Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
[Malcolm X, Oxford Union, 1964]
The word extremism does not have an intrinsic moral value. It is neither good nor bad. The application of the word in various contexts facilitates our ability to pass moral judgement. Echoing Malcolm X, in one context extremism may be virtuous; in another, it may be a vice. Before we elaborate on some examples, the definition of the word needs to be understood.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “extremism” is defined as “the holding of extreme political or religious views”. This conjures up an array of meanings including fanaticism, radicalism, zealotry, fundamentalism, dogmatism, bigotry, and militancy. Not all of these synonyms are negative. Being fanatical about justice and compassion is not necessarily a bad thing. Providing radical solutions to political and social problems can facilitate progress and liberty. Being zealous with economic reforms to ensure the eradication of poverty is to be applauded.
Nelson Mandela is an apt case study. Mandela was deemed as an extremist by our own British government in the 1980s. In fact, the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher, accused Mandela of being a terrorist, and the Conservative Party at the time were campaigning for his execution. However, before and after Mandela’s death, there has been a global consensus concluding that he was a man of reconciliation. As well as a symbol of strength and power against unjust, racist and tyrannical regimes, he is now remembered as a beacon of peace. From this perspective, it seems that the passing of time is the greatest friend of the truth in understanding who the “extremists” are.
Extremism as a word needs to be applied to a particular context in order to be understood. From the perspective of the British government, extremism is defined as “the public and vocal opposition against British values”. The government have defined these to be democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs. We have already elaborated on the correlation between Islam and British values, hence it is not the scope of this article to readdress their compatibility.[i] In a nutshell, Islam and British Muslims are here to stay, and their values are congruent with the government’s definition. However, this must be understood within the obvious differences between the secular and theistic moral ontologies. The article that addresses this issue, entitled Is Islam Compatible with British Values? concludes:
“In this article, we have shown that there seems to be an overlap between the government’s idea of what British values are and Islamic values. We have been consistently advising and empowering the Muslim community to not only practice these values, but compassionately and peacefully articulate them to the wider society…We strongly urge the Muslim community in Britain to be a manifestation of the values we have discussed in this article. We must be compassionate, tolerant, and obey the law. It is essential that we engage in civic activities, by promoting a just society that takes those in power to account, and is involved in a process that facilitates that. The fact that we have common values must be promoted to encourage community cohesion…Notwithstanding this exercise, it is important to note that values are understood and contextualised via the philosophical foundations of a particular way of life. Since Islam is a comprehensive belief system, it too has an intellectual basis that shapes its values. Therefore, although we can clearly maintain that Islamic values contain concepts of tolerance, justice, accountability, individual rights and the rule of law – just like the government’s conception of British values – it doesn’t mean that there is an overlap in what it means – for example, to be “just” and what exactly justice entails in a particular context. We have to be mature and understand that even if the government states that British values are “X”, it doesn’t mean the whole country understands “X” the way the government does. Remember, words are vehicles to meanings, we need a nationwide conversation on not just labels and slogans, but on meaning, application and context.”[ii]
Ambiguity in definition
Notwithstanding this, it is critical to highlight the practical and social absurdities with the government’s conception of extremism.
The first point we would like to discuss is the ambiguity of the government’s definition. Words are vehicles to meaning. However, what is meant by democracy, tolerance and liberty for one person can be different for another. The government uses these words in an ambiguous way without providing sufficient details and examples. The words that describe British values obviously have dictionary definitions, however, there is an assumption that the real-life application of the meaning of these words is universally understood. In order to establish a consensus, a national conversation is required.
We would argue that this ambiguity is irresponsible because it creates a semantic vacuum, which leads to uncertainty and confusion. This is counterproductive, as the whole point of defining what these values are is to establish social unity. We can’t unify on uncertainties; what comes from uncertainty is uncertainty itself. Our humble advice on this would be to elaborate on what these values mean by applying them to appropriate contexts. Once this is done it can facilitate a wider debate on what we want our values to be and look like.
