To defeat Islamist extremism we need to come to a common agreement, with a clear perspective, on what is the cause of this global threat.
Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are the latest manifestation of a dangerous strain of totalitarian thinking that rejects and subordinates all universal norms and values to a single, violent, all-encompassing dogma. The groups are driven by a transnational religious-political ideology and a belief in violent jihad to enforce a return to a perceived Islam of the seventh century.
Their threat is based on a perversion of religion that gives its followers the certainty of being “the best” believers and justifying violence against “the rest” — no surprise, then, that they mostly kill other Muslims.
Their ambition is the total annihilation of those people, institutions, and governments who don’t agree with them.
But the battlefield isn’t just in the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa. The long-range war is for hearts and minds: a sustained battle of ideas.
Security measures are vital. But you can’t arrest an idea.
The movement’s leaders and ideologues are often highly educated. They have the ability to radicalize and recruit with alarming speed on and offline.
If we can understand, discredit and disrupt their ideology, then we can undermine the very foundations on which this global movement is built.
A new global poll out this week from the Center for Strategic and International Studies has shown the vast majority of people around the world support doing just that. It is a widely shared belief that the threat of violent extremism is caused primarily by religious extremism — above racism, poverty, military actions by foreign governments and human rights abuses. The polling shows that both people who identify as religious, and those who don’t, believe the problem lies with religious ideology.
This is significant and a real opportunity. It is up to governments, civil society groups and others to use this support to develop a unified, global response.
We need a new global alliance, within Islam and outside of it, to lead this movement against extremism. Muslim motivation lies in a desire to help reclaim their peaceful religion from the fanatics who abuse it. They are the first victims and are on the frontline battling extremism.
This is not a war with Islam. To accept that is to accept the terms set out by ISIS, al Qaeda and some of the far-right of Western politics. We must expose the lie that “the West” is at war with Islam. The West is home to millions of Muslims.
But whilst the overwhelming number of people in Muslim majority countries believe that ISIS and others aren’t true to the real faith of Islam, we need to face up to some uncomfortable truths. There is a set of wider attitudes held within tiers of Islamic societies that are a real problem.
Many polls still find in some majority Muslim countries an unfavorable attitude toward Jews. And a 2012 survey found five countries in the Middle East and North Africa in which over 40 per cent of respondents believed that Shia were not Muslims.
If people are brought up within a society that dislikes Jews or considers millions of Muslims to be apostates, inevitably that prejudice fertilizes the soil within which extremism can grow. Unless we can successfully counter religious prejudice within Muslim communities, extremists will use this bias to gain a foothold.
Recent steps by some in Pakistan to bolster blasphemy laws — limiting freedom of those who are not Muslims — are contrary to the views of many in the Muslim world. The majority of people in Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and India believe that politics, government and religion should all be separate. According to this new survey, 67 per cent of people across the globe agree with them.
Seventy-three per cent of people, including those in the Muslim world, think that violent extremism is a solvable problem. Where we need to get to is an acceptance that prejudice against Jews, minorities, women, and any who disagree with radicals is itself the nature of the problem, and needs to be addressed.
There is a clear need for leaders — East and West — to understand this and to act on it.
Any global response has to mobilize at every level.
My think tank, the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, recently studied online extremism and found that 91 per cent of the counter arguments against extremism online are Muslim-led.
What’s more, this latest poll found 90 per cent of people across the world feel that Muslim voices are the most effective at dismantling and countering extremism. Their efforts must be supported by all of us. ISIS had a foothold in Dabiq in Syria. With coalition support, Muslim Syrians have liberated that town and with it, the end-of-times apocalypse narrative that ISIS peddled to recruit thousands.
This is everyone’s fight and we must see it as such.
This includes political leaders. On the left, it requires a move away from isolationism and a rediscovering of historic principles of internationalism. Most people across the globe agree that this threat has not been caused by Western foreign policy; only 12 per cent of people around the world cite it as the primary cause.
Left-leaning political leaders have to understand that whatever their criticisms of foreign policy, this is not the cause of the challenge. This means that we should stand ready to support actively those in the Middle East and elsewhere fighting this extremism and do so in alliance with them.
On the right, politicians have to appreciate that this isn’t a fight against Islam but a fight against a perversion of Islam.
We have to defeat the narrative that underpins the ideology. Jihadists are flexible. Where they can’t find something recent to justify their violence, they go back into history. ISIS has declared Spain an enemy target because they toppled the caliphate of the time in 1492.
When we allow the fanatics to define the debate, they win the battle of ideas.
The overwhelming majority of people around the world now believe that this is our generation’s defining battle. They want to seize the moment.
This has to be understood and acted upon. The public is crying out for a response from world leaders that is comprehensive and strategic. And this is urgent. The time to act is now.
Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.