We Should Abolish The Phrase ‘Radical Islam’.
I like everyone else was horrified by the vile terror attacks in Barcelona recently. A deliberate act of aggression against civil society and yet another instance of a beautiful European city defiled by an act of barbarity. I’m not going to write my usual reactions to these attacks because I’ll just be repeating myself and you would get bored by that comrades, no matter how innovatively I put it, so I’m going to take a different angle.
Something that slightly irritates me about this whole debate on Islam is when people use the phrase “radical Islam” to describe movements and groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. I suppose because I describe myself as a radical I have a vested interest in protesting the abuse of language. ISIS and their cohorts are not radical, they are reactionary; the worst and most revolting kind of theocratic fascists imaginable. Scum of the earth in other words.
Part of the reason for this confusion is the fact that ‘radical’ in popular discourse is often used as a pejorative against those who dissent from mainstream consensus, making it synonymous with extremism, or fanaticism, whereas it means getting to the root of problems (as derived from its Latin root) and departing from tradition and orthodoxy in progressive and innovative ways. Secondly, these Islamists — mainly of the Jihadist bent, but also including groups like Hizb ut-Tahir, Hamas & Hezbollah — often present themselves as a “revolutionary” vanguard who are anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine, seeking to ‘liberate’ Muslim countries from the corrupt and autocratic status quo that so many of its countries suffer from, with the intention of totally transforming these societies into Islamic states with sharia being the supreme law which they believe will bring about a utopian society where pure justice and dignity for Muslims will be realised (and for Muslims only).
However, this ‘radicalism’ is very superficial and is certainly not in the least bit progressive. For example, their “anti-imperialism” — if you can even call it that — is based on irredentism, on the idea of reclaiming an area they feel belongs to them but is lost or unredeemed. Which is why if you listen to Jihadist propaganda they constantly drone on with chauvanistic glee about how they will reconquer “Al-Andalus” (modern day Spain and Portugal) and bring back into the Dar Al-Islam because it is ‘Muslim’ land and it belongs to ‘them’. Same can be said for their claims to East Timor and the Jewish controlled part of historic Palestine (what we call Israel), never mind the fact that in all these places the majority of the population are non-Muslim.
This has fuck all to do with anti-imperialism or advocating for the right of small and oppressed peoples like the Palestinians to self-determination. Those are just convenient pretexts to cover their own wild and ultimately unfeasible imperial ambitions. They desire to evict American imperialism and replace it with Caliphate imperialism based on religious supremacy where non-Muslims are the untermensch, either wiped out or subjugated as third class citizens in an apartheid state — take a look at what ISIS did to the Yazidis and Christians of Iraq and Syria if you are in any doubt about this.
Like all extreme rightist movements, militant Islamists are good at simultaneously projecting oppression, power and dominance, committing acts of terror and aggression against civilians in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries and claim the mantle of victimhood whilst wallowing in a swamp of self-pity. Their ideological narrative tells them, the aggrieved and emasculated “pure people”, that nothing is their fault; that all their perceived grievances can be pinned on a convenient foreign demon and scapegoat or on vulnerable minorities; even that it is those who they victimise and brutalise that are the aggressors, not them.
Perhaps I am being stubborn and allowing my personal view of the word radical to cloud my objectivity. This may be true. But anyone who values language should pounce whenever this term ‘radical Islam’ is used. Not just for the jingoistic manner that rightists use it. But also calling it ‘radical Islam’ is a euphemism that dignifies these murderers and spits upon the legacy of all progress and will help to degrade it by associating it with religious fascism. Thomas Paine, John Brown, Martin Luther King, The Chartists and the Suffragettes all made our lives better, and indeed all were ostracised from the mainstream and denounced as extremists.
I simply refuse to see how ISIS and the like are in any actual sense radical. For me radical is term of honour even if it’s used as a term of scorn by many. To be a radical is to be an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to borrow a phrase from Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry. By this I don’t mean tub-thumpers, but simply those who are brave enough to muster their empathy and imagination to conceive of a better world given the immense cruelty and suffering in this world.
Many Muslim majority countries have numerous problems that are just rotten and are causing a lot of misery for their populations. The origins of many of these problems are complex and due to a multitude of factors. But this condition can and should be changed for the better by a fundamental transformation (I’m not afraid to use that phrase) which I believe should come indigenously, out of international solidarity and humanism, not from Western tutelage in the latest mission civilizatrice.
I don’t know about you but I don’t subscribe to this orientalist claptrap, that one often notices in the subtext of some of the discourse on Islam; that the “barbarism” and “fanaticism” of the Muslim world is innate, natural and therefore unalterable; that Muslims are simply incapable of democratic politics or of building a progressive future for themselves because that is how “they” are; that the only choices Muslim societies have is between Islamists or corrupt authoritarian thugs. This is ahistorical, racist nonsense that anyone who really cares about this issue should reject unequivocally — unless you’re one of those people who points out the flaws of Muslim societies, not out of a humanist concern to change it, but only to affirm your childish, orientalist Western superiority complex, where you can drum beat about how “your” culture and civilisation is superior to “theirs” and grandstand about how you are expressing a grand politically incorrect truth that the “regressive left” don’t want to hear.
I believe we should support the true radicals within Muslim societies. Those who depart from tradition, reject orthodoxy and brave enough to stand up for the virtues of moral and social progress. Who are courageous enough to imagine an alternative vision for their societies. One based on freedom, democracy, justice, pluralism, the full emancipation of all minorities, the equality of all confessions and creating a democratic republic (inshallah a socialist one but that is a discussion for another day) in a global community of free and equal members of similar states. As opposed to the alternative vision the militant Islamists have in store, that will lead to serfdom, beggary, oppression, sadism, racism, bigotry, supremacism and cruelty. The former is truly the radical vision because implicit in it is causal thinking, the progressive nature of growth from root to stem to flower to seed. The other instead relies on prejudice, myth and superstition, and that is what so called ‘radical Muslims’ are, extreme reactionary zealots, who, if they had it their way, would plunge us all into a modern dark age.