Albeit, trying to establish a top-down consensus on these values would be the antithesis of a modern liberal nation. Liberalism has a principle of neutrality, which means that liberal nations do not, or in theory, should not promote any conception of the ‘good life’. In other words, liberal nations must allow a ‘marketplace’ of conflicting and competing conceptions of the ‘good life’. According to this principle, the best conception of the ‘good life’ will emerge due to the assumption that individuals will make the best choices on how to live their lives. A liberal government has to maintain a principled distance when it comes to the conception of the “good life” or what its citizens should value. Hence, one of the defining features of a liberal state is to remain as impartial as possible concerning people’s personal belief and values. From a liberal perspective, social values are developed from a public competition of contrasting beliefs and values. Citizens under a liberal nation debate and work out these values together via their social interaction and the necessary freedoms they are given by the state. This creates a “marketplace” of social values, where the “correct” values eventually manifest themselves as the strongest and most coherent. From this perspective, it seems that the government is deviating from traditional liberalism, and appears to have lost trust in its people. They seem to have lost the confidence in their citizen’s ability to work it out for themselves, subsequently, they have intervened like a worried parent. We would encourage a national debate on what these values should mean to us as British citizens, and the government should not act like a distressed parent and trust its own people.
Debate, dialogue and discussion have always been the hallmark of British life, and echoing the British philosopher John S. Mill, in the competition of ideas – and by extension values – the best ones for the nation will be victorious. Anything other than debate and dialogue is an indicator that the government does not believe in the robustness and rational force of their interpretation of British values. A confident government would spark a nationwide debate on what democracy, tolerance, the rule of law and individuality liberty practically means. This would produce the strongest conceptions of these, and ultimately that would be a good thing for the country. Hiding behind ambiguities shows weakness and not strength.
Absurdity in application
The practical absurdity of the government’s definition of extremism is that it can make us all extremists. Let’s take the academic setting as an example.
In various university political philosophy courses, their syllabi include a discussion on the weakness and strengths of democracy. The professor would publicly and vocally provide balanced accounts of the pros and cons of a modern democratic system. In this light, would the professor be deemed as an extremist because he is trying to be academically nuanced? What if one of the professor’s students wrote an essay articulating that Britain is not a true democracy because of its first past the post system and that democracy is not an ideal form of governance because the minority mob end up ruling? What if the student cites the great Greek philosopher Plato in his critique? What if the student’s intentions are sincere, and desires good for his or her fellow citizens? Is this student an extremist?
Such examples highlight the absurdity of the government’s definition of extremism.
The Government’s incoherent strategy
The government seems to have adopted a three-pronged approach in dealing with extremism.
The first is to narrow the social space of extremists. This includes preventing them from speaking at public institutions. The government wants to exclude them from mainstream forms of social discourse and prevent them from articulating their views. The second is to conflate certain aspects of orthodox Islam with extremism. The third is to embrace a “conveyor belt” theory to violent extremism. The government claims that harbouring non-violent extremist views is a key milestone that can in some cases lead to violence. The Prime Minister summarised this approach in his Munich speech in February 2015,
“As evidence emerges about…those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence.[iii]
All three are very dangerous strategies.
