By Abdullah Hamidaddin
11 July 2015
There are signs that the UK is about to change its policy toward terrorism. For the past few years, the British government took the position of combating terrorism while leaving aside the ideologies behind it, ignoring the warnings of policy experts about the dangers of such a strategy. However, Prime Minister David Cameron is now looking at the ideological aspect as well. Hopefully, other European governments will do the same.
If we want to confront radical Islamist ideologies, we should imagine ourselves confronting Jacobins. It is easier for us to imagine and understand Maximilien Robespierre than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It also helps us focus on the ideology rather than the religious language that coats it. A Muslim terrorist is best imagined as a Jacobin who happens to be a Muslim, and Baghdadi is best understood as Robespierre in a turban.
A month ago, I wrote that the roots of ISIS should be traced back to al-Banna’s ideology, and that Islamists are modern ideologues who use Islamic symbolism and scripture. To better understand ISIS, Islamic radicalism and terrorism, we should go back to the French revolution, as historians and political theorists have done to understand 20th-century totalitarianism and state terror.
Watching the BBC’s 2009 documentary “Terror, Robespierre and the French Revolution” is a good place to start. “Men who loved humanity so much they felt entitled to exterminate human beings who stood in its way” - this statement encapsulated the messianic terror regimes and organizations of two centuries. Both Robespierre and Baghdadi believed in ideals that bring peace and harmony to the world. The first believed in the Enlightenment and the second in Islam.
Yet both carried an ideology that suspended their beliefs. Both believed that virtue without terror is powerless, that virtue needs terror to promote it. Listen to Robespierre: “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue…” This is not an Islamist. This is a French democratic secular revolutionary.
Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety believed – like radical Islamists - that ‘the people’ do not know what is good for them, so the Committee will think on the people’s behalf and force the people to do good. Both have a messianic belief and a vision of a perfect society. They believed that they have the Truth, and are thus entitled to enforce it on those who do not have it.
If Western governments do confront violent Islamist ideologies, they need to do so wisely and carefully. They must know that the solution is not to be found in the way religious scripture is interpreted. Religion does not manifest in public life directly. Religion is filtered through the preconceptions one has about the world. When radical ideologies inform those preconceptions, religion manifests itself violently. This also applies to secular and democratic values. It was Robespierre’s ideology that shaped how his values manifested in public life.
We cannot simply depend on moderate clerics who advise Muslims against violence. This is like having a priest speaking to the Jacobins so as to deter them from violence. If the Muslim audience has already been initiated into a radical ideology, they will reject moderate teachings.
We need an alternative approach to confront religious radicalism, one that considers religion and ideology as two distinct mental entities that co-exist in the mind of the Islamist, and subsequently confronting the ideology in a fitting language.
We should also note that Muslims are not the only source of inspiration and theorization for the contemporary Islamist ideologue. The ideas of the Jacobins are very much alive among some modern philosophers. A prominent example is Slavoj Žižek, who appeared in the BBC documentary and was supportive of the Jacobins: “In order to establish the fundamentals of democracy, you have to go through this zero level of Jacobinism.”
Žižek explains his view in detail in a fascinating essay that can be summed up as: if one really believes in equality, human rights and freedom, one should have the courage to believe in the terror that is needed to defend them. When thinking of confronting radical Islam, we must broaden our target and confront all pro-violence ideologies everywhere.
More importantly, we need to imagine a Western archetype of terrorism to enable them to understand Islamist terrorism. They need a Western lens to understand Islamist terrorism. This is why going back to Robespierre, the Committee for Public Safety and the French revolution is essential.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London.