Unless we understand the ultimate aims that Islamist terrorists are seeking to achieve then every public policy aimed at countering them will be no more than tactics with little hope of strategic success.
Fundamentally, the ultimate aim of Islamist terrorists is that Islamic law (sharia), which is the primary instrument of Islamic government, should be imposed across the entire world on Muslim and non Muslim alike.
However, even the most cursory look at the previous government’s policies for countering violent Islamism suggests that they lacked this basic understanding of Islamist aims. This ignorance, whether wilful or otherwise, not merely delayed effective advance against Islamism, but in some respects led to tactics that actually gave specific ground to Islamists in terms of achieving their long term aims in Britain and overseas. In particular, the previous Labour government pursued a policy of partially appeasing non violent Islamist groups in the misguided belief that this would prevent radicalised Muslims moving onto violent Islamism.
In doing so they ignored the clear evidence that non violent Islamist groups have the same ultimate long term aims as violent Islamists – the imposition of sharia in Britain and elsewhere. In broad terms it is not their strategic aims that differ, but merely their tactics. Non violent Islamists have long recognised that Britain is unlikely to become an Islamic state overnight, so they have concentrated on pursuing a gradual islamisation process. This strategy has involved seeking to align British law gradually with sharia. They have done this by a combination of pushing test cases through the courts; by lobbying for specific changes to parliamentary law; by seeking various accommodations towards Islamic practices from public bodies; and by looking for legal loopholes such as the use of arbitration tribunals to create sharia courts deciding cases involving family law and even reputedly some criminal cases.
The ability of Islamists to push test cases through the courts was significantly aided by Labour’s formal introduction of the European system of human rights in the 1998 Human Rights Act (hyperlink). Although Britain had already signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, Labour’s Human Rights Act, which focused on the rights of individuals enabled Islamists to push test cases through the courts much more easily. In contrast to this the historic British approach of protecting individuals by limiting the power of government that was enshrined in the Magna Carta (1215), the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) and the Bill of Rights (1689) allowed parliament rather than judges to decide what was and was not acceptable in Britain. There is an urgent need to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with one based on the historic British approach of limiting the power of government. Only then will we be able to stop Islamists seeking to obtain ‘sharia compliant concessions’ such as the ‘right’ to wear sharia compliant school uniform. It will also of course enable the government to protect ordinary people’s right to security more effectively by enabling them to deport foreign extremists who have been plotting terror against us.
Equally, the ability of Islamists to lobby directly and sometimes successfully, for changes in parliamentary law was aided by Labour’s patronage of a range of Islamic organisations many of which had significant Islamist influence in their leadership. Illustrative of this was Labour’s Incitement to Religious Hatred legislation which was widely seen by Islamic organisations as the Muslim blasphemy law they had campaigned for since the Rushdie affair. An even more overt example occurred when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and communities Secretary Ruth Kelly met with some of these leaders immediately following the Heathrow terror plot arrests in Summer 2006. The ministers were asked for two things: Islamic festivals to become British public holidays and a partial implementation of sharia in Britain in respect of family law. Both of course had absolutely nothing to do with countering terrorist plots! However, the then Labour government responded by setting up a commission to investigate whether such requests should be acceded to.
Similarly, the previous Labour government made a whole range of accommodations to the Islamist agenda including allowing the hijab to be part of Metropolitan police uniform (hardly a comforting sight for Muslim women seeking the protection of the law from Islamist intimidation), to the legalising of sharia complaint finance. What is noteworthy about both of these is that they are both aspects of the Islamist agenda that many Muslim countries have resisted. It is by no means uncommon for female police officers in Muslim majority countries to wear western style uniforms without the option of the hijab that Britain has introduced. Equally, the only countries in the entire Islamic world to have sought a general islamicisation of their banking systems are Iran, Sudan and Pakistan. Even in Saudi Arabia in 2005 70% of banks were not sharia based. Yet, under the last Labour government Britain progressively legalised sharia finance, while at the same time Muslim countries such as Oman have resolutely refused to license any form of sharia finance whatsoever because they recognise it as part of the Islamist agenda to bring increasing areas of the economy and society under Islamist influence and control.
I have previously outlined Labour’s record of appeasement of the agenda ‘non violent’ islamists in Britain (hyperlink Gordon Brown as guilty as archbishop) but let me here draw attention to just three key areas of government policy – education, economics and family law:
1. Education. The Labour government asked a leading member of the Islamic Foundation, the UK’s largest overtly Islamist group to write on his own a government sponsored report on the teaching of Islam in Britain’s universities. Amongst the reports most unacceptable recommendations was that non Muslims should be banned from teaching the main Islamic subjects in British universities! Yet when the report was published in June 2006 the Prime Minister publicly welcomed it. The previous government also allowed the same organisation, which draws its primary inspiration from the leading Pakistani twentieth century Islamist Sayyid Mawdudi to set up a higher education institute in Leicester that awards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in a range of Islamist subjects including Islamic Economics, Islamic Banking and Finance, Islamic Education and Sharia. This academic institution was set up by Khurshid Ahmad, one of the key followers of Mawdudi and has been central to the promotion of the Islamist vision of sharia finance in Britain.
2. Finance and Economics: Within a few months of Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister the Treasury announced a consultation on introducing Islamic sukkuk bonds that are compliant with sharia, something that potentially makes a whole section of government debt subject to the judgement of sharia lawyers as well as being almost impossible to subject to normal financial scrutiny regulations as it is not based on interest. In Islamic countries sharia finance has in fact been shown to be extremely vulnerable to fraud and large scale money laundering (see review of P Sookhdeo’s book).
3. Family Law: in February 2008 the Department for Work and Pensions announced that where there was a ‘valid’ polygamous marriage it would pay extra benefits. This was despite the fact that bigamy has for many years been a criminal offence in Britain. It is however, legal under sharia for a man to have up to four wives.
