Political Islam: A Fraught Subject in the Western World
Since at least the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the concept of “political Islam” or “Islamism” has drawn the attention of political analysts in Western countries.1 Since the 9/11 attacks, however, much policy attention has focused on combating a specific tactic—the use of violence through terrorism— rather than on countering the ideology of Islamism.
Because Islamist ideology can and does lead to violence, but not always, and not necessarily in a linear manner, the use or absence of “violence” is not the right criterion to distinguish a Muslim “moderate” from an Islamist “extremist.” The Islamists’ rejection of a free and open society, of universal human rights, of equal rights between men and women, of religious equality in the civic sphere, of genuine pluralism: these considerations are at least as serious as the possibility that terrorism might be used as a tactic in pursuit of Islamist ends.
Recently, in response to the beheading of French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist, following a classroom discussion involving the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and online smear campaigns directed against the teacher, French President Emmanuel Macron and his government have targeted Islamist “separatism” and “radical Islamism” in France, both rhetorically and through the establishment of more serious public policy measures. In doing so, Macron and French officials have broadened their horizon beyond focusing on the use of "terror" tactics by Islamists. In the United States, and also in France, critiques of political Islam are frequently dismissed as “Islamophobic” in nature, that is to say, based on an irrational hatred of Muslims and as hurting Muslims.
In the early 2000s, the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD published multiple reports on the strategic challenge of Islamist ideology, regardless of whether this ideology was clearly “violent” in orientation or, alternatively, not yet violent but profoundly scornful of Western democratic norms and values.2 To the extent that 9/11 alerted U.S. officials to the need to address an ideological challenge—as opposed to an explicitly terrorist one—attention was primarily devoted to “Wahhabism” and to efforts that in the past enjoyed Saudi funding. More recently, some attention has been given (belatedly) by U.S. officials to tracking and curbing funding flows that keep Islamist ideological efforts (as opposed to terrorist activities) equipped around the world. As former top U.S. official John Hannah wrote in 2019:
Importantly, over the past several months, a small band of U.S. officials within the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and the National Security Council’s counterterrorism directorate have sought to refocus U.S. policy on combating extremist proselytization by foreign states—starting with the Saudis, but also including the troubling activities of countries including Qatar, Turkey, and Iran. As I learned in recent conversations, the issue has become a regular item on their agenda for discussions with counterterrorism colleagues from Europe and Canada that constitute a forum referred to as “the like-minded group.”3
Nevertheless, nearly twenty years after 9/11, public policy measures against Islamism in the West remain largely uneven, sporadic, belated, inconsistent, scattered, politically polarized, and perennially controversial, dismissed by Islamists and “woke” activists alike as proof of “Islamophobia” and therefore illegitimate. Those who criticize Islamism and Islamist organizations frequently do so at their peril, as France's President Emmanuel Macron is currently discovering. In this context, the publication of Elham Manea’s book could not come at a better time.