Narrowing the social space where perceived extremists can articulate their views undermines the very values the government espouses. It shows weakness in their conviction in their own worldview. The only way to undermine negative, extreme and incoherent ideas is to expose them to what they are. This can only be achieved via public debate, discussion and dialogue. Blaming aspects of orthodox Islam is also highly problematic. Conservative religious and cultural practices are not the basis for extremism or violent extremism. In actual fact, the conservative Muslim community has done a lot to prevent violent extremism. This is evidenced by their use of robust mainstream and normative Islamic arguments (to be discussed later). The conveyor belt theory is extremely problematic. It essentially argues that Muslims, who have perceived grievances, can subsequently adopt non-violent extremist beliefs, and then later go on to commit violent crimes. There is a strong case for a multi-causal approach to the topic, and one of these causes can include extreme ideological interpretations, but it is absurd to claim that it is just based on the adoption of these extreme views. A recent report by Professor Arun Kundnani that analysed the British government’s approach to extremism, robustly argues that violent extremism cannot be reduced to radical or non-violent extremist views,
The factors which lead someone to commit acts of terrorism are complex and cannot be reduced to holding a set of values deemed to be radical. There is little evidence to support the view that there is a single cause to terrorism. Accepting this analysis has significant implications for the development of policies to reduce the risk of terrorism.[iv]
Even the MI5’s behavioural science unit said that the terrorists it analysed
had taken strikingly different journeys to violent extremist activity” and a few had followed “a typical pathway to violent extremism.[v]
The premise of the conveyor belt theory, when applied to other spheres of social and political life, can lead us down the path of a dictatorship spelling the end to a pluralistic society. Consider the Conservative Party’s backbenchers, according to the assumptions that underlie the conveyor belt theory, it can be argued that their beliefs can lead to violence as some of the MPs are linked to right-wing extremism, and it has been shown right-wing extremists have engaged in violence. This can be applied to the leader of the Labour Party himself. Jeremy Corbyn is known to sit on the far left of Labour’s ideological spectrum. Many Marxists supported him in the recent Labour party leader election. Some extreme conceptions of Marxism have been linked to torture, mass murder and unprecedented violence. A good way of assessing if a theory is robust is to extend its assumptions to other examples; if it stands its ground then it should be considered. However, the conveyor belt theory falls on its face when applied to other areas of social and political life.
Mainstream orthodox Islam is the solution
Orthodox Islam is loosely defined as the traditional adherence to the Islamic source texts, via the understanding of classical scholars. This understanding of Islam is nuanced, compassionate and is applicable across different cultures and times.
A brief look at the source texts of Islam (known as the Qur’an and Sunnah [Prophetic teachings]) it is clear that Islam promotes balance, harmony and prohibits extremism. The Qur’an maintains that Muslims should not be extreme and be excessive in their religious practices,
Do not go to excess in your religion.[vi]
The same point has been made by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He instructed believers to restrain from committing ghulu. The word ghulu means extremism, exaggeration, and excessiveness:
You should restrain yourselves from committing excesses (ghulu) in religion. For it was due to their having gone to extremes in religion that the previous communities were destroyed.[vii]
The Qur’an also promotes harmony, balance and the middle way. The term that the Qur’an uses is wasat. This word means middle, just and balanced. It is only mentioned once in the Qur’an in that form, and it is interesting that this word is in the middle of the largest chapter in the Qur’an:
Thus have We made of you a nation justly balanced, that you may be witnesses over the people and the Messenger a witness over yourselves. [viii]
The ninth-century Islamic scholar and exegete At-Tabari opined that the Qur’an describes the believers as the middle, balanced and just nation due to their moderation and balance in religion. They are not from those who go to extremes in the religion.[ix]
The fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Al-Qayyim similarly expressed that:
the religion of Allah is in a middle position between being aloof from it and exaggerating in it. It is like a valley between two mountains, guidance between two astray positions and the middle, just position between two blameworthy positions.[x]
It is evident from the above teachings that orthodoxy is anti-extreme and seeks to ensure that believers maintain a ‘middle path’. This approach to religion and life has also manifested itself in history. Orthodox Islamic scholars were central in promoting balance and fighting extremism in all of its forms, including tyranny. In his book, entitled The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, the Columbia Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Richard Bulliet, argues that Muslim societies achieved stability because Islamic scholars were playing their role of constraining tyranny,
The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny.[xi]
This is why it is critical for the British government to facilitate the civic space for orthodox Islamic teachers and scholars to be able to influence the Muslim community, especially those who have strayed from the mainstream balanced position. It is of paramount importance to highlight that the Woolwich attackers and the 7/7 bombers did not engage with the traditional and orthodox Islamic educational pathway. If they were influenced by orthodoxy, these atrocities would never have happened. This is why the government’s insistence of strategically aligning themselves with secular liberal Muslim organisations will only exacerbate the problem, as the mainstream Muslim community does not trust them or see them as a point of reference. Hence, attempting to silence the voice of orthodoxy will lead to more problems.
