Underestimating the Political Ambitions of Islamic Extremists

The below was inspired by this piece on Islamism originally published by Quillette.

Political Islam post-9/11 preceded the recent rise of radicals of other stripes in the Western world on the right and left. I think the West’s failure to recognize what the rise of Islam politically represented. Radical Islamic organizations starting satellite cells in the Western world are participating in what is known as “extra-parliamentary” political action. What this means is political action taken outside the realm of electoral politics within a democratic society. This is political action by citizens that isn’t a direct influence on their parliamentary or republican representatives, such as by voting for them in elections. The most common form of extra-parliamentary is protest, which typically aim changing social policy at large, as opposed to impacting one politician at a time.

Since the end of World War II (WWII), extra-parliamentary action like protests has primarily been predicated on non-violence, such as in India’s independence movement of the 1940s, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of the 1960s. This is what comes to mind for most people in 2018, as these are events within living memory. However, a commitment to non-violence wasn’t as much a hallmark of politics earlier in the 20th century. Amidst the rise of the Nazi Party to power in Germany in the late 1920s and early ’30s, fascists, anarchists and communists were frequently violent against one another. In the early 20th century in the lead-up to WWII, the threat of fascism or communism spreading to the rest of the Western world was real, and violence became more common in employed tactics. As violence spiraled, more of the population saw violent political tactics as legitimate as non-violent ones. The fact of the matter is that even in Western democracies for much of history prior to WWII, what was typically thought of as politics included consideration of violent strategies as much as non-violent strategies.

It’s been almost one hundred years since the time when the first thing that came to mind when thinking of politics outside of parliaments was a bombing, a shooting or a riot, as opposed to a peaceful protest. That such violence and hostility to democracy and democratic values would arise within the Western world on the far-left and the far-right has been unthinkable for multiple generations. This is why it’s caught our society off guard in the last couple years, without preparation for how to deal with it so as to preserve democratic institutions and civil society.

In the Western world, the public has underestimated the willingness of their fellow citizens to use violence to achieve their political ends. This was for a long time because the vast majority of citizens had little to no sympathy for violence in politics. However, as troubled times ensue, more people are becoming politically polarized. As people become more fearful and desperate, tolerance for violence increases. On the internet, though, extremists are able to coordinate and learn from the tactics of rare books on violent tactics under democratic governments from decades ago. Thus there is a whole dimension to politics that extremists have adapted to, that most citizens of countries like the United States haven’t. In the Western world, political extremism has most recently been the wheelhouse of secular ideologies, such as Marxism and fascism. However, the efforts of terrorist organizations acting in the name of Islam in the Western world aren’t secular in nature.

So while terrorist attacks motivated by Islam may be seen as lacking a political component by the public today, the Western world has a long history of political action outside democratic norms and institutions. The populations of Western democracies haven’t been acclimated to a very violent political atmosphere in recent decades. During the same period in the 20th century, the separation of religion and politics was particularly strong. Thus the political implications for democracy of Islam in the 21st century have gone unforeseen.

Often many people see religiously motivated terrorist attacks as random attacks of violent insanity inspired by religion. However, we’re failing to anticipate and recognize the political purpose and intention of terrorist acts by radical Islamic organizations. Whether its committed in the name of secular ideologies originating in the Western world, or radical Islamic organizations, terrorism is often deliberately carried out as part of a broader strategy to dominate and transform the broader society. By only thinking of terrorist organizations as carrying out their attacks in a religious and non-political context, we fail to recognize these organizations’ other efforts to undermine democratic values and institutions. For example, organizations like ISIS use the internet to radicalize citizens of Western countries, of both European and Arab descent, and establish local cells in Muslim enclaves. In the long run, the consequences of their activism mean more than just more frequent terrorist attacks in the West, and will accelerate the erosion of the rule of law. Islamic extremism needs to be regarded in the broader context of intentions to transform Western countries into Islamic republics from within.

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