A strange thing happens when liberal western media covers Islamic extremism: it gets confused about which of its values should take priority. On the one hand, political religion is a Bad Thing; on the other, we feel bad about what we did in the Middle East. On the one hand, we are feminist and pro-LGBT rights; on the other, is critiquing political Islam a form of racism or western supremacy? Essentially: what liberal value takes priority when a minority group holds to illiberal views? Which kind of liberals are we?
Various approaches have been taken in answer to this problem: there’s the ‘we’ll only ask Muslims to write about it’ approach (or, alternatively, the ‘non-Muslims/ white people can’t write negative things’ approach). There’s the ‘balanced view’ approach, where every article which leans slightly one way is countered with another leaning slightly the other way. Both of these approaches, in my opinion, have merit. The issue is both sensitive and complex, being tied up with all sorts of other issues like immigration, educational policy and freedom of expression. It should therefore be treated as such.
However, there’s also the approach that I discern in the Guardian’s recent coverage, which appears to be denial, or blaming everyone for Islamic extremism except the extremists themselves. Take, for example, the Guardian’s editorial in response to David Cameron’s extremism speech. It cites two ‘parts’ to the jihadist narrative: ‘the glorification of violence’ amongst men, which, it points out, western media has spread by reprinting what ISIS does, and the ‘wickedness of western foreign policy’ which ISIS uses to justify its violence. I’m sure that both of these factors are true. But there is a big, awkward hole there: extremist religion. Are we not able to talk about it?
A follow-up comment piece from Mohammed Shafiq is similar in its decision to ignore ‘religion’: one note at the start that ISIS ‘has nothing to do with Islam but has distorted Islamic teaching’ and then the remainder of the article focuses on the government’s failure to engage British Muslims. Again, I’m sure there’s truth to this. But isn’t something else going on? Surely some comment on exactly how it distorts Islamic teaching would be helpful? Another Guardian letter: “If David Cameron wants to tackle radicalization, he should address inequality”. Agreed. But.
And this brings us to their most recent interviews on the issue: one with the British leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic political organization which aims to unite all Muslims into one Caliphate, and one with one of its former recruits, who now heads up the first counter-extremism think-tank, Quilliam. Both are worthy, relevant interviewees, but there are no prizes for guessing which one was treated to a series of snide comments, and which one got away without a single awkward question about stoning apostates.
Acknowledging the religious factors in ‘political Islam’ shouldn’t alienate or shut down debate. Rather, it should instead play an important role in the need to acknowledge that belief and practice in Islam is enormously varied – as with Christianity – and these differences merit discussion. As Tom Holland pointed out in his contribution to Theos’ previous series on Islamic radicalisation, just because one Islamist’s interpretation of scripture is shocking and dangerous, it doesn’t mean it isn’t based in some kind of theology. You can’t tackle it if you won’t acknowledge it, and this gap in the conversation should be taken particularly seriously, since theological claims are often at the forefront of ISIS’ activity, even if many British Islamic extremists are often fairly theologically illiterate.
The Guardian’s silence here is particularly odd because the Muslims actually involved in tackling extremism are doing it theologically as well as socially – in Mosques, in faith schools, in inter-faith groups, in scriptural study and debate. The Islamic society of Britain claims to play “an important and positive part in how British Muslims think about their faith”, and the Association of British Muslims is unashamedly religious in its content and defense of diversity and calls for ‘critical engagement with Islamic scriptures and current Muslim discourses’. The Islamic Cultural Centre promotes inter-faith readings through the medium of scripture. If these organisations can see that this is not just a political issue but a theological one, why can’t the Guardian admit it too?
For a range of different perspectives on Islamic radicalisation, check out Theos' blog series here.
Hannah Malcolm is a former research intern at Theos and currently studying for her Masters in Religion at Yale Divinity School. @hannahmmalcolm