By Ahmed Akkari *
Rising Strength, Little Notice
The short answer to this question is yes, because Islamism promotes an authoritarian ideology and seeks power based on religion, not democratic values . It is actually similar to totalitarian dictatorships in its key traits – Nazism, fascism, and communism on one side and despotic theocratic rule on the other.
In my opinion, Islamism has the following non-democratic characteristics:
- It believes in one single interpretation of the truth and dismisses other views as undoubtedly wrong and essentially not able to coexist with the truth.
- It uses the religious ideals of Islam to promote its interpretations as the only correct way to attain credibility.
- It backs the extreme doctrine of combining politics and religious affairs in one state power.
- It defines its enemies before defining its friends, discouraging people from making their own choices.
The project is to set up barriers between believers and non-believers, entangling Muslim societies in certain non-negotiable moral views. Mentally controlled, Muslims themselves should only see Islam through the Islamist way of thinking – the “true Islam”.
In short, Islamism is a problem because a closer look into its roots, messages and principles show that it is a totalitarian ideology and this conclusion has been reached and argued by many, such as Dr. Mehdi Muzaffari in his 2013 book “Islamism, an Oriental Totalitarianism.”
This matters because the Islamist agenda is one of the main sources of unrest in the political landscape across Europe.
The problem is both historic and highly contemporary, with origins dating back to the Middle Ages and current geopolitical drivers. The historic backdrop is one of conquest and struggle over borders and domains in the Mediterranean region. The contemporary factor is the North-South divide between often overpopulated, traditional and poor southern countries knocking on the doors of the relatively underpopulated and postmodern north. History and our times may seem quite separate, but they are logically bound together. The challenge thus becomes more than migration.
Actually, the key challenges are values and adaptation. They are especially difficult when the dynamics of political Islam turn the wheels of integration of liberal society against themselves, using their own mechanisms to recruit and move citizens into a camp that opposes that society.
A lack of precise focus has been another problem. The issues were largely overseen for a long time. And when attention was brought to bear, it was drawn in by extreme terrorist acts by Islamic jihadists on Western soil, not the wider and deeper issues. Nowadays, even after the shift from general indifference to vigilance, I still think much of the analysis and reasoning is flimsy. While some groups received much of the attention, others continued to work unnoticed.
For example, I remember a conversation with a senior researcher at a Danish university. He asked me for my opinion on his plan to carry out research on Islamic State (IS) at a time when it was still strong. I told him to focus on the so-called moderate Islamist groups because they posed the greatest challenge. While IS would vanish, the other groups would become stronger within the European structure. In time, just this proved to be the case. This showed that even researchers of the Middle East and Islam have blind spots in their views.
When I published “My Farewell to Islamism” in 2013, I was motivated by the notion that European politicians, civil society and experts seemed broadly unaware of the growing sympathy Islamist ideas enjoyed among Muslims in the West. I have estimated that roughly one fourth of Muslims are influenced by Islamist thoughts and manners. Around half are likely to silently accept or support their views or representation, leaving the remaining one fourth to be weaker voices backing a modernist approach, aligning secular thoughts with Islam’s values and practices. This is not immediately apparent, because In raw numbers the Islamist groups are not numerous. But in terms of domains and control. I believe they are the major voice for Muslims in Europe. That is because the democratic Muslims have no widely supported opposing voice.
Put simply, during the cartoon-crisis in Denmark and later during the hijab protests in France and the Turkish intervention among Turks in Europe, the Islamists set the tone and direction.
Why is Islamism Hard to Clearly Identify?
What makes Islamism hard to spot is that it has many traits in common with ordinary religious and traditional Muslims. Perhaps only the secular Muslims can be said to be free of the key traits.
Islamist ideology builds upon and shares many of the practices held in high regard by common Muslims, such as Ramadan, the Hajj, the avoidance of certain types of food or drink, and all the moral teachings.
