were killed on that Friday night, so what do they have to do with Western foreign policy? I use the example of children deliberately: if I had said families one could counter with ‘they voted for the government who carried out x attacks’ but clearly this is not true of children. Of course, you could argue that by being born in Western society they have benefited from the misdeeds of imperialism, the War on Terror, but it would take an extremely brave person to qualify their death in such a way. Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism predates 9/11, the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. In 1989 copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was being burnt on the streets of the UK;there was an attack in West Germany in 1986 killing three; the Lockerbie bombings were in 1988. The rush to blame Western foreign policy ignores the facts.

I have been making the following comparison for a while and it is one that Rafeal Behr makes too: the war in Iraq is to the rise of ISIS what the Treaty of Versailles is to the rise of the Nazi’s. But, looking back on history, people tend not to apologise for the misdeeds of the Nazi’s on account of the failings of the Treaty. I think history will judge the Iraq war in a similar way. Clearly it has created conditions that were ripe for ISIS but it is doesn’t justify the actions of evil individuals. When you see Yazidi houses being marked out in a chilling fashion, similar to how Nazi’s marked out the Jews, it is hard to see that and think ‘but Afghanistan didn’t work….amiright?’.

A final argument that is often used to attempt to explain the behaviour of Islamists is that in the West they are marginalised, unemployed and disaffected. I have some problems with this interpretation. Firstly, being marginalised, unemployed and disaffected does not justify the murder of innocents. Why should it? Secondly, there are millions of marginalised, unemployed and disaffected people in the Western world so if it were such a pervasive reason for radicalisation we would have many, many more on our hands. Thirdly, a lot of the terrorists that we know of are actually fairly affluent. Jihadi John, for example, the poster boy of brand ISIS, was from a relatively affluent background and was well-educated. He had a degree from Westminster University. Brahim Abdeslam, the man who died on Boulevard Voltaire during the November Paris attacks, owned a bar in the rundown Belgian district of Moleenbek. Hardly an aristocrat, yes, but not exactly a poverty-stricken life. His income was probably more sustainable than most other struggling writers, for example.

Omar Ismail Mostefai, one of the Bataclan murderers, worked as a baker; Cherif Kouachi – one of the Hebdo killers – a pizza deliveryman; Nasser Muthana, one of the high-profile Britons fighting in Syria, was a former medical student. Once again, not living the high life but not cripplingly impoverished. Indeed, even the Guardian concedes in an article in January that “French jihadis heading to Syria are emerging from varied, often middle-class backgrounds, sometimes with a good education and prospects”. Finally, a study done by the psychologist Sageman in 2004 Sageman in 2004 found that 94 of 132 (71%) of Muslim terrorists have some kind of college education and 57 of 134 (43%) were professionals. Clearly, the reasons that compel people to fight Jihad are far more complex than economic hardship and low job prospects. Indeed, if that were the case, nearly all of my fellow LSE graduates who didn’t go into banking would be boarding the next plane to Syria.

I am not trying to suggest that there are not causal factors, such as environment and economic standing, that contribute to a Jihadists decision to fight. Every decision a human being makes is the result of a myriad of complexities. Merely, I am trying to illustrate that there is no simply solution here.

Is ISIS Islamic?

In short, yes. To deny it is false, weak and cowardly. It is like trying to deny that the IRA was about the liberation of Ireland or that the PKK want a Kurdish state. It is part of ISIS’ explicit, stated aims and a massive mobilising factor for their ideology.

The best explanation I have read of ISIS and one that has greatly altered my thinking of the organisation is this one in the Atlantic. ISIS is a religious group and it sees itself as a key player in the fulfilment of an apocalyptic prophesy derived from, yes, the Qu’ran. How is that not Islamic in origins? Yes it is a hateful part of the Qu’ran, yes the Bible has similarly fire and brimstone parts, yes not all Muslims agree with it. But, it is Islamic. Denying it from the fear of seeming Islamophobic or sounding like you read the Daily Mail is truncating rigorous intellectual discussion and debate.

Let us try and explain some of ISIS’ most hateful acts in light of this. ISIS has a disregard for innocent and civilian life. They blow people up in market squares, they shoot people during concerts, they behead journalists. Why? This is because they don’t have the concept of ‘civilian’ as we do, derived from the Geneva convention. Instead, the world of ISIS is divided into believers, i.e. Sunni Muslims, and disbelievers (mushrik or kafir), i.e., the rest of us. To kill a disbeliever, for ISIS, is a moral act in accordance with, for example, Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, which states :‘Fight and kill the idolators (mushrik) wherever you find them’.

