Following ISIS’s demise, Islamists around the world have been forced to radically reassess their strategy against the West. Dashing the utopian hopes of its sympathisers, the fall of the Caliphate has set back the Islamist cause for decades. Just as when many Communists became disillusioned once their ideology had been implemented in the Soviet Union, ISIS’s barbarity can no longer be ignored.
True, even in 2021, some groups such as the resurgent Taliban and Boko Haram — to say nothing of the Iranian regime — remain committed to a type of Islamist militancy that includes an emphasis on violence, with all the human suffering that entails. But for the most part, jihadist militancy has proved unpopular among Muslims, often inviting a violent counter-reaction. Its promise of an Islamist dream state has lost its appeal.
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Yet Islamists in the West appear to have found a possible solution that sidesteps, at least for now, the use of explicit violence. The core of this alternative strategy is to focus as much as possible on dawa.
Nearly 20 years after 9/11, Westerners still remain unfamiliar with dawa. In theory, the term simply refers to the call to Islam, a kind of invitation; Westerners would recognise it as part of a proselytising mission. In practice, however, Islamists rely on dawa as a comprehensive propaganda, PR and brainwashing system designed to make all Muslims embrace an Islamist programme while converting as many non-Muslims as possible.
Among Western analysts, dawa — which became a tool of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 20th century — has traditionally received far less attention than militant jihad, though observers have emphasised its importance in the “humanitarian” activities of Hamas.
In Unveiled, the ex-Muslim Yasmine Mohammed compellingly describes her difficult marriage to the Egyptian jihadist Essam Marzouk. Yasmine commented on the rivalry that exists between jihadists (such as her ex-husband) and ostensibly “non-violent” Islamists:
“The truth is that Essam hated the [Muslim] Brotherhood: he thought Islamists were a bunch of pansies. He was actually aligned with a more militant group in Egypt called Al Jihad, who were the Egyptian wing of Al Qaeda. Both Islamists and jihadis have the same goal — to spread Islam — but they have different methods. Islamists want to do this through passive means such as politics, immigration and childbirth.”
This important point is often lost on politicians in Western countries. For no matter what misguided retired CIA officials may claim, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are neither moderate organisations nor pluralist partners in civil society. Islamist groups are certainly not likely to prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims. Instead, as one observer noted more than a decade ago, “the history of the Brotherhood movement shows, in fact, that it has operated by and large not as a firewall against jihadism, but as a fertile incubator of radical ideas in a variety of locales”.
In a cynical way, Islamists achieve far more through dawa than when they confine themselves to simply blowing things up and stabbing people to death. The threat is not as obvious. Jihad and the use of violence tend to provoke an immediate response. With dawa, on the other hand, it is possible to talk about charity, spirituality and religion — and then compare it to normal religious proselytising missions. In a free society, what reasonable person would take issue with that?
But dawa is also about building networks: local, regional and international. In The Call, Krithika Varagur revealed both the enormous global scale and opaque nature of these efforts. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has channelled billions of dollars into dawa — with much of it directed into the US.
In the West, these regimes are not given much thought, nor is the Islamist infrastructure in the United States. Nonetheless, Islamism is spreading within Western institutions, and it’s largely thanks to an unlikely alliance: dawa has recognised the alluring power of “woke”, and has started to adopt the language of civil rights and multiculturalism.
Of course, this is not an entirely American phenomenon, but the energy in our progressive movement has taken this cooperation one step further. In France, by contrast, “Islamo-gauchisme” (Islamo-Leftism) is much more likely to be correctly identified as a threat to the model of universal, secular and republican citizenship. In Britain, it remains less prominent, confined to fringe politicians such as George Galloway, who believes that “the progressive movement around the world and the Muslims have the same enemies”.
Yet as historian Daniel Pipes has noted, the relationship between Islamism and extreme Leftism is nothing new. In 2007, Oskar Lafontaine, former chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic party, noted: “Islam depends on community, which places it in opposition to extreme individualism, which threatens to fail in the West. [In addition,] the devout Muslim is required to share his wealth with others. The Leftist also wants to see the strong help the weak.”
But the internal tension between “wokeism” and Islamism is never far away. Just look at Al Jazeera, which uploads documentaries about transgender rights on to its social media channel, while broadcasting sermons suggesting husbands should beat their wives on its Arabic station.
Nevertheless, the two movements do share objectives. Both are anti-West and anti-American. Both have a critical attitude towards “capitalism” based on individualism. True, the Islamists have been around for much longer. But Islamist ideologues are willing to co-operate with non-Muslim Leftists as long as it serves their purposes.
To their credit, some on the Left refuse to countenance Islamism, as they become increasingly aware of the contradiction between supporting universal human rights (including women’s rights) and the demands of Islamists. In France, for example, the centre-Left former Prime Minister Manuel Valls courageously denounced Islamo-Leftism without the least hesitation.
In the United States, however, such vocal opposition from the Left is increasingly rare. Indeed, at the 2019 Netroots Nation conference — America’s “largest annual conference for progressives” — multiple panel discussions and training sessions reflected the Islamist agenda, frequently coalescing around a critique of Israel while neglecting the toxic role played by Hamas in perpetuating the conflict. Meanwhile, Linda Sarsour, a feminist organiser and co-chair of the “Women’s March”, has made her support for Islamism more explicit: “You’ll know when you’re living under Shariah law if suddenly all your loans and credit cards become interest-free. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?”
In government, too, Islamism’s capture of progressivism has become increasingly clear. Turkey’s Islamist President Erdogan might lead one of the world’s most brutal and repressive regimes, but that hasn’t stopped Ilhan Omar, the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, from expressing support for him. No doubt she was inspired by Erdogan last year when he proclaimed that “social justice is in our book”, and that “Turkey is the biggest opportunity for western countries in the fight against xenophobia, Islamophobia, cultural racism and extremism”.
Erdogan, in effect, was explicitly using progressive rhetoric. It’s a move that’s since been mirrored in Iran. The Tehran Times — which describes itself as “a loud voice of the Islamic Revolution” — recently attacked former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for his “deep-rooted Islamophobia”. And in March, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif “lauded the determination of Islamic countries to address Islamophobia as one of the main challenges facing the Islamic Ummah [community in the West]”. Islamists, in other words, are becoming skilled at wrapping themselves in a mantle of woke words, while engaging in systematic brutality and repression within their own countries.
To this new alliance between Islamism and progressive rhetoric, there is no simple response. Dawa, by its very nature, is inherently more difficult to fight than jihad. But those who believe, as I do, in a free, open, pluralist society need to be aware of the nature and magnitude of this new challenge. After two decades of fighting Islamist terrorism, we have a new and more subtle foe to contend with. Wokeism has long been regarded as a dangerous phenomenon — but only now are we starting to see why.