We need to find a better way to discuss violent extremism
The subject of Islamist extremism demands a thorough and comprehensive examination. In the midst of that discussion, there is the temptation to resort to simplistic responses – and that helps no one. The attacks in Egypt last week make that ever more pertinent. Yet many persist in pursuing the discussion in precisely those terms, in both the Arab world and the West.
Take the discussion in France. For a while now, the two most prominent theorists on Islamist extremism have been Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.
Both of them have their roles on different parts of the political spectrum, and they disagree on key points. But rather than admit that both have made useful contributions to the debate, those partisans insist that one perspective is thoroughly correct and the other is thoroughly wrong. That is neither helpful nor true.
Take Kepel. To his credit, he has expressed little sympathy for the far-right ideologues of the National Front in France. At the same time, he was also part of the commission that led to the banning of the hijab in public institutions in France, and, according to an analysis of his position in a recent New York Times review of his position, “dismissed claims of widespread Islamophobia in French society as fraudulent”.
This perspective, at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is not only widespread in Europe, but is growing at an alarming rate, contributes to a dangerous populism that portrays Muslims as problems.
At the same time, Kepel draws attention to the reality that there is a disturbing growth in ultra-conservative understandings of Islam in Muslim communities in France and elsewhere. He, quite accurately, points out that this is relevant to discussions of extremism. Ignoring that discourse is not useful, nor is concluding that ideas are irrelevant or incidental.
Such ideas are indelibly linked to the bombings in Egypt on Palm Sunday targeting Christians – which also apparently targeted mosques that were linked to Sufism. This, despite the fact that Sufism is part and parcel of normal Sunni Islam. Indeed, that is core to why it is problematic for this kind of approach.
At the same time, Kepel can and does go too far. His discourse aggressively attacks the likes of Roy. The French press has focused much of the public debate as some kind of zero-sum game between the theories of the two adversaries.
But this is not the way to go. Both Kepel and Roy have made contributions to the debate.
Roy, quite correctly, points out that dominant perceptions of what is an appropriate secularism have caused problems for those Muslims who do not try to hide their religious convictions.
France has, by and large, found that awkward. Taken to its logical conclusion, that awkwardness has led to police officers forcing Muslim women to remove their burkinis and change into western beachwear on French public beaches.
This obsession with how some Muslim women choose to dress does nothing to stem extremism in Muslim communities. On the contrary, it simply empowers populist types of extremist secularism.
The debate in the French media has also spilt over the English Channel, and Roy recently wrote in The Guardian on the issue.
Roy, for his part, as do many on the French left, sometimes does not take sufficient stock of the importance of ideas. It is relevant and important to identify the variety of factors that play into the rise of extremist Islamism – and those include social, economic and political factors.
But ideas are also crucial. The virulent sectarianism endemic in the attacks on Palm Sunday cannot be separated from ideas, and reducing them to socio-economic factors would effectively remove the significance of ideas altogether. That is not helpful either.
Nevertheless, figures such as Roy are correct to point out that there are many other issues at play here – and they certainly aid in the recruitment strategies of radical ideologues.
Many on the left also fall into a dangerous trap, which is to argue that if Muslims are labelled en masse as problems, they will be forced into extremism.
That, in essence, argues that Muslims are just a nudge away from becoming extremist.
That is obviously not what such figures on the left want to argue, but it is the logical conclusion of their argument. If they want to argue that it gives radical preachers ammunition, that would be a valid and legitimate claim. But there is a difference between the two claims, and it is important to get that right as well.
The discussion around extremism is an important one, and one that shouldn’t be underestimated. By the same token it is unnecessary and counter-productive to assume that everyone is either utterly wrong or completely right all the time.
We can, and should, take good frames of perspective where possible, even when they come from figures who disagree on fundamental issues. A comprehensively good analysis can afford to be selective and circumspect. Otherwise, we run the risk of simply repeating the mistakes of the past. If nothing else, the Palm Sunday horror in Egypt shows we can’t do that without disastrous consequences.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London
On Twitter: @hahellyer