Last month's killing of 47-year-old history teacher Samuel Paty has proved the final straw for France. Photo by PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images

November 26, 2020   5 mins

President Macron’s hate affair with the American media continues, if a recent New York Times article is anything to go by. The president is not happy, and thinks the Anglo-Saxon press fails to understand French laïcité and the universalist model, as opposed to the Anglosphere model of multiculturalism, with its distinct roots in the British Empire. While this is undoubtedly true, the more pressing issue might be the gulf in understanding of Islamism, the target of Macron’s campaign.

France’s introduction of new measures to combat so-called “Islamist separatism” and the decisions to raid Islamist organisations and dissolve others in the aftermath of Samuel Paty’s murder have caused consternation among Western elites. Over the weekend, Twitter was awash with comparisons between France’s policies and the plight of Jews in 1930s Germany. These conspiratorial takes not only demonstrate a deep moral and intellectual confusion, but at this point they are actively endangering French citizens — almost 300 of whom have been slaughtered in the streets by Islamist murderers in the last few years.

Macron’s strategy against Islamism warrants intense scrutiny, but that scrutiny must start with an acceptance that Islamism is a real phenomenon and a serious challenge to France, both in terms of violent radicalisation and social cohesion.

The Anglosphere should know by now that Islamism does not mean the same as Islamic. As was explained by two of France’s leading scholars, Bernard Haykel and Hugo Micheron, failing to make this differentiation only confirms Islamist and far-right presentation of events.

Modern Islamism has its roots as much in political parties founded in Egypt and the subcontinent during the 20th Century as religious scripture, its ideological trajectory shaped by a series of theorists and scholars right up until the present day.

Islamists are not simply religious conservatives — indeed they are opposed to many traditional cultural practices — and the extent of Islamism is not only defined by acts of terror. It is a comprehensive political theory, albeit one with a religious basis: Islamists seek a fundamental reordering of society and the establishment of a state governed in accordance with the shar’ia.

In recent decades, Islamist strains and factions have emerged with competing strategies for achieving this vision: the patient, gradualist approach of the Muslim Brotherhood or the revolutionary approach of Hizb ut-Tahrir, to the more recent emergence of the global jihadist terror of al-Qaeda and the pornographic violence of ISIS.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential Islamist movement, started life with a focus on grassroots proselytising (dawa), but produced figures like Sayyid Qutb — who famously balked at the moral depravity of a church dance in small-town Colorado — and the “father of modern jihad“, Abdullah Azzam, who lay the foundations for a more militant, global iteration of Islamist theory. They have a shared ideological endgame but difference over strategy, and so it is no coincidence that so many of al-Qaeda’s leadership came from Muslim Brotherhood stock, including the recently departed Aymen al-Zawahiri.

Despite this association and the public perception of “extremists” as snarling, hate-filled thugs, most Islamists are not monsters. They are often educated, compassionate, articulate and charismatic individuals who contribute to their communities. Many sincerely recoil at jihadist violence. The problem, though, is that unlike conservative religions, the political order of even non-violent Islamist imagination is incompatible with modern liberal democratic nation-states, which extend rights and protections based on citizenship rather than religion.

Despite the existence of moderate iterations of Islamism, officials in Paris, Brussels, Vienna and a number of other European capitals have arrived at the conclusion that non-violent Islamism and jihadist terror are inextricably linked,” that jihadists are the armed, militant offshoots of global Islamism. Alain Grignard, a senior Belgian Police Officer and academic, once labelled al-Qaeda “an epiphenomenon” — the most visible aspect of the larger, long-term threat of Islamism.

This lack of visibility is central to the Western dilemma: an openly non-violent Islamist political party could be exposed, debated and its ideas and policies defeated in the public square. But the first generation of Western Islamists, fleeing persecution in the Middle East, established networks of NGOs, think-tanks, charities and religious institutions which vigorously deny connections to Islamist political parties.

Although a minority movement, this archipelago of groups wield disproportionate influence and have successfully spread Islamist thought, while mealy-mouthed condemnations of violence have done almost nothing to counter the negative perceptions of the Muslims they claim to represent. Because of the secrecy of Islamist groups and aggressive legal campaigns against activists, academics and journalists, exposing the true nature of these seemingly innocent and civic-minded organisations is challenging.

This spectre of Muslim Brotherhood clandestine activity is often overplayed in the Right-wing imagination, but the issue is not simply conspiracy. Kamal Helbawy, one of Britain’s most prolific and influential Islamists, left the Muslim Brotherhood precisely because of its secrecy. The satellite organisations’ legal threats against anyone investigating or alleging links to the Brothers were, to Helbawy’s mind, both counterproductive and immoral.

There is a serious debate to be had about the solution to this problem, as their detrimental impact on social cohesion is belied by the fact that many well-meaning supporters and even employees will be none the wiser to the leadership’s Islamist leanings. In France’s case, the state has taken the decision to dissolve some of the most flagrant offenders for threatening the integrity of the Republic.

Even with these non-violent Islamist groups, we are not talking about an equivalent of a continental Christian Democrat party. In France and other European countries there has been a cross-pollination of Islamist and Salafi thought, creating a more animated “separatist” element — hence the emergence of the concept of Frero-Salafiste in French discourse. Powerless in the face of legal threats, ruinous racism accusations and a committed, highly-organised and well-funded movement, civil society has failed to provide an effective opposition, so now the state has stepped in.

Once Western governments engaged with — and even funded — Islamists in the hope of providing a bulwark and moderating influence against “homegrown” jihadist radicalisation. As the Western Islamist movement has evolved, that early gamble’s failure is hard to ignore.

While the individual terrorists understandably catch the state’s attention, terrorism cannot survive without a much wider constituency, from logistical supporters and funders around the inner circle, to enablers, sympathisers and apologists on the edges. While still small, France holds its domestic Islamism problem responsible for the growing size and influence of this broader constituency, believing that tackling it would cut off the oxygen to the most radically violent minority at the core.

Much of the confusion over Paris’s approach stems from the fact that France is dealing with the most entrenched Islamist infrastructure of any Western state, making Macron’s concerns difficult to conceive of for many British, and especially American, observers. Regardless, Anglosphere obscurantism over Islamism as a coherent, intellectual political theory is a much deeper issue.

After the Tsarnaev brothers blew up the Boston Marathon, John Kerry told reporters: “the world has had enough of people who have no belief system, no policy for jobs, no policy for education, no policy for rule of law, but just want to kill people because they don’t like what they see.” The idea that Islamist terrorists not only have “no belief system,” but no vision of the society they seek to usher in is a dangerous delusion, only slightly corrected by the grim arrival of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” one year later.

Even following this horror show, Anglosphere politicians can still be found stumbling to explain “nihilistic” jihadist violence as “senseless” or “mindless”. While too many commentators can understand it only through the lens of revenge: revenge for colonialism, for secularism, for cartoons, for foreign policy — take your pick.

That there is an ideological programme behind the terror, that it is only a means to a utopian end — an end shared by a wide array of violent and non-violent groups — seems to largely escape Anglosphere discussion. Not so in Europe, where a more realistic analysis now holds: and while we can object to Paris or Vienna’s prescriptions to deal with the problem, we have much to learn from the diagnosis.

Liam Duffy is a researcher, speaker and trainer in counter-terrorism based in London.