The world has experienced a surge in the frequency of Islamist-linked terrorist activity, with mass-casualty attacks in London, Manchester, Kabul, Kolofata and al Hazm, causing a total of 87 deaths in the mere six days since the start of June. With critically important elections approaching in several nations, the emotions generated by these attacks have the potential to create a disproportionate impact, and if left unchecked will achieve the attackers’ aims far more effectively than the violent acts themselves. In this piece (part of a two-part point-counterpoint series alongside Simon Schofield) former British Army Intelligence officer Lewis Tallon examines the direct value of liberalism to counter-terrorism efforts, and the risks posed by growing intolerance in the wake of terrorist incidents.
The ultimate goals and motivations of extremist groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and others are complex, translucent and often contradictory. While many claim to understand the forces driving young men and women to turn to violence against civilians, the reality is that the factors which contribute can fall beyond the understanding of even those individuals behind the violence. While extremist religious dogma certainly plays a significant role in the inspiration of violence, as demonstrated by the cyclical increase in attacks during Ramadan, it is far from the sole root cause and in many cases may be little more than a convenient outlet for frustrated, disillusioned, and isolated individuals.
In the Western world these myriad radicalising factors can be extremely compelling for a very small cross-section of Islamic communities who may find themselves experiencing a severe identity crisis, considering themselves to be neither true members of their national community or that of their ethno-religious community. This situation is unquestionably worsened by growing divides between secular and Islamic communities, leading to self-generating animosity between the two. This cultural divide creates multiplying recruitment opportunities for extremist groups who seek to target lonely, isolated and disillusioned individuals. An examination of the personal backgrounds of the perpetrators of historical attacks supports this, with many being new converts to Islam, often with a background of haraam (un-Quranic) behaviour such as the consumption of alcohol and drugs. These individuals have in some cases even demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of their own claimed religion.
While unchecked religious extremism absolutely cannot be allowed in a tolerant, secular democracy, religious repression and a discriminatory atmosphere directed at the Islamic community only serves to worsen the problem by increasing cultural divides and ethnic animosity which in turn creates further opportunities for Islamist recruitment. In addition to this, the aggressive curtailment of civil rights such as through policies of increased electronic surveillance has shown little impact on the frequency of terror attacks. As discussed previously on this site, in the modern world there is simply too much ‘noise’ to effectively monitor online communications, meaning that the repression of online freedom achieves little in the way of tangible results while surrendering key rights unique to the liberal, democratic world.
Additionally, the alienation of the broader Islamic community only serves to remove one of the Counter-Terrorism Community’s greatest assets from the fight; moderates who themselves see the threat posed by extremists. Cooperation with the Islamic community has repeatedly proven extremely valuable to Intelligence and Law Enforcement agencies, with vigilant communities monitoring for and regularly reporting potential risks. The staunch resistance to Islamic State values, Fatwas against extremism, and Jihads against terrorism within the Islamic world demonstrate the potential among this community for cooperation on the issue. Inter-cultural cooperation of this kind also serves to frustrate extremists, who have repeatedly called for the elimination of the “grey zone” between Muslims and Non-Muslims.
The Islamic community, which is affected on a far greater scale by terrorism, also holds one of the most powerful weapons in the ideological struggle for the minds of would-be Jihadis; that of educated denunciation. Islamic clerics with a deep understanding of Islam are able to devastatingly denounce the violent acts of terrorists as haraam, citing a wide repertoire of Quaranic sources. The first Caliph of the Islamic World, Abu Bakr, gave clear instructions for strictly defensive wars that the soldiers of the Islamic Caliphate (which the Islamic State now claims to have superceded) were to follow, stating, “Do not betray or be treacherous or vindictive. Do not kill the children, the aged or the women.” Without the cooperation of educated and moderate clerics who can speak to such matters with authority amongst the Islamic community, extremists will be free to spread their perverted corruption of the faith and to continue the radicalisation and recruitment of would-be Jihadis.
While it is certainly difficult to see the effectiveness of liberalist values in the wake of continuing terrorist attacks, it is absolutely critical that fear does not allow an erosion of the values which make the Western world so threatening to Islamist ideology. Any such erosion is both exacerbating the problem by increasing social divides and thus increasing Jihadi recruitment, and achieving the key Islamist goal of the destruction of the liberalist world. It is also important to recognise that, while shocking and tragic, terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly impotent and that fatalities from such events are now significantly lower than in previous decades.
It must now be asked; to what extent are we willing to abandon our liberalist values to defend against a threat that (as an annualised average) kills fewer people in the United Kingdom than bee-stings.
Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.
Photo credit: West Midlands Police