Migrants with Muslim backgrounds can be roughly divided into three types: the workers, the immigrants and the refugees. When massive numbers of Muslims came into Europe and Northern America, they had a goal of finding ways to be productive or safe. Along with the steam of migrants came people with Islamist views. They began to spread their thinking among mostly ignorant Muslims, bringing their attention to suppression, political causes or the importance of following the way and living in piety.
This message does not seem overly problematic if it stopped at that. But soon enough the Islamist preachers had a long and growing list of concepts that should be followed, all presented as “the natural way of thinking”. The message claimed to offer the truthful and correct answers to every aspect of life – emotions, human nature, sex and society, limits and freedoms, culture and morals. Islam is a complete way of life, nothing less than the natural order of God on Earth, in fact, and this way of life must be learned in order to reform the individual and the group alike.
To capture hearts and minds, Islamists shift the attention of ordinary Muslims towards their political goals in three key steps:
One- to present the example of the perfect way of life by trying to interpret the life of Islam’s prophet Mohamed to fit with their ideas.
Second – to draw attention to the cruelty and suppression of the non-Islamic societies and the view that every failure to achieve improvements is caused by the evil forces working against them.
Third – the happiness of man can only be achieved by submitting to the rule of the caliph, whose power will break the enemy and lead the way to implementing God’s righteous law on earth.
In my opinion, this is the great challenge of Muslim migrants. It is not that their ethnic or religious backgrounds that make them problematic, because many examples show us that Muslims can integrate in workplaces, be productive and contribute to the wealth of their new nations. The core of the challenge rests instead in what I cover in my latest book – loyalty. It has become clear to many that the loyalty of Muslims in Europe seems either shifting or hypocritical. At best, one can argue, it can be said to be mute and unclear.
Meanwhile Islamist voices are persistent and violence is raging through European societies, so many Muslims feel they are victims of stigmatization and finger pointing. Not without reason, some turn to segregation.
The main impetus to turn against radical Islam should have been stronger and immutable. Instead it has been generally silent. Muslims give the impression of feeling oppressed when they are asked to take a stand against Islamist voices, even though they are ready to mobilize in protests for Gaza, the hijab in schools, Erdogan, and lately the burka.
Islamist Ideology and the Democratic Way of Life
Whether you live in the West or the East, the interaction between democratic and authoritarian values is shaping political life. In the Arab world, the short blossoming of the Arab Spring revolutions gave way to desperate relief when strongmen took power. In the West, one finds a strange fear of the political implications of dealing with totalitarian ideas. If we think that Western societies have made compromises and outgrown the Islam-and-democracy debate, then we are making too many assumptions or simply avoiding the point.
That said, Western societies are starting to turn towards stronger measures out of fear of threats, mainly those coming from within Muslim communities.
At the sharp end, after the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, some jihadis decided to bring the battle to the West. As there was no conventional battleground, they turned to guerilla options, mobilizing people among the Muslim communities in the West to plan and execute attacks on Western soil.
Of course, when you have 20 mn residents with Muslim backgrounds, one can expect to find some rogue gangs and individuals. The security agencies have to deal with them, just as they deal with any other threat of violence.
But Islamist political ideas seem to run deep among non-violent Muslims as well. The ideology has made the problems extend beyond the physical security threat. It brings Muslims to its way of life and promotes a group mentality and behavior that is noticed in wider society and judged accordingly.
It is important to note that Islamism seems to have many layers of fanatism and fundamentalism. However, a casual observer can skip differentiation and reach a “one size fits all” conclusion: “Islamic” means opponents, danger, and fear of the other. At the same time, many Muslims feel annoyed and excluded by both silent and outspoken rejection, leading them to turn to Islamic preachers for support. In this way, a cycle of mutual stereotyping develops and barriers are raised, pulling communities apart and institutionalizing the policies of segregation.
The Mission versus Democracy
Two major factors that have been largely overseen in European politics until recent times must be considered: the number of migrants with Muslim backgrounds and the missionary nature of Islamist thinking.
