In his book, Age of Anger, the author Pankaj Mishra incisively demonstrates that the present wave of atrocities attributed to Islamic extremism cannot be viewed in isolation and must be seen as part of a historical continuum that originated in the 18th Century in the sweeping intellectual, social, economic and moral dislocation brought about by European Enlightenment thinking.
This ushered in a new way of looking at the world and instigated profound changes in the political and social landscape, which are still being felt to this day. The new worldview found early political expression in the violent convulsions of the American war of independence and then, shortly afterwards, the French revolution, in which the idea of “terror” as political policy was openly advocated. Violent political acts based on these ideas continued throughout the 19th Century in various guises – often taking the form of revolutionary and nationalist movements – and in the 20th Century in anti imperialist, anti-colonialist and nationalist movements in Africa, America and Asia.
One of the main propositions of the Enlightenment was to declare the basic equality of all human beings. The problem is that in practice some human beings have always been vastly more equal than others! It only ever applied to a very few socially and economically advantaged individuals, leaving nearly everyone else in a state of extreme inequality. At the same time things like education and mass communication have proliferated, resulting in huge numbers of the world population being told one thing but experiencing something very different, desperately aspiring to a social status and a standard of living that is always beyond their reach.
The outcome of this is the negative energy known as ressentiment, defined by Mishra as “an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” Or in Hannah Arendt’s trenchant phrase, “a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.”
This ressentiment has been a major element in most of the political and social movements of the past two centuries. In this present century the Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka, the Hindu nationalists in India, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election, all owe much of their momentum to it and crucially, in this context, so do al-Qaida and ISIS. It is not that the political or nationalist or religious doctrines and rhetoric of these movements play no part at all in the fanatical violence of some of their adherents; it is just that the driving force behind it is in reality the ressentiment they feel.
So throughout this time terrorists have acted in the name of many different causes and justified their violence in many different ways, yet their basic motivation is always the same and stems from a deep discontentment with the situation they find themselves in – a kind of alienation from the society within which they live. It would seem, then, that the politically inspired terrorist atrocities of the 19th and 20th centuries and the religiously inspired ones of the 21st have a decisive common denominator. The ressentiment of their perpetrators.
In Europe huge numbers of South Asian and North African Muslims, already smarting from many years of colonial rule, have emigrated, often to the homeland of their previous colonial masters, in search of a better life, which in most cases is never, or only very partially, realised. At the same time, they have never really been accepted by the host community of the country where they live and so there is an inevitable feeling of alienation, of not really belonging in the place which is now their home. And this is exacerbated by the fact that many do not feel at home in the country their parents or grandparents came from either.
When you have hundreds of thousands of people in this situation it is easy to see how a tiny minority of them can be persuaded to act out their feelings of humiliation, envy and powerlessness by lashing out with extreme forms of violent retaliation. So the primary impetus for their violent actions is not so much the doctrine they espouse but rather the mindset that causes them to adopt that doctrine and use it for the venting of their hidden rage. It is the alienation they feel that dictates the violently vindictive course they follow.
In other words, the perverted understanding of Islam these people use to justify their nihilistic violence only plays a subsidiary role in their subsequent behaviour. It is their state of ressentiment that predisposes them to listen to the poisonous propaganda they are fed and be persuaded by it. It is their state of mind rather than the doctrine itself that is the primary cause of what later takes place. The reason I am saying all this is because the powers that be maintain that the sole cause of this terrorist activity is something they term “Islamic extremism”. In failing to understand the real, underlying cause of what is happening, the government are making a very serious and counterproductive error.
Even some of their own people recognise this. A Home Office report states: “The background of broken families, lack of integration into what we might call mainstream society, some level of criminality, sometimes family conflict, are all more than normally apparent in people who join terrorist organisations.” An eminent UN counter-terrorism specialist says: “Ideology is not the prime mover in terms of bringing people into terrorism. That is a mistake. It is not going to be effective in terms of preventing people becoming radicalised. And it diverts attention from other causes which play a pivotal role in why people become involved in terrorism.”
There is no doubt at all that present government policy has made the Muslim community, which was already under attack before this, feel even more beleaguered and browbeaten than it previously was. James Fergusson says in the introduction to his book Al-Britannia: My Country: “In 2016 I set out to try to make my own assessment of the Islamist threat, and the public and official responses to it … What I found was a community boiling with resentment at the way they are being treated, above all by the way they are collectively blamed for the proportionally tiny number of violent extremists among them… The government wants British Muslims to integrate better into wider society, a sensible enough ambition, given how prevalent their culture and religion have become. Its counter-terrorism policies, however, are in danger of producing the opposite effect, a new deep wedge between Muslims and the rest of us.”
What the present policy leads to is even more alienation of Muslims from the main body of British society and, therefore, to the very thing that, as we’ve seen, is the breeding ground of potential terrorists. It creates a reservoir of discontent, a huge number of young people unhappy with the situation they are living in, unable to identify satisfactorily with the population at large, not really at home in the country they should be able to call their own. This makes a small number of vulnerable individuals among them easy prey for the poisonous propaganda of unscrupulous and manipulative Islamist indoctrinators.
If, however, the Muslims of Britain are really made to feel welcome here, are really encouraged to integrate and identify themselves with the rest of the population, then the hunting ground of the twisted ideologues will greatly shrink in size and far fewer young Muslims will get caught up in their net. For this to happen the government needs to completely change its approach to Islam and the Muslims. It must stop seeing Islam as a threat and viewing orthodox, mainstream Muslim opinions as a conveyor belt leading to violent extremism and see Islam for what it really is, a potential source of spiritual renewal and social and economic benefit for the whole country.
Like it or not, Islam has become firmly rooted in this land and is now a permanent, integral feature of the British landscape. The Muslims of Britain are in every sense British and have every right to be considered in exactly the same light as every other British citizen. Rather than fostering, or at the very least bolstering, by their rhetoric and policy statements the idea that Islam and the Muslims are some kind of foreign body that has no right to be here, what the government should be doing is affirming Islam for the positive values it in reality represents and the valuable contribution it has been making for a long time now to the country we all live in. The flourishing presence of Islam in Britain should be acknowledged and welcomed by all and sundry for what it actually is: the opening of a new, beneficial and exciting chapter in the ongoing religious and spiritual history of the British Isles.
Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley is a shaykh of the Darqawi-Shadhili-Qadiri Tariqa and
renowned author and translator.
renowned author and translator.