Woolwich, “Islamism” and the “Conveyor Belt to Terrorism” Theory

While the conveyor-belt theory may offer a simplistic narrative fit for popular consumption, the issues involved in such cases seldom are.

In a Spectator article published less than ten days after the London bombings of July 2005, Boris Johnson wrote, when accounting for the attackers’ mindset,  that “Islam is the problem.” Almost eight years later, after the public murder of an off-duty soldier in Woolwich, the London Mayor stated unequivocally that it was wrong to blame Islam for the event, a point echoed across the British political spectrum. However, as has become apparent in the continued commentary following the murder of Lee Rigby, the government  continues to blame terrorism on normative Islam, despite the change in discourse.

In the face of criticism that the war on Iraq was the root cause for the attacks of July 2005, Tony Blair admitted in 2006 that “the majority view of a large part of western opinion, certainly in Europe” was that “the policy of America since 9/11 has been a gross overreaction; George Bush is as much if not more of a threat to world peace as Osama bin Laden; and what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East, is an entirely understandable consequence of US/UK imperialism or worse, of just plain stupidity.” His alternative narrative – one that he has consistently held to subsequently – was that “religious extremism” was the root cause of terrorism. Such “extremism” was explained as “their attitude to America … their concept of governance…their positions on women and other faiths.”

In 2009 the British government considered plans which would have formalized the Blair narrative and considered ideas such as a belief in the applicability of Sharia law in contemporary times, the concept of belonging to a single Muslim community internationally (the umma), the legitimacy of resisting attack and occupation through the use of force (jihad), and the aspiration of living under an Islamic caliphate as key identifiers of “extremists.” This narrative has been consistently raised in the media by a range of “counter-extremism experts” and think-tanks, who argue that it is indeed “Islamist extremism” that leads to terrorism.

In the wake of the Woolwich attacks, the same narrative has resurfaced in the media, and was mentioned in Boris Johnson’s Daily Telegraph article entitled “By standing united, we can isolate the virus of Islamism”, in which he stated that “we need to make a hard and sharp distinction between that religion [Islam] – and the virus of ‘Islamism’ ”. He mentioned in a negative manner the same four points as being characteristic of Islamism.

Each of these contentious four points that are allegedly key identifiers of “Islamism” and “extremism” have featured for centuries in normative orthodox Islamic scholarship, and are recognised as such in Western academia. The 13 volume Encyclopaedia of Islam, published by Brill, which was compiled over several years by many of the leading Western authorities on Islamic theology and history, states in reference to the idea of a singular caliphate, that “[m]ajor points in the fully developed Sunni doctrine were the following: The establishment of an imam is permanently obligatory on the community…There can be only a single imam at any time.” Regarding the concept of umma it states that “[t]he consensus has favoured a unified umma as an ideal that transcends a particular period’s limitations and divisions”, while Jihad is explained as follows: “according to general doctrine and in historical tradition, [jihad] consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam and, if need be, of its defence.”

It should surprise no one therefore that these concepts are widely supported by Muslims worldwide. The results of research carried out by University of Maryland in 2007 found that an ave­rage of 71 per cent of those interviewed across four Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan) agreed with the goal of requiring “strict application of Sharia law in every Islamic country,” while also finding that 65 per cent agreed with the goal of unifying “all Islamic countries into a single state or caliphate.” Therefore, designating these aspirations as “Islamist” and “extremist” in effect categorises Muslims who are inspired by normative Islamic values (as well as those who carry such beliefs in the west) as “Islamist extremists.”

The continued use of the term “Islamist” along with “extremism” is symptomatic of language that the American Muslim advocacy group CAIR complained of recently.  Their communications director Ibrahim Hooper wrote in an op-ed in January 2013 that “Unfortunately, the term “Islamist” has become shorthand for “Muslims we don’t like.” It is currently used in an almost exclusively pejorative context and is often coupled with the term “extremist,” giving it an even more negative slant.”

So when Boris Johnson’s aforementioned article claims that “Islamism” is the problem “virus” that leads to terrorism, and identifies Islamism as being synonymous with these four ideas –– the caliphate, the ideal of Muslims belonging to a single community, Sharia and Jihad –– he is in fact restating in 2013 that Islam is the problem, just as he did in 2005. What has occurred in the meantime is the popularization of a discourse that labels manifestations of political Islam that are viewed as problematic, and incompatible with western secular liberalism, as “Islamism” and “Islamist extremism.”