The government has obviously been taken down the garden path by ideologically driven neo-conservative think tanks and pressure groups.[xii] They falsely maintain that orthodox Muslim speakers and scholars create an “us and them” mentality. This is far-fetched and deliberately ignores the positive work done by the mainstream orthodox scholars, teachers and speakers. Consider the work by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) as a good example of promoting peace, community cohesion and dialogue. iERA have established its community development department called ‘One Community’. One of the key aims of this department is to ensure that its speakers, volunteers and the people it inspires, to positively contribute to society. Some of the projects One Community are currently working on include blood donation, campaigning against climate change, neighbourhood clean-up, elderly care, random acts of kindness and feeding the homeless.[xiii]
iERA’s speakers have promoted dialogue, debate and tolerance across campuses in the UK and around the world. They have engaged in debates with leading academics, participated in various social cohesion campaigns, and have always maintained the Muslim community to be tolerant, cohesive and compassionate. A passionate and apt example of this is iERA’s Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’ piece on the BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief programme:
I believe in fundamental values that are binding and unchanging. I believe that we all are fundamentalists in some way. That we have to be fundamentalists concerning compassion, concerning tolerance, concerning coexisting amongst different peoples. I believe we have to be fundamentalists when it comes to being non-negotiable about certain moral values. But does that mean we are inflexible? No of course not. And I do appreciate that the term fundamentalist can mean extremist and can mean someone who is inflexible and intolerant but that is not what I mean…extremism is actually a deviation from the fundamentals.
We even have this perspective from the mouth of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him…he used the term ghuluw. Ghuluw basically means extreme, don’t be extreme in your religion…I would argue that everyone has a fundamentalist worldview from that perspective, we believe some things are non-negotiable, some things are objectively morally wrong. I believe killing an innocent child is objectively morally wrong, even if the whole world were to come and say it’s right, I would say no it’s wrong… however, the way to transcend this type of fundamentalism rhetoric is by actually saying, you know what I may be wrong, let’s have a discussion, let’s have dialogue, let’s be open.”[xiv]
If the government are serious about dealing with extremism they have to use the best people placed to deal with the problem.
Orthodox Muslim scholars and speakers are well-equipped to deal with the issue, and marginalising them by supporting secular liberal outfits that have zero credibility within the Muslim community will only make things worse. A multicausal model for extremism must be adopted because research clearly suggests that extremism is not due to the binary and reductionist cause as espoused by the government and their neoconservative advisers. To ensure that the government’s narrative on extremism is robust it must clearly define what British values are, and this can only be achieved via a national open discourse. Even if it takes this illiberal position of wanting to advocate a conception of the good life, it can only achieve long-term adoption of these values if it engages in debate. Silencing opposition and sincere critique only proves one thing, that they don’t have a strong argument, and that they are willing to break their own principles in order to preserve them. That scenario is not the Britain that the majority of its citizens want to see.
[i] Hamza Andreas Tzortzis. Is Islam Compatible with British Values? Available online here: 2015. https://iera.org/islam-clash-british-values
[vi] The Qur’an, Chapter 4, Verse 171. https://quran.com/4/171
[vii] Al-Nasai, Ibn Majah, Musnad Ahmad, 1/215, 347.
[viii] The Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 143. https://quran.com/2/143
[ix] Al-Tabari, Jaami al-Bayaan, vol. 2, p. 6.
[x] Ibn al-Qayyim, Madaarij al-Saalikeen, vol. 2, p. 496. Also see ibn al-Qayyim, al-Fawaaid, pp. 139-140; al-Shanqeeti, Adhwaa al-Bayaan, vol. 1, p. 494.
[xi] The Case for Islamo and Christian Civilisation https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-case-for-islamo-christian-civilization/9780231127974
[xiii] Please visit www.ouronecommunity.com.