In the almost 30 years that I have lived in the West, discussion surrounding Islamism has been stymied by one thing: the naïve belief that it will magically disappear. After every Islamist attack, promises are made. Ambitious changes to anti-terror programmes are ordered. Politicians line up to announce that this is the last time.
And yet somehow — despite all the vigils, all the pledges, all the policy announcements — Islamism remains as potent as ever.
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It is two weeks to the day since Sir David Amess was stabbed to death — and already it seems like it’s old news, discarded from the national conversation. This is partly due to the reporting restrictions put in place after a suspect was charged; Ali Harbi Ali is not a murderer until proven as such.
But that should not prevent us from having a broader discussion, on a societal level, about the way we respond — or, more important, do not respond — to acts of terrorism. For it seems to me that there is an implicit message in our reluctance to dwell on Amess’s death: we are content to accept that, despite the horror that follows every attack, Islamist terrorism, if indeed that is what it is, is a fact of life.
We will grieve for individuals such as David Amess, and for other innocent victims whose names and faces we don’t know or remember. But terror is no longer seen as something that will go away; it is something we just need to get used to.
Part of this defeatism has been dominant since I fled Somalia as a teenager. Islamism, in essence, is a political philosophy, one that is rooted in jihad but seeks to describe how society should be run. It is more than an irrational and violent ideology: it is an attack on liberalism itself.
But for the past three decades, the West’s response has been one of cowardice masked by arrogance. We needn’t fight back; it’s much better, we’re told, to stay quiet in the hope that, one day, those who hold competing ideologies will come through and see things from our side. Evidently, it is not working.
More concerning, though, is the rise of a new type of defeatism — this time disguised as a progressive form of self-flagellation. Imagine you are a young British Muslim. At school and university, you’re repeatedly warned about Britain’s colonial roots; that the country your parents fled to, in the hope of escaping persecution and anarchy, is the cause of it all. And then you’re told: don’t worry, it’s not your fault. You are merely a victim; evil white people are all to blame.
This dispiriting approach to education, which has taken hold on both sides of the Atlantic, is often justified using the rhetoric of “equality” and “diversity”. In practice, however, I suspect it is more helpful to view it in the context of something called “dawa”. In Arabic, the term simply denotes a centuries-old, non-violent call to Islam — though in practice, it has become a tool used by Islamists to encourage Muslims to embrace their extreme ideology and disavow the West. More often than not, this is achieved by branding Western society as ungodly and sinful, as something that needs to be either reformed or destroyed. In other words, you have two choices: either come and join us, or we’ll need to wage a holy war.
Whether they realise it or not, progressives are saying something strikingly similar. In their eyes, too, the West is evil, home to foundational structures that serve only the white, heterosexual, male oppressor. So when the Islamists come along and say that Allah has given you a higher purpose, one that will culminate with ending the wickedness of the West, young British Muslims are already half-way there. Hatred for their country is all they know.
That’s how a 22-year-old man can be driven to carry out a suicide bomb attack at a concert largely attended by children. Or how two men in their twenties can become inspired to behead an off-duty British soldier in broad daylight. Or how three teenage girls from East London can be coaxed into joining Isis.
Of course, none of this to say that identity politics or other forms of progressivism are solely to blame for the rise of Islamism. The influence of dawa across Europe and America is deeply concerning. And, as I have written before for UnHerd, Muslim communities need to do more to stop their young from being drawn into extremism.
But the difference with our insistence on demonising the West is that it’s a problem of our own making — and it’s something that we can fix. The most obvious way to start would be by devising a curriculum that doesn’t seek to portray Britain and America as evil at every turn.
More urgently, though, liberalism needs to shake off its defeatist malaise and learn to compete with those ideologies that would see it destroyed. To new immigrants, as well as to our own schoolchildren, we need to teach the incredible success story of our way of life. We need to remind our younger generations why it’s better to live in Britain than, say, Somalia. The answer isn’t mysterious. I certainly feel no shame in saying it: there, women are treated as second-class citizens, and barbarity seeps into every aspect of your life. There, you have no liberty or rule of law.
In the West, on the other hand, we have all this and more. Perhaps above all else, we have the opportunity to die peacefully in our bed, of old age, surrounded by our family. That isn’t something that should be taken for granted; I should know. And yet we seem to have forgotten this, distracted by waging a toxic forever war which prioritises division over community.
But this is not a fight we can afford to sit out. Until we decide that the West is worth defending, Islamism will not be defeated — and innocent people will continue to be killed.
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