In the eyes of Islamists what each of these did was to take a further step in aligning British law with sharia. The introduction of sharia to Britain is, at least in broad terms, the long term strategic aim of both non violent and violent Islamists. It is simply their tactics to achieve this that differ.
Part 2 Sharia is the touchstone for recognising and combating radical Islam
In an earlier article I outlined how the previous Labour government’s approach to countering Islamism failed to recognise that the violent and non violent Islamist groups had, at least in broad terms, the same long term strategic aims – the introduction of sharia to Britain and elsewhere in the world. The Labour government’s partial appeasement of the agenda of non violent Islamist groups actually led to ground being surrendered towards the alignment of certain aspects of British law with sharia.
Today I want to address another related issue, which the previous government entirely failed to get to grips with – how to identify radicalisation among British Muslims. In particular. I want to suggest that people’s attitude to sharia is the touchstone for identifying radicalisation.
One of the major problems any government faces in identifying and combating radicalisation is separating ordinary British Muslims from radicals.
The thorny issue here is that the ordinary British Muslims who are deeply peace loving have a primarily devotional faith. However, they are largely unaware that the Islamic theological schools (madrassas) that train imans follow a theological curriculum that has remained unchanged for 400 years and has very similar teaching to radical Islamism concerning the imposition of Islamic law and government on non Muslims. This is not simply the Saudi (Hanbali school of Islamic law) curriculum identified in the recent BBC Panorama programme. It also includes the Hanafi school of Islamic law whose Dars-i-Nizami curriculum is used by most Sunni madrassas in the Indian subcontinent and those with subcontinent links in the UK. This contains a major textbook on sharia known as the Hedaya. However, the widespread ignorance of the contents of this among many ordinary British Muslims who follow a traditional, primarily devotional form of Islam means that there is actually a spectrum of belief among British Muslims. The essential problem for the government is to find a way of defining a specific point that very clearly delineates the start of radicalisation and that can be used as a touchstone to assesses when British Muslims and organisations have crossed it.
Sharia provides that point. It is both wholly incompatible with a number of important historic British values AND its implementation on Muslim and non Muslim alike is central to the ultimate aims of both violent and non violent Islamists. As such, it can be used not only to identify radicalisation, but also to draw a line in the sand in respect of British values that wavering young Muslims can be challenged not to cross.
Let me just summarise some of the main ways in which sharia is incompatible with historic British values:
-Citizenship: Sharia stipulates that non Muslims cannot be full citizens. Instead Christians and Jews have what is termed dhimmi status. They may not be part of the government or judiciary and are obliged to pay a special tax termed jizya. Hindus and atheists are not even granted this second class status. In some Islamic countries such as Mauritania and Saudi Arabia only Muslims can be citizens at all, while in countries such as the Maldives recent changes to the country’s constitution make it ambiguous whether those Maldivians who embrace a non Islamic faith automatically lose their citizenship and become stateless.
-Equal standing before the law: non Muslims are subject to Islamic law and punishments. However, the testimony of a non Muslim is given only half the weight of a Muslim, the testimony of a woman is also given only half the weight of a man. These provisions can result in serious miscarriages of justice and human rights abuses in criminal law. For example, sharia requires 4 male witness to prove rape, if a victim is unable to produce these she may be imprisoned for making a ‘false’ allegation.
-Islamic family law grants women significantly lesser rights than men: sharia states that a daughter inherits only half as much as a son; It is significantly harder for a woman to divorce her husband than for her husband to divorce her; And at divorce the man automatically gains custody of children over 7 or in case of younger children as soon as they are 7.
-Sharia finance: The ultimate jurisdiction in any issue relating to sharia finance is a sharia judge, an office which non Muslims are barred from holding. Where large sums are involved, as for example in the sukkuk Islamic bonds that Gordon Brown sought to introduce, the country then becomes economically vulnerable to Islamist pressure.
-Freedom of speech – including the freedom to criticise beliefs an values held by others. Under sharia any criticism of Muhammad carries a non negotiable death penalty.
-Freedom of religion: the death penalty applies to any Muslim man embracing a non Islamic religion. Illustrative of this being a major touchstone of radicalisation in Britain is the fact that a 2007 study by Policy Exchange found that 36% of British Muslims aged 16-34 agreed with this tenet of sharia.
The research conducted by Policy Exchange illustrates the urgency of recognising the need to combat sharia as the centrepiece of counter extremism policy. Previous estimates of the number of British Muslims who had been radicalised generally suggested between 13% and 15%. However, Policy Exchange’s research suggests that more than a third of Muslims aged under 35 have been radicalised.
Part 3: The government needs to take urgent steps to halt sharia based radicalisation
In the previous two articles I have outlined how attitudes to sharia are the most important touchstone in defining radicalisation. Sharia is the boundary line that defines most clearly the difference between on the one hand ordinary British Muslims who follow a traditional, devotional form of their faith and who contribute much to our British way of life and on the other hand extremists who pose a serious threat to our historic British values and the freedoms they give us.
In 2007 research conducted by Policy Exchange revealed that 37% of British Muslims aged 16-24 said they would prefer to live under sharia than under British law. While a similar number of Muslims under 35 said they agreed with the sharia stipulation that anyone who converted from Islam to another faith should be executed. The findings not only clearly illustrate that attitudes to sharia are a key touchstone in defining radicalisation among British Muslims, they also point to a demographic time bomb in this respect. Previous estimates of the number of British Muslims who had been radicalised generally suggested between 13% and 15%. However, Policy Exchange’s research suggests that more than a third of Muslims aged under 35 have been radicalised. It is therefore essential that the government takes action both to undo the appeasement of the sharia agenda that took place under