Many argue that ISIS are not religious but are nihilistic, a mindless death-cult. Once again, this totally disregards the facts. Janet Daley, writing for the Telegraph, argued the West is at war with a ‘death-cult’, Obama has termed them as ‘nihilistic’ and ‘speaking for no religion’. This is wrong. Nihilism is the belief in no values at all, that there is nothing to be loyal to and no purpose to live. This is not ISIS. Indeed, to paraphrase a good article by Mark Durrie – an article I recommend you read – the boast that ‘ISIS love death like you love life’ is not a nihilistic calls to arms but is a ‘is a theological reference to a series of verses in the Qur’an in which Jews are criticised for desiring life (Sura 2:94-96, 62:6-8).  According to the Qur’an, loving life is a characteristic of infidels (Sura 3:14; 14:3; 75:20; 76:27) because it causes them to disregard the importance of the next life.  The taunt much used by jihadis, ‘We love death like you love life’, implies that jihadis are bound for paradise while their enemies are hell-bound.’ The supposedly nihilistic outlook is in fact deeply rooted in religious scripture. To deny this is wrong.

One of the more idiosyncratic aspects of life in the Islamic State is that Christians are allowed to live as long as they pay a special tax called the jizya. There is scriptural justification for this found in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Qu-ran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” Or, how do we explain ISIS’ disregard for Yazidi life? Well, according to Dabiq, an anonymous magazine acting for ISIS, ‘Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations… Enslaving the families of the kuffar[infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narration of the Prophet… and thereby apostatizing from Islam.’ Once again, the justification for their actions is an appeal to religious scripture. We simply cannot deny this.

Now comes caveat bingo: I am not Islamaphobic, I have no axe to grind, I don’t hate Muslims. But, to deny the Islamic nature of ISIS is so risky and so dangerous that we cannot afford to do so. We must be brave and say it how it is, not how we wish it were.

Social media

Social media, in time of tragedy and crisis, is a terribly predictable place to inhabit. There is the initial shock, the racists, the virtue-signallers and the whatbouters?, who have handily be given an apt name: “tragedy hipsters”. These are the people who, despite having shown no explicit interest in any of the atrocities they harp on about, are perfectly happy to moralise and admonish all those showing any grief at the death of innocent Parisians. “Why aren’t you turning your profile picture into a flag of Beirut?” they ask, “where was the reportage on Baghdad?”

I have quite a lot of contempt for these people because it doesn’t strike me as genuine concern for the lives of other people. Perhaps I am a cynic, but, it seems that the vast majority of these people are suffering from a serious bout of white guilt and want to project that upon other people on their news feeds. Does it really hold that more reportage on France means that you care more about French lives than Lebanese? Or is it that Paris is just over the channel, people have actually visited it and many have friends and family who were in Paris during the attacks? And, is it really appropriate, less than 24 hours after the death of innocent civilians, to use this as an opportunity to show how you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of human suffering and that you’re not interested in mainstream death?

Channel 4 journalist Lidnsey Hilsum has railed against this in a personal blog. She argues, quite cogently, that attacks in other parts of the world are covered but they just aren’t watched. She uses the example that she reported on a bombing in November 2013 that killed 23 people and the video got 80 recommends and 29 retweets. Yet, when Krishnan Guru-Murphy had his argument with Quentin Tarantino, the video got 3.52 million views, and rising. So, is it the evil media that is not covering things because it is inherently racist, or is that people are only interested in other atrocities when it suits their agenda of ‘I’m so much more caring than everyone else’?

Of course Paris was a bigger story than Beirut in the Western world and it is no great sin that it was. Paris represents so much of what we love about the West. It is free, it is secular, people drink, people debate, it is intellectual. An attack on Paris, like the Hebdo attack in January, feels like a direct assault on European liberalism and all that we love about it. Furthermore, as Hilsum continues to argue, it is much easier for ISIS to attack Beirut than it is to attack Paris. So, the Paris attacks were also frightening because it displayed a might that we didn’t necessarily believe ISIS to have.