What has happened in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and lately Egypt must be noted. Islamist ideologies become empowered through the support of ordinary people, many of whom did not realize what Islamist rule could turn out to be. In just a few years, the mobilization of Islamist movements brought them close to power. Similar dynamics apply to Muslim immigrants in Europe.
This should make the policymakers worried. Islamism’s strength is grabbing the attention of as many as possible of the 20 mn people with Muslim backgrounds living, working and residing in Europe. Islamists are not shy in the least about developing an identity for them. So, once they have an established position in the West, it is only a matter of persistence and time before changes will occur. The more moderate groups build mosques and centers to become the focal point in local Muslim communities residing in concentrated areas, while more radical and extreme groups take confrontational measures to bringing about a “religious awakening” among Muslims. Once they are awakened by religious feelings or traditions, it becomes easier to adopt the thoughts of political Islam, partly or as a whole.
In addition, a large group of Islamist centers are the primary source of European converts. They are in danger of beginning their journey to understanding Islam with a politically rooted organization promoting an authoritarian ideology.
Ultimately, Islamists want to be and seen to be the voice of all Muslims, just as we have seen in Islamic states and in Egypt during the 2013 unrest.
Clarity, Awareness and the Way Forward
To support democracy, we must revitalize its core values. These values seem to be lost in the torrent of constructivism and postmodern devaluation of core concepts and the difficulties of making a proper rational judgement in complex public affairs. The situation is made worse by the mass media overwhelming people with information, some of which is not useful. As a result, it has become very hard for common people to judge public issues. Extensive but fragmented information hinders citizens trying to see a full picture, leading some to suspend judgement. That’s why some turn to far simpler prejudice and stereotypes when looking at people with different orientations. This in turn leads to mistrust or even discrimination against certain communities.
At one point, policies can stop working altogether. They can then be replaced with harsher or undemocratic measures. This is where we can shift from democratic solutions to dictatorship and outright hostility.
And so we return to the root to the problem – migrant integration. When we look back with retrospective clarity, we will be able to say that by failing to contain and dismantle the Islamist strategy of gaining influence and drawing Muslims toward their totalitarian views, the politicians failed Europe and threw it into the hands of a dark destiny. What is seen today as a minor matter of isolated groups and fragmented movements can – and I fear will – become the main origin of a Europe at war or in the hands of tyrannical powers.
To conclude, the reader should not be so alarmed as to think that some kind of Islamic destruction of Europe is imminent and jump to the conclusion that the time for peaceful solutions has passed. Islamism is still rather limited in its influence. But it has a large base of loyal followers, as seen in several places around the world, and some of them have found the way to European countries since the 1950s.
Neither should the reader believe that all Muslims are Islamists or associated with their ways, because Muslims are not Islamists per se. In fact, many Muslims are not culturally affected by extreme interpretations of Islamic principles. This point is of immense importance in the defense of Europe’s foundational democratic values. To treat humans as individuals with rights, and not as a part of a group or collective, even if they choose radical ways, is a crucial principle.
Yes, there are Islamist activities that do break the law and can be prosecuted. Overall, though, might does not make right and the distinction between critical observations and punishment must be maintained. Even in these fraught times, the idea of denigrating an entire ethnic or religious group must make every European feel nothing but revulsion.
Indeed, dark as some of my thoughts are, I do hope that strong but realistic democratic leaders offering practical common sense and effective solutions can help us to escape the current state of frustration and angst. Ideally, they will wear down both far right racism and Islamist ideology to the point where they simply do not matter for the future of Europe.
* Editor’s note: Ahmed Akkari is a Danish teacher of Lebanese origin who became known for his involvement in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005-2006. Shortly after the Danish newspaper published its Prophet Muhammed cartoons in 2005, Ahmed embarked on an international tour that was meant to stir up outrage amongst Muslims. Akkari, a prominent leader in Denmark’s Muslim community, joined a group that led protests against the cartoons. In August 2013, Akkari publicly reversed course and categorically asserted that Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the cartoons. He is now the most vocal Muslim thinker against radicalism in Denmark.