Understanding and Treating the Cancer of Islamic Extremism

Since the dawn of time, the world has witnessed conflict, and since the onset of organized religion, it has played host to sectarian violence. But why is Islamism currently growing so fast, and so widely? The reasons are political and economic.
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"I am a soldier of Allah and this is a war," explained Michael Adebolajo in his own defense at the trial for the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby. The judge disqualified this as a legal argument, but outside the Court of Law, it is a stark reminder of the irrational and petrifying mind-set at the very heart of Islamism.

Had Adebolajo acted alone, and in isolation, one would question his sanity before looking for deeper lying social causes. But he was not, and we can not. Islamist extremism links almost every horror story of the past fifteen years. From 9-11 to 7-7, to Madrid and Boston, onto the summer's massacres in Kenya and Nigeria to the acts of terrorism in Algeria, Mali, Russian Chechnya and China's Xinjiang Province, runs the constant threat of fundamentalism. It was the motive behind the murder of worshipers leaving a Christmas Day service in Baghdad. And it sits at the very heart of the apocalyptic events in and around Syria.

Terminology in this area can be inflammatory, but definitions are important. Islam is a peaceful religion. Islamism is a perverted ideology that imposes conformity with Sharia law. It views violence as an acceptable means to that end.

In their most newsworthy form, Islamists are grouped within terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Abu Sayyaf, Al Nusra and The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. These may differ on ideological detail, but they share the same goal and the means to that end.

These groups, along with the majority of Salafists and Wahabists are entirely open about their objectives and means to those ends. More subtle, but equally extreme, is the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood plots a more subtle form of 'creeping' Islamization. This is an approach mastered by Turkey's President Erdogan who has been prepared to camouflage his party's true objectives within a secular society. In his words, democracy is "just the train we board to reach our destination."

The Brotherhood's widely-recognized spiritual leader Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi has been less subtle, urging the Brotherhood to apply Sharia Law gradually. He defined this as not cutting off hands within the first five years. He also served a death sentence on all Alawites by describing them as "more infidels than Christians and Jews." The Brotherhood's Deputy Guide, Khairat al-Shater, defines its raison d'etre as "Subjugating people to God; establishing the Nahda of the Ummah on the basis of Islam."

Its flag is hardly a masterpiece of restraint. Within a number of inflammatory phrases including "Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; Qur'an is our law; Jihad is our way; Dying in the name of Allah is our greatest hope" it references Sharia Law, Jihad and the words 'and prepare' (referencing a surat in the Quran: "And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah").

In this context it is hardly surprising that Al Qaeda and Hamas were formed as offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether they are formally affiliated to Al Qaeda or the Brotherhood, Islamists are a violent, aggressive and ambitious groups, sharing core goals and philosophies.

Their threat was illustrated last week in a video posted online by a U.S. citizen brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a bayonet, who joined Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria: "This is a message to people in the West from the Mujahideen... We are coming to kill all the infidels in the West and beyond to spread Allah's law (Sharia) and the book of Allah (Quran) and to raise them to the highest level. We came to kill anyone that stands in our way. The flag that says that 'there is no God but Allah' will be raised over Parliament Buildings and in capital cities around the world... and bring Islamic law to control all the world."

Since the dawn of time, the world has witnessed conflict, and since the onset of organized religion, it has played host to sectarian violence. But why is Islamism currently growing so fast, and so widely? The reasons are political and economic.

It preys on the young, the poor, the disaffected and the needy. And a perfect storm of demographic and economic factors make this a time of unimaginable poverty across the globe. By offering an identity, financial incentives and eternal rewards in the afterlife, it addresses those groups in terms that are direct and appealing.

The Arab Spring clearly illustrates this. It began as a direct result of the global economic crisis. Specifically, it was triggered by a Tunisian vegetable trader who set himself alight when confronted by the police. He was frustrated by injustice, and because he had no way of protesting against the restrictions on his trade.

His personal suffering mirrored that of millions affected by the economic crisis around the world. In democracies, these met with protests, hostility and, eventually, with the opportunity to effect change at the ballot box. But in the dictatorships of the Middle East and North Africa, the totalitarian grip was tightened. Political protests and mass gatherings were banned. And so with no infrastructure supporting democratic parties or the quiet peaceful majority, a vacuum was created for the brilliantly organized and well-funded Islamist groups to take control.

Their ability to manipulate events was best evidenced in Egypt where originally the Muslim Brotherhood supported the regime, then switched sides and the government fell. Liberal causes were similarly hijacked by extremists in Libya, Tunisia and Syria.

This process has been facilitated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with funds to burn and a political advantage to be exploited.

It is no secret that Saudi has long been an enclave of extremism. Petty criminals with stumps for arms and women not being allowed to drive are testimony to the State's values.

A regional pro-democracy revolution was anathema to the authorities in Riyadh and Doha. Similar events in Eastern Europe twenty years earlier had led to a domino effect of tumbling dictators. And so the revolution was hijacked in its bud.

This is not a new theme. Saudi Arabia funded the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the Taliban. Al Qaeda developed from the Mujahideen.. There can be no doubt that Saudi money has fundamentally developed the potency of Islamic fundamentalism.

Ever since the Arab Spring, Saudi and Qatar have sought to use their influence to gain power 'democratically' throughout the Middle East and North Africa by replacing dictatorships with theocracies. This is both politically and economically prudent (Islamist rulers have complete control of their followers and require little in the way of funding, as demonstrated by the support of the Taliban in Afghanistan).

Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia called on Muslims to burn churches. Clerics on state-backed satellite television incited sectarian hatred and violence, calling for Jihad against all 'Infidels', 'Apostates' and anyone else not in agreement with their modus operandi. Videos were posted online calling for Jihad against Shias, Alawites, Christians and Jews and showing the murder of those who do not share their perverted ideology.

This incitement from the Gulf was backed by money. Salafist groups have been funded and armed largely by Saudi Arabia; the Muslim Brotherhood by Qatar and Turkey (in addition to groups such as Al-Nusra in Syria where the fiercest fighters were required to topple the regime in the shortest time possible).

This division between Saudi and Qatar highlights their struggle for regional control since the start of the Arab Spring. Qatar promoted the idea of the 'moderate' Muslim Brotherhood in contrast to the Saudi-backed Salafists who have not used the art of '"Taqiyya," or 'concealment' of their Islamist objectives.

There is evidence to demonstrate how widely Saudi and Qatari tentacles have spread. The former Head of French Interior Intelligence, Yves Bonnet accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of funding extremist Islamist networks in France. Bernard Squarcini, a previous Head of France's counter-espionage and counter-terrorism Intelligence agency pointed to the head of Saudi Intelligence, Bandar Bin Abd al-Aziz, supporting extremist groups from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Syria to Egypt. In his new book "The French Intelligence: New Challenges", he accused France's senior political ally Qatar of arming extremist groups fighting in Africa against the French army.

This funding has long been augmented by the misuse of Zakat. One of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat is intended for charity. But in States where political gatherings and fundraising are banned, the disaffected and needy have been targeted within religious places of worship where they are ripe for brainwashing and recruitment. 'Charitable' donations have been re-directed by clerics of questionable morals, to the direct benefit of Islamist groups, and this religious funding is outside government interference. This is not a problem confined to the Middle East; Islamic Charities have misused Zakat around the world with some high profile cases in the United States.

And so a revolution where people sought a genuine representative democracy has morphed into a hotbed of extremism across swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. At the heart of the storm, Islamists aided by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi have traveled from around the world into Syria as what began as a pro-democratic revolution has been transformed into what António Guterres, head of the U.N. refugee agency, now describes as "the most dangerous crisis for global peace and security since the Second World War."

And so Islamism has flourished, gathering support, offering great rewards, and with the organisation and funds to present a visible alternative to State repression. Senior sources in Washington now favor victory for the regime in Damascus as the best possible result in the civil war.

But as liberals and democrats, we cannot rest our hopes in the hands of Islamists, nor in the vicious dictatorships whose very actions created this mess in the first place. Nor can we hope that arms and air strikes can do any long-term good.

And so what can we do?

For a start we must be transparent and consistent in our relations with states that endorse terror. Currently we condone the regime in North Korea whilst engaging diplomatically and economically with 'our friends' Saudi and Qatar. This is no way to react to their role in the region. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Secondly, we must be realistic about the best ways to counter the threat of terror. Islamism comes in so many forms, and from so many directions, that it is difficult to fight with force alone. It dwells in the shadows, amorphous and immeasurable. There is no army to attack, ambassador to threaten, or border to defend.

And so we must fight in other ways. Economics has exasperated the extremist influence, and economics can defeat it. Economic growth ended dictatorships in South America and South East Asia. We can invest in the grass roots of society, training individuals not just in specific trades but in the ways to build a peaceful, democratic and civil society.

The annual cost of keeping the US army in Afghanistan has been $100bn per year. Imagine if half that amount had been used to create a peaceful, prosperous democracy. Over the past thirteen years it could have provided schools, universities, hospitals, factories and an infrastructure to support them across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. $1.3 trillion could have acted as more than a catalyst towards peaceful, democratic change; it would have transformed the region in ways that would have side-lined extremism in its entirety.

Barack Obama once wrote of the Audacity of Hope. The catalyst of hope is opportunity. If we can help finance the flight from poverty, the strongest magnet of extremism will have been nullified. Financial investment that facilitates self-sufficiency will produce spectacular returns.

It will cease the incessant flight from poverty, a demand for Western exports and, crucially, breed healthy cynicism in the face of preachers of hate.

Peace and prosperity will enhance our safety, wherever we are. They will annul the allure of extremism and as people cease to run from violence and poverty the emigration crisis will disappear. That's the potential of Western involvement and investment. The alternative is to allow Saudi and Qatar to continue to dominate the region through investment in and the aggressive promotion of Islamism is an appealing message for the many young, disenfranchised people in the region and beyond. Islamism simply fills a void that is so clearly avoidable.

This will not be an easy win nor a quick one. Islamism is well-funded, well-organized and well-represented. We must recognize its power and potential, and we must put in place long-term plans to neutralize its appeal.

Eighty years ago in Germany, Adolf Hitler was taking advantage of economic failure to develop and export an ideology based on racial superiority.

The parallels between Islamism and Nazism are stark.

We cannot ignore the lessons of history by tolerating terror until it is too late.

Both are expansionist and focused on the building of vast empires. Both believe those territories to be rightfully theirs. The Nazis sought 'Lebensraum' in the East. Islamists seek an Islamic caliphate state under Sharia law all over the 'Islamic Ummah,' from Xinjiang to Andalucia.

Both are based on perverted ideologies. The Nazis pursued the extermination of 'inferior' races. Islamists pursue the extermination of all they deem 'infidels' and 'apostates.'

Both desire the extermination of opponents and those who do not share their narrow and twisted ideologies.

The words of Michael Adebolajo may shock those who live in the West, but they are symptomatic of an ever-growing global threat that is surfacing not just in the Middle East, but across the globe.

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