I really do believe that all those who can’t help themselves but ‘whatabout?’ ought to have a long think about what motivates them to do it. Do you really believe that increased coverage in Paris means that we value French lives better? Did you really care about whatever atrocity you are waving around when it happened? Are you really hoping to educate people about deaths in other parts of the world? Or are you using it is a golden opportunity to puff out your chest and tell the world just how erudite, caring and oh-so culturally sensitive you are?

The Left

The left, in general, offers a limp-wristed response to Islamism. So blinded by its anti-Western, anti-American, anti-media, anti-everything, some on the left cannot see that it is bending over backwards to apologise and justify the actions of people who stand for the exact opposite of what the left stands for: fascism. This tendency can not be more aptly summarised then by the actions of the student union of my beloved LSE: a motion condemning the attacks in Paris failed to pass, a motion condemning the British government’s decision to bomb Syria did. Quite hilarious, really.

Left-wing politics are supposedly about tolerance, diversity, equality – gender, sexual and race – and progression. ISIS and Islamic fundamentalists stand for the exact opposite of this. They are utterly regressive, utterly totalitarian and want to drag humanity back to the 7th Century so that they can see the fulfilment of their ridiculous prophecy and the apocalypse. Why the rush to defend the people who join them? Why the rush to apologise? Why the rush to pin their creation on us? It beggars belief and unless a strong, coherent message is adopted Labour will continue to lose votes and UKIP will continue to gain them.

I see the problem as a fear of association. Many well-meaning, intelligent, left-wing people are fearful of condemning ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism too harshly through fear of procuring uncomfortable allies. You don’t want to be seen to be siding with the likes of the Daily Mail, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, so keep schtum. Yet, this isn’t a new phenomenon for the left. During the era of the Soviet Union, liberals on the left were reluctant to criticise the Soviet block in fear of being associated with the enemy. George Orwell in his prescient foreword to Animal Farm wrote:

You could, indeed, publish anti-Russian books, but to do so was to make sure of being ignored or misrepresented by nearly the whole of the highbrow press. Both publicly and privately you were warned that it was ‘not done’. What you said might possibly be true, but it was ‘inopportune’ and ‘played into the hands of’ this or that reactionary interest.

Indeed, after the Charlie Hebdo massacres, Ian McEwan gave a commencement speech arguing to the students that freedom of speech suffers when we are too scared of getting “applause from the wrong side”. What I am trying to say is that those who say they are progressive should argue against the enemies of progress – in this instance, ISIS and Islamism – without fear of who might agree.


In the time I started writing this and actually finished it, the UK has taken the decision to bomb Syria. I don’t agree with this decision for many reasons which I won’t go into. This essay is far more concerned with the world of ideas and what one who is engaged in the world of discussion can actually do.

Firstly, those who consider themselves to be intellectual must feel honest and brave enough, must resist the temptation to self-censor for fear of causing offence or sounding far-right, to have the conversation about Islam and religion.  Is it our role to be tolerant of the intolerant? Is it Islamaphobic to be honest about the atrocities done in its name? Do we demonise Muslims by saying what we see? These are questions that we need to ask ourselves but we live in a society founded on free speech: we should be able to debate and discuss freely for that is how we progress as a society. The reverse to this is that Islamic fundamentalists who wish to defend ISIS in this country should be given a platform to debate if they so wish. An important aspect of free speech is that you must listen to the views of those you dislike and this applies to Islamists. Watching Anjem Choudary refuse to say whether Maajid Nawaz would be killed as an apostate in his Caliphate can hardly have done his cause much good.

There are some practical steps to take too. For one, in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, no newspapers in the UK decided to print the cartoon. I would argue that if, heaven forbid, something like that were to happen again then all newspapers should show the cartoon. Not doing so was an act of cowardice and we cannot allow, to quote Douglas Murray, one little magazine “to hold the line of freedom of speech.” We printed Piss Christ, we should have printed the Hebdo cartoons.

So my main solution in the area of debate is this: honesty. There are some brilliant thinkers and writers on this subject: Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris, Maryam Nawazie, Douglas Murray, all of whom are worth reading. Also, it is important to remember that Islam is not a race, it is a religion. And like every other religion it is subject to scrutiny and criticism. We, in this country, are quite happy to criticise – quite rightly – Catholicism, Judaism, atheists. So why not Islam? If people take a criticism of their religion as persecution or an attack on them, well, tough.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s