War with an ‘ism’ is a bad idea

This piece appeared  in The Hill Times on December 18

Last week I was invited to a conference in the UK hosted by the Henry Jackson Society, a US-UK think tank that looks at a variety of issues.  At this particular conference, entitled ‘A wake-up call for all: creating a trans-Atlantic network to battle radical Islam’, there were a host of speakers from both sides of the ‘pond’. The general tone was that liberal, secular democracies are at war with a phenomenon known as (political) Islamism.  By this is generally meant a deliberate campaign by our adversaries to transform Western societies into Sharia-compliant states.

Those who have read my material or heard me speak publicly know that I am no fan of the analogy of war for every societal ill we struggle to contain or defeat.  The war on drugs.  The war on poverty.  The war on terrorism.  To this we need now apparently add the war on Islamism.  We know from experience that seeing these challenges as war never ends well for they are what independent analyst Grenville Byford calls wars against common nouns.  Common nouns never surrender: in fact they cannot as they are not agents (they are phenomena).

Several speakers presented Islamism as a scourge that is only getting worse and that we seem to be blindly blundering into a world we will soon not recognise.  Muslim populations in our countries will gain majorities through immigration and will irrevocably change the way we are governed and how we are allowed to live our lives.  Several horror stories were brought forward, such as the infamous Tower Hamlets ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in London where there were allegations that Muslim activists, including perhaps some extremists, were trying to take over a local council and impose unacceptable practices such as gender segregation in schools.

Many speakers made the comparison with the fight (and victory) against two other ‘isms’: communism and fascism. Just as we defeated these two systems during WWII so will we defeat the newest threat, they said.  Except that we did not vanquish either communism or fascism- we defeated two states for which these were the dominant political and government systems.  Communism and fascism were both shown to be the brutal, illiberal ideas they were but neither was eliminated from the world.  If we treat Islamism in the same way we will likely get the same result although victory will be harder this time around since unlike communism ( the Soviet Union) or fascism (Italy and Germany), Islamism has no one sponsoring state, no polity that can surrender.

Putting the challenge this way is both ill-advised and counterproductive.  If there are legitimate concerns over having our democratic system undermined from within by forces we think are anything but democratic (i.e. the ‘Islamists’) then the answer is to be found from within our system, not by going to ‘war’.  We already have all the tools we need – elections, consultation, debates, the marketplace of ideas – to engage with those who think differently.  And we have laws and constitutions and charters that lay the framework for what is acceptable and what is not (hint: sharia law as a general legal system is not). We cannot and must not treat Islamists as fifth columnists through a security/military lens.

This approach is also counterproductive in that it displaces our attention from where a true threat (albeit not an existential one) lies: Islamist extremism (i.e. terrorism).  We need to identify and neutralise those who intend to use violence and try to destroy our way of life.  And we need to use all our resources- security intelligence, law enforcement, government, communities – to do so as these individuals do pose a real menace.

Allowing our focus to stray to a much ballyhooed but significantly over exaggerated threat helps no one.  Yes there are some who hew to a very conservative and intolerant form of Islam and who would love to see that interpretation imposed on the rest of us but they are a tiny, yet noisy, minority within Western Muslim communities.  Telling them we are ‘at war’ gives them credit they do not deserve.

We really have to stop seeing nouns as enemies.  Aren’t there enough wars against actual foes already?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

One reply on “War with an ‘ism’ is a bad idea”

Hi Phil
Agree entirely that it is a major mistake to describe as a “war” the efforts of nations (whether Western or not) to be secure themselves against salafi Islamism. That one word gave bin Laden, Awlaki, al-Baghdadi the legitimacy they crave – and seemingly made true the narrative of a “war” between the forces of darkness (represented by the many devils they identify) and themselves – or as they see themselves, forces of light.
However, the threat from salafi-islamists is real. The so called “Trojan Horse” operation was not, initially about Tower Hamlets, but UK schools in Birmingham. An investigation ordered by the UK government discovered what it described as a “sustained, co-ordinated agenda to impose segregationist attitudes and practices of a hardline, politicised strain of Sunni Islam” in several Birmingham schools.
While I agree we need to use all the tools in our democratic arsenal, we must also be alert to the clandestine and surreptitious activities of some – for instance mosques and prayer rooms – Finsbury Park is a notorious historic example in the UK – where this ideology is spread and new recruits are drawn to this ideology. And counter it in those places too.
And the threat is not only Islamist extremism (whatever “extremism” means) but it is actually Islamism – a political ideology that is inherently anti-democratic and secular – and some theorists argue, violent. The violent expression of it is just advancing the ideology via the use of violence. While we can go to war against an idea – we can as a society discuss it, meet the challenge it poses – and reveal it for the intolerant, oppressive and totalitarian ideology it is.

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