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Martin Parsons: Liberalism cannot defeat Islamism

Martin Parsons has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has written a major academic book on this subject.

Screen shot 2013-05-28 at 12.16.06Since the decline of Socialism, the major ideological fault line in British politics, insofar as there has been one, has been between, on the one hand, conservativism and, on the other, various forms of liberalism – espoused bynot just the Liberal Democrats, but also in large measure by the Labour Party.

This ideological divide is of critical importance in the fight against Islamism. I say this because there is a myth that has been propagated by liberals that the only answer to Islamism is liberalism. However, liberalism not only lacks the capacity to counter Islamism and has significantly failed to do so, but is seen by many Islamists as part of the back door by which they can take over and impose Islamic law and government on western society.The reasons for this are not hard to find:

  • Liberalism promotes diversity rather than cohesion. The essence of Liberalism is that diversity is ‘good’, and so should not just be tolerated but actively promoted. The active promotion of diversity by the last government led to various forms of support for Islamist groups that were seeking to pull people away from traditional British values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In other words, it was doing exactly the opposite to community cohesion, which any right-thinking person would understand as encouraging people to adhere to the values that we have historically developed and learned as a nation to cherish – such as democracy, the equality of everyone before the law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and so forth. All of these are significantly diminished by sharia, which in various aspects treats men and women, Muslims and non Muslims differently. Liberalism’s politically correct promotion of groups perceived to have been historically disadvantaged has led to the strange combination of liberals advocating ,for example, partial implementation of sharia in Britain, while at the same time supporting legislation that diminishes historic rights such as freedom of religion for other groups that political correctness regards less favourably. This was vividly illustrated during the time of the last Labour Government, when the Home Secretary went on the Today programme to argue for freedom of speech for Islamists, while only a few hours later sought to pass legislation restricting the same freedom of speech for Christians.
  • Social liberalism is the essence of the Islamist critique of western society and its attempt to recruit as yet unradicalised Muslims. The central narrative of virtually all Islamist propaganda is that: 1. The West is morally corrupt;  2. Therefore the solution is the enforcement of sharia, either by means of the political process (non-violent Islamist groups) or by means of violence (Jihadist Islamist groups). While the second point is wholly incompatible with British values, we have to recognise that the first point – the moral corruption of western society is one that many ordinary people readily and very rightly identify with.  This is particularly true amongst many Muslim families, who generally hold more strongly to traditional family and moral values than much of wider society. That I would argue is an extremely good thing. However, it also means that the promotion of social liberalism as an alternative to Islamism is not only ineffective at stopping the radicalisation of young Muslims, but is actually reinforcing the critique of western society that radical Islamists are basing their appeal on.
  • Liberalism has a naïve approach to Islamism – often denying either their ultimate aims, or refusing to accept jihadists have a religious motivation. For example, the 2005 London bombings were followed by claims that such terrorism was due to socio-economic disadvantage as there could not be any link between Islam and terrorism. Similarly, in the USA, the Obama adminstration's State Department refuses to recognise that the repeated attacks on churches by the al-Qaeda linked Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria are religiously motivated, instead preferring to believe that socio-economic reasons are the cause of the violence.
  • Islamists often deliberately use liberal human rights laws to further their own aims. This is illustrated only too well by the inability of successive British governments to deport Abu Qatada, despite him not being a British citizen and having been described by a Spanish judge as al Qaeda’s right hand man in Europe.
  • Many Islamists see Liberalism as the backdoor that can enable them to gain power and impose Islamic law and government on western society. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikhwan) which has various offshoot organisations in the west, in 1991 produced a strategy document stating:
    "Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying western civilisation from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands…"

So liberalism, far from providing a solution to Islamism, is part of the problem - or at the very least is in danger of naively opening the door and making the problem worse. However, conservativism has at least the potential to provide a real alternative to Islamism.

  1. Conservativsim is about conserving the best of the past. The accumulated wisdom and institutions we have inherited from previous generations, including our national identity and values, is a trust.  This is the exact opposite of liberalism which sees the past, at best, as largely irrelevant and, at worst, as something to be abandoned in pursuit of the liberal vision of actively promoting diversity. So, while Liberalism leads us to an unknown future, conservativism enables us to promote cohesion around our history, values and culture. Those values include democracy and equal treatment for all by the law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and so forth. All of these are significantly diminished by the enforcement of sharia which in various aspects treats men and women, Muslims and non Muslims differently.
  • Social conservativism can appeal to ordinary Muslims – support for the family, traditional marriage, respect for old people, law and order are all things that are valued by the overwhelming majority of Muslim families. It thus provides an answer to the Islamist critique of western society, while social liberalism merely reinforces that critique.
  • Conservatvism has a realistic view of human nature. Conservatives do not assume that all actions that come under the label ‘culture’ are equally valid – but instead recognise that there is both good and bad in every culture, including some aspects of white British culture that have developed in recent years. What this means in practice is that we are free to criticise those strands within the multifaceted mosaic of Islamic history that advocate violent jihadism, rather than denying, as liberals are inclined to, that there is any link between Islam and terrorism. Yet at the same time it allows us to positively affirm that the beliefs and practices followed by the majority of British Muslims are entirely peaceful.
  • Conservativism values the British version of human of human rights laws that has evolved over the last 800 years in preference to the more recent European version of human rights that largely dates from the time of the French Revolution. The European version favoured by liberals is problematic because it is a ‘bottom up’ approach that gives specific abstract universal rights to individuals, including foreign Islamists such as Abu Qatada, that effectively trumps the most basic rights of British citizens - namely, to live in security. However, this problem does not arise with the British version of human rights law because it is a ‘top down’ approach that works by limiting the government’s power to interfere in ordinary people’s lives – no arbitrary arrest without trial before court and a jury etc. It therefore guarantees our freedoms, without the rights of ordinary people to live in security being set against the ‘rights’ of foreign terrorists. As Edmund Burke observed in 1790 in his Reflections on the Revolution in France , in Britain our freedoms are based "not on abstract principles ‘as the rights of men’, but as the rights of Englishmen", by which he explains he means the freedoms, starting with the Magna Carta, that we have inherited from previous generations.

Thus, while liberal naivety is in danger of leaving an open backdoor to Islamism, conservatism provides a genuine bulwark to safeguard Britain against Islamism. It does so by focusing on British identity and laws and historic British freedoms that we have inherited from previous generations, rather than on the abstract universal principles of Liberalism that, during the last two decades, politically astute Islamists have increasingly learned to exploit.


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