By Dr Magnus Norell, Infosphere AB
At the beginning of February, in the US, a statement by the Director of national intelligence – Dennis C Blair – put the limelight, yet again, on the threat of radical Islamism. Or, rather the confusion of what radical Islamism is exactly. The statement – that there was a high risk of an attempted attack on the US – came in response to a question at a hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 2.
Too often, radical Islamism is being treated as being equal to terrorism in general. No doubt this is because in today’s world, most international terrorism incidents are tied to radical (or militant) Islamism. And that is what Mr. Blair meant, citing examples from a range of events, including the ‘undie-bomber’ over Detroit on Christmas Day. Overlooking other threats might not necessarily be a sin, as long as one doesn’t completely neglect those other threats. But the focus on radical Islamism does tend to blur the picture of what exactly we’re looking at here. This becomes especially true when – which is frequently the case – this kind of terroristic violence is short-hand for Al Qaeda (AQ). This was the case at the Senate hearing as well. Mr. Blairs assessment zeroed in on AQ’s adaptability to strike in new ways and its ability to change its methods. This was echoed by CIA Director Panetta who said that AQ is adapting its methods in ways that are difficult to detect, with splinter groups gaining importance.
These and other statements raise a number of questions on how the West view international terrorism and to what extent the individuals and organizations tasked with checking them, really know what they are looking at.
First, AQ is not similar to all violent radical Islamism. It is not even in the forefront when one is counting attacks (attempted or successful ones). It has, however, become a house-hold name and has gained the reputation of being a world-wide organization with branches all over. It is that, but only insofar as being a brand-name that a lot of networks, independent groups and sometimes lone individuals, are using to enhance there own roles and strength. By using the name Al Qaeda, a group (or a network or an individual) can tie into a mental and ideological world-view that automatically gives you an assured audience. There is no ‘AQ- central’. But there are numerous ‘splinter-groups’ as Mr. Panetta said, calling themselves AQ. But these groups have been adapting for years and they were de-centralized into its present shape and form long before nine-eleven.
Second, for the Islamist activist, terrorism is not what they are engaged in. it is Jihad, a holy war against an enemy that is trying to subdue a whole religious tradition. And whether we think that is an outrageous statement and a ridiculous conclusion (which is true!), is not necessarily of any consequence for the activist. That Islamic violence in the form of radical Islamism often is pure terrorism does not necessarily mean that the labels can or should be used interchangeably. On the contrary, in order to fully understand the ideological phenomenon of radical Islamism, one needs to separate it from its violent outcome – terrorism. Fighting a political battle, although with a radical agenda, doesn’t necessarily mean that you must engage in violence. The trick is to wean away the radicals, while they are still in a political stage, from the more violent ideological schooling they may end up belonging to. The ‘undie-bomber’ is a case in point. ‘Understand’ here, of course, doesn’t mean ‘accept’. It is still vitally important to battle the ideology as well, even more so than using military means to fight the violent radicals, since nipping terrorism in the bud, is a preemptive strategy that can save a lot of lives. But this has to be done by being more sophisticated and will not be achieved by pumping up AQ to a world-encompassing menace that it isn’t. By calling each and every Islamist-attack an AQ-attack, we do nothing but helping the violent radicals to create an even more formidable enemy.
Third, and lastly, Radical Islamism or Jihadism, is far more than mere terrorism. It is an ideological and revolutionary movement that aims, no less, to overthrow governments and change societies. Terrorism is only the most extreme outcome of that movement. Terrorism is thus the tactical problem where radical Islamism is the strategic threat. It is one way in which Islamism can be reached and imposed on society. It is a tool to achieve sovereignty over Muslim-majority countries.
Islamism is thus first and foremost a political movement and, even if it is tied to a specific religion, Islam, it is not primarily a theological movement. In fact, most Muslims oppose Islamism, not the least because Muslims are more often than non-Muslims the victims of the violent outcome of radical Islamic violence. Therefore, Islamism is only one possible outcome when interpreting Islam, but there are obviously many other interpretations. And while it is true that Islamism’s approach is shaped and justified by basic Islamic texts, it is also true that the scope of other interpretations is wide. As long as these texts are held in such reverence by Muslims, it is probably also true that such an interpretation – to be effective as a weapon against Islamists – needs to be done by qualified clerics. Since the question of what Islam mean can only be decided by Muslims in a process of debate, the outcome of that debate lie well in the future.