How to Beat Islamic State


Islam is a religion, and like any other faith, it is internally diverse. Islamism, by contrast, is the desire to impose a single version of Islam on an entire society. Islamism is not Islam, but it is an offshoot of Islam. It is Muslim theocracy.

In much the same way, jihad is a traditional Muslim idea connoting struggle—sometimes a personal spiritual struggle, sometimes a struggle against an external enemy. Jihadism, however, is something else entirely: It is the doctrine of using force to spread Islamism.

President Barack Obama and many liberal-minded commentators have been hesitant to call this Islamist ideology by its proper name. They seem to fear that both Muslim communities and the religiously intolerant will hear the word “Islam” and simply assume that all Muslims are being held responsible for the excesses of the jihadist few.

I call this the Voldemort effect, after the villain in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Many well-meaning people in Ms. Rowling’s fictional world are so petrified of Voldemort’s evil that they do two things: They refuse to call Voldemort by name, instead referring to “He Who Must Not Be Named,” and they deny that he exists in the first place. Such dread only increases public hysteria, thus magnifying the appeal of Voldemort’s power.

The same hysteria about Islamism is unfolding before our eyes. But no strategy intended to defeat Islamism can succeed if Islamism itself and its violent expression in jihadism are not first named, isolated and understood. It is as disingenuous to argue that Islamic State is entirely divorced from Islam as it is to assert that it is synonymous with Islam. Islamic State does indeed have something to do with Islam—not nothing, not everything, but something. That something is the way in which all Islamists justify their arguments using Islamic scripture and seek to recruit from Muslims.

The urgency of making these distinctions should be apparent to everyone. The attacks seem to be coming in swift succession now: Istanbul, Sinai, Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino, London. What is the strategy behind this Islamic State-inspired violence? Jihadists of all bents seek to create discord, pitting Muslims against non-Muslims in the West and Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims in the East. The theocratic ideology of Islamism thrives on division, polarization and claims of Muslim victimhood.

Islamic State’s leaders insist that the U.S. and the rest of the West are waging a global war against all Islam and Muslims. This is obvious nonsense, but by a combination of provocation and self-fulfilling prophecy, Islamic State is doing everything possible to make it a reality—helped along, alas, by Donald Trump’s call this week “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Islamic State’s goal is to leave Sunni Muslims—in Europe, America and the Middle East—with no refuge except the terrorist group’s own self-declared caliphate in the lawless regions of Syria and Iraq.

As Islamic State has outlined in its own magazine Dabiq, it aims to eliminate what it calls the “gray zone,” the middle ground between Islamist theocrats and anti-Muslim bigots, so that everyone is forced to pick sides. In this way, Islamic State hopes to turn non-Muslims against Muslims and, once this process is complete—that is, once we all begin to see each other primarily through narrow religious lenses—to set off a global religious war.

I bear some personal responsibility for this effort to eliminate the gray zone, to promote the idea that Muslims have no home in the West. As a young Muslim growing up in the U.K., I spent more than a decade as one of the leaders of a global Islamist group that advocated the return of a caliphate, though not through terrorism. My activities eventually led me to Egypt, where at 24 I was jailed as a political prisoner and sentenced to five years in Mazra Tora prison.

Only in jail, after Amnesty International adopted my case, did I dedicate myself to rereading, reviewing and reappraising my every thought. As I deradicalized myself over the next five years, I eventually concluded that Islam, my faith, was being exploited for a totalitarian political project and must be reclaimed from the theocrats. I have spent the past eight years doing just that through a counterextremism organization that I co-founded.

This struggle can be won, but it will not be easy. Over the past few years, in survey after survey, attitudes in the U.K. have reflected a worrisome trend. A quarter of British Muslims sympathized with the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, according to a February poll by ComRes for the BBC. A 2008 YouGov poll found that a third of Muslim students believe that killing for religion can be justified, and 40% want the introduction of Shariah as law in the U.K. Another poll, conducted in 2007 by Populus, reported that 36% of young British Muslims thought apostates should be “punished by death.”

It should come as no surprise that, from this milieu, up to 1,000 British Muslims have joined Islamic State, which is more than have joined the British Army reserves.

The actual strength of Islamic State’s army probably lies somewhere between the CIA’s estimate of about 32,000 and Kurdish estimates of some 200,000. According to the Soufan Group, a New York-based private intelligence firm, the number of foreigners streaming into Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State and other Islamist groups has doubled over the past 18 months, despite the West’s best efforts, and may now be as high as 31,000.

The latest polling by Pew of 11 countries with large Muslim populations found widespread disdain for Islamic State—but also troubling levels of support. Only 28% in Pakistan disapproved of the group, and 62% offered no opinion. In Nigeria, 14% of respondents had a favorable view of Islamic State; in Malaysia and Senegal, it was 11%; in Turkey, it was 8%; in the Palestinian territories, it was 6%. There is, in short, nothing like majority support for Islamic State among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, but such numbers are still worrisome.

After the Paris attacks, Pope Francis declared that we are in the midst of a piecemeal World War III. It is more accurate to say that we face a global jihadist insurgency. Islamic State is the latest incarnation of this insurgency, but it has been brewing for decades, spurred on by Islamist social movements that have filled the void left by the shortcomings of all too many Muslim-majority governments. Characterizing Islamic State as part of an insurgency is important because, as Vietnam taught us the hard way, defeating an insurgency is different from winning a conventional war.

