by Jonathan Lee
Prime Minister Erdoğan was speaking in reaction to the Obama administration identifying Turkey as a moderate Islamic country. The blunt statement challenges much of the narrative coming from Western governments, and forces the West to question the validity of the term as well as another of its favourite loaded words: ‘Extremism’.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the heavily sidelined Boko Haram massacre at Baga, the media’s use of choice words like ‘extremism’, ‘radicalism’, ‘fundamentalism’, and ‘Islamism’ has once once again been unleashed in a daily barrage on our television and computer screens. The corresponding rise of Islamophobia, which was already latent in the West, has reached even higher levels, resulting in liberals, apologists, and leftists having to try and stem the tide of what is sometimes wanton bigotry and racism. An oft deployed tool of argument is the careful labelling and distinction between ‘moderate Islam’ and ‘extremism’, usually in the vein of ‘moderate Muslims are not to blame, extremism is’.
It is a particular favourite of Facebook users and has rapidly become a trope of anti-Islamophobic rhetoric online, utilised in status updates, memes, and arguments in the comments section.
Seemingly the problem is Muslim extremism, as extremisms of every other colour are flourishing in the current European climate. Extremisms such as Thatcherism, Conservative Christianity, Far-Right Nationalism, anti-Ziganism, anti-immigration, and Islamophobia are rife and growing in 21st century Europe, yet are not challenged by the popular press to anywhere near the same degree.
The terms used to describe ‘extreme’ Islamic beliefs are themselves inflammatory and highly charged. These are terms which are used carefully and often reluctantly in academia as they have been all to often corrupted and left bereft of their original meaning by the media. Islamism is one victim and some academics now refuse to use it. Its academic term as ‘an ideology that Islam should be the guiding reference in the social and political spheres as well as the personal’ describes the views of huge swathes of Muslims, and can be argued to describe Islam itself.
The term ‘moderate Islam’ is ugly and offensive; there is no moderate Islam; Islam is Islam.” − Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan.
Instead, in its political use it has come to denote a terrorist, another loaded pejorative which can equally be applied to Western states, freedom fighters, and even disenfranchised university students depending on who is in the position of power and who they want to discredit.
Prince Charles recently gave an interview on his fears of ‘radicalism’ amongst young British Muslims. He partly blamed the rise in Western foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria on the temptation of risk and adventure for young people. He said, “I can see I suppose to a certain extent, some aspect of this radicalisation is a search for adventure and excitement at a particular age”. This particular view is so especially patronising and ignorant of the issues involved it is frightening, even coming from a royal. Sadly it is also somewhat indicative of the very social problems that drive many young Muslims to participate in ideologically motivated acts of violence.
The use of ‘radicalism’ is once again taken in reference to the ideal ‘moderate Islam’ which is promoted. This statement from Charles, in his position of utmost privilege, aside from being overtly Orientalist, infers that the problem of young Muslims being drawn towards violent ‘radicalism’ is merely some sort of young man’s natural search for adventure that every red-blooded, excitable young person goes through to some extent, a bizarre right of manly passage that seems a relic of the Imperialism he grew up with.
It betrays a staggering ignorance, or maybe just the Western arrogance, that allows the benefit of forgetfulness to not even acknowledge the growing social unrest over the last fifty years in the Middle East and North Africa, the painful processes of decolonisation, loss of identity and post-colonial conflict, the stigma and hatred felt by asylum seekers in Europe after leaving their own war-torn countries, or the horrors of the West’s war on terror that has so often resulted rather in a war on Muslims. This is thus far ignoring the issue of entitlement – what right or qualification does Charles have to promote his politics on a public level? The issue of separation of the monarchy from political institutions shall be left for another debate, suffice to say an inversion of Voltaire may be appropriate in that for many of Charles’ political opinions, although some may agree with what he has to say, we should deny to the death his right to say it.
‘The problem is extremism’ (or here substitute ‘radicalism’, ‘fundamentalism’, ‘puritanical’, ‘Islamism’ etc.) is the get-out-of-jail card which is often laid down on the metaphorical debate table with a resounding slap of assumed liberalism and analytical knowledge, perhaps with knowing nods of agreement signalling the mutual, but amicable end of discussion.
The problem with the notion that extreme Islam is fundamentally wrong is subtle but acts on the public consciousness. ‘Extremism’ is a term used to cover everything from personally held views, to preaching in public to going and fighting in the Levant. In claiming that there is absolutely nothing wrong with ‘moderate’ Islam and everything wrong with ‘extreme’ Islam within the same sentence puts the two on the same sliding scale. On this scale ‘extremism’ represents the pinnacle of fundamentalist Islam, and the ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘Islamists’ are somehow more religious than the moderates.
At what point does a person become a bit too Muslim for the West and thereby become an extremist?
Granted, violence in any form cannot be tolerated in society yet this makes the prospect even worse for Muslims as those who do commit acts of horrendous violence are placed within a range of Muslim behaviour where their views are held to be more Islamic. The overriding inference which pervades is that it is a bad thing to be more Islamic than less. Unfortunately, it is also a narrative used at all levels of politics, David Cameron recently approved the letter sent to British mosques iterating that moderate Muslims have a ‘responsibility to fight extremism’.
Aside from this debate, is it not a citizen’s right to hold views against the majority providing they do not violently act on them? Particularly in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo Free Speech extravaganza, surely a Muslim is well within their rights to advocate the theoretical premise of a state modelled on 7th century Arabia? Or to a less ‘extreme’ degree, does a Muslim’s belief that one day all of the world will unite equally under the banner of Islam make them extremist? Or perhaps if they believe that the non-Muslim world is condemned to hell at God’s mercy?
These are no more extremist than the notion that the Jews alone are God’s chosen people, or that only 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in all of humankind’s history will get in to heaven.
Moving away from religious ‘extremisms’, what about the myriad political extremes currently facing the UK and Europe? Britain First’s ‘Christian Patrols’ in East London, mosque invasions, and provocative baiting of religious minorities certainly constitutes a far-right extremism bordering on fascism in their ideologies.
Most who throw out the ‘moderate Islam isn’t the problem, extremism is’ rhetoric are likely well intentioned and to some degree they are correct, the extremism they are thinking of has very little to do with what most Muslims conceive Islam to mean. Only when examined more closely, the inference that extreme Islam is a more Islamic expression of moderation is revealed and reflects a widespread Islamophobia endemic in the West as a result of 21st century political events. Conversely, and to play devil’s advocate, to say that the violence occurring in the Middle East at the moment has absolutely nothing to do with Islam is a fallacy. It may not reflect the views of the vast majority of Muslims but it cannot be wholly separated from its Islamic reference in much the same way the United States and Americans cannot be wholly separated from the atrocities committed in the War on Terror.
Needless to say, in both cases, the average Muslim nor the average American is to be held responsible.