In line with the belief that non-violent “Islamist extremism” is a conveyor belt to terrorism, on a talk show broadcast on the Sunday after the Woolwich murder, the Home Secretary Theresa May indicated that she would seek to ban “extremist groups” that do not abjure violence. Others, such as the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, have urged caution, stating that “you have to be very careful indeed about depriving people space to utter opinions that the rest of us don’t like” and that banning extremists from TV would act as a “recruiting sergeant.”

Internal government reports leaked to the Sunday Telegraph in 2010 concluded that they “do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence,” and that the “thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.” So according to the government’s own officials and experts, suggesting that “Islamist extremist” aspirations (which are part of normative Islam) are a gateway to terrorism is incorrect, and hence any such subsequent claims can reasonably be construed as politically disingenuous. That the perpetrators may hold these specific beliefs has not been proven to be a causal factor of violence, and such beliefs are similarly shared by millions of other Muslims globally as well as many living in the West.

While the conveyor-belt theory may offer a simplistic narrative fit for popular consumption, the issues involved in such cases seldom are. There are other more detailed models which attempt to explain and help identify radicalization, and which are used by the police and intelligence services currently, such as those developed by the NYPD and the Danish Security and Intelligence Services.  However, other academic research, such as a report by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, argues that these models have major substantive shortcomings, are based upon post hoc studies and make the simple methodological error of “selection on the dependent variable”, among others, which invalidates their conclusions. As the report mentions, just as it is impossible to explain why books become bestsellers by examining only bestsellers, it is impossible to explain radicalisation only by cases of radicalisation.

There are obvious problems with these simplistic models, which are multiplied when considering the crude contention that “non-violent extremism” leads to “violent extremism.” Drawing conclusions based on theories that suffer from this type of selection bias is extremely risky and may inadvertently substantiate  statements such as “not every Islamist extremist is a terrorist, but all Islamist extremist terrorists are Islamist extremists,” which could be considered a politically correct way of suggesting “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but all Muslim terrorists are Muslim,” particularly when it has already been shown that the identifiers of “Islamist extremism” are actually unequivocally aspects of normative Islam.

This type of narrative was popularised after 2005, notably by Michael Gove’s Celsius 7/7 and Ed Husain’s The Islamist. Unfortunately, the waves of erroneous opinions offered in the wake of the Woolwich attack by politicians, media commentators, “counter-extremism” experts and self-professed “ex-extremists” certainly do not stand up to any academic scrutiny. While both the Blair narrative and the convenient “conveyor-belt” theory may assuage the public’s need for an explanation of what lies behind such attacks –– which politicians are loath to admit is linked to Western foreign policy –– in doing so it alienates Muslims who have legitimate foreign policy grievances , as well as sowing distrust and suspicion of Muslims among the wider population (as when the former head of MI5, Stella Rimington, recently implied people should be spying on their neighbours in order to inform the police of any signs of “extremism”).

The misapplied ideology of “an eye for an eye” mentioned by one of the Woolwich killers as a justification for their act is alien to normative Islam, a misplaced reaction to legitimate grievances against Western foreign policy, something I have discussed in more detail elsewhere. Two days after the Woolwich murder, a British High Court ruled that up to 161 allegedly unlawful killings by the British military in Iraq should be the subject of  hearings by coroners. The previous day, President Barack Obama had outlined in a major speech his policy regarding drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay detention centre, two of the most frequently discussed grievances regarding America’s foreign policy of the moment. Such policies are what lead commentators such as Glenn Greenwald continuously to point out that “the proximate cause of these attacks are plainly political grievances: namely, the belief that engaging in violence against aggressive western nations is the only way to deter and/or avenge western violence that kills Muslim civilians.”

As highlighted in numerous polls and obvious to any observer, grievances regarding western foreign policy in the Middle East and other Muslim countries are widespread. The recent uprisings in the region have all been against former allies in America’s “war on terror,”: Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi in Libya, Saleh in Yemen and now al-Assad in Syria, all of whom were formerly collaborating with America in intelligence-sharing, renditions and torture. Belief in an idealized global Islamic brotherhood is still cherished by Muslims despite their internal differences while aspirations for Islamic governance under Sharia law and the unification of Muslim countries are also popular and mainstream in several parts of the Muslim world.

Demonizing such grievances and aspirations may be understandable in the context of secular, liberal western democracies, though it is hardly conducive to community cohesion whether in a national or international context. It  might prudent and principled to instead begin making truly concerted efforts to understand what such grievances and aspirations really mean to their advocates, rather than simply inaccurately labelling them as security concerns.

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