Counterinsurgency rests on the assumption that the enemy has significant support in the communities from which it recruits. The aim of counterinsurgency strategy is to deny the enemy any propaganda victories that can further fuel its recruitment. Insurgents must be isolated from their targeted host communities. This requires a combination of psychological, physical and economic warfare, all with the aim of undermining the insurgents’ ideological, operational and financial capabilities.

The most critical part of such a strategy must be messaging. In fighting Islamic State, we must avoid the language that it uses to promote its worldview and, at the same time, offer compelling alternative narratives. Only in this way can we deny today’s Islamists and jihadists their ability to appeal to Muslim audiences.

In this effort, Muslims who deny that Islamist extremism is a real problem are as counterproductive as Mr. Trump and his populist fear-mongering. Both serve to increase the religious polarization and mistrust that the extremists relish. Islamic State is out to provoke a “clash of civilizations.” We should not oblige them.

What is at stake in these failures and evasions? Absent an accurate language that explains the difference between Islamist ideologues and the majority of non-Islamist Muslims, anxious non-Muslims in the West can be more easily alarmed by blaring media coverage and attention-seeking politicians. Some will simply assume that the problem is Islam itself and all Muslims per se, which helps to explain the rise of xenophobic politics in both Europe and the U.S.

As for Muslim communities themselves, if they hold that Islamism has “nothing to do with Islam,” then there is nothing to discuss, which is plainly not the case. This position undermines brave Islamic reform theologians such as Britain’s Usama Hasan, Pakistan’s Javed Ahmad Ghamidi and America’s Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, who are urgently trying to lay the foundations of a theology that rejects Islamism and promotes freedom of speech and gender rights—thereby undermining the insurgents’ message.

This denialist position also betrays the many besieged ex-Muslim voices—such as the Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali A. Rizvi—who struggle for the right to be fully accepted by their own Muslim communities. These reformers all need a vocabulary that distinguishes Islam from the politicized distortion of it peddled by Islamists and jihadists.

Just as one doesn’t need to be black to care about the struggle against racism and one needn’t be gay to worry about homophobia, one needn’t be Muslim to speak out against Muslim theocrats. Considering their founding history, Americans are especially well placed to speak about why theocracies are never good for humanity. They also can help Europeans deal with the challenges of creating new, post-migration national identities.

Many of my fellow Muslims have resisted the call to refute Islamism head-on. They ask why they should apologize for something with which they have little or nothing to do. But just as we Muslims expect solidarity from others against anti-Muslim bigotry, such as Mr. Trump’s outlandish remarks, we have a duty to reciprocate this solidarity by speaking out against the Islamists.

What should a counterinsurgency strategy mean for the actual conduct of foreign policy? President George W. Bush may have rushed headlong into the jihadist snare by invading and occupying Iraq, but Mr. Obama and the international community are now sleepwalking toward another precipice in Syria. Though it is true that our intervention in Syria will be used by Islamic State to galvanize more recruits, our failure to intervene has been used by them as evidence that the world has forsaken Syrians, leaving them to face Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs alone.

My own journey into radical groups began not when the world intervened in a foreign conflict but when it failed to intervene in the Bosnian genocide. I opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but passivity can be just as dangerous as invasion. So long as Islamists control the narrative among angry young Muslims, both our action and our inaction can be used to radicalize them.

The world is facing a global jihadist insurgency, working to advance a well-thought-out operational strategy, fed by Islamist ideological convictions that remain appealing to some Muslims. After Paris and San Bernardino, the Obama administration’s policy toward Islamic State is unraveling. From likening Islamic State to “a jayvee team” last January to saying one day before the Paris attacks that Islamic State had been “contained,” Mr. Obama has remained one step behind the group’s predictable rise.

A key part of our counterinsurgency response should involve getting the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds off the sidelines. Yes, this will be uncomfortable for our allies in Turkey, and it will trouble Iraq’s rulers. But the Kurds have proven themselves over and over again to be the only effective fighting force on the ground against Islamic State.

If that means a Kurdish state, so be it. Outside of the continuing experiment in Tunisia in North Africa, a Kurdish state could become the only democratic, secular Muslim-majority state in the Middle East. It could become a political and religious beacon for the region. Our diplomacy until now has inexcusably neglected the possibilities this presents.

Airstrikes against Islamic State must also be supported by an international ground force, a few thousand in number, and fronted by Sunni Arabs. These should be backed by an international squad of special forces and support staff, all of whom are focused on dislodging Islamic State from its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. As for the question of Mr. Assad, as part of a deal with Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime should be kept intact, but Mr. Assad must go.

Such actions may weaken Islamic State’s operational capacity but will not defeat its ideological appeal. The Islamist extremism that first inspired al Qaeda and then Islamic State will continue to inspire others. Islamic State was not alone in radicalizing the estimated 6,000 Europeans who have traveled to join them. That many recruits couldn’t have emerged from a vacuum. Islamic State propaganda is good, but not that good.

In fact, decades of Islamist propaganda had already primed these young Muslims to yearn for a theocracy. The same YouGov survey I cited above found that 33% of young British Muslims expressed a desire to see the resurrection of a world-wide caliphate. Islamic State has simply plucked the low-hanging fruit seeded long ago by other Islamist groups operating across Europe.

Reversing this campaign will require decades of work by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but the endgame must be to render the ideology of Islamism intellectually and socially obsolete.

Mr. Nawaz is the founding chairman of Quilliam, a London-based counterextremism organization, and the author of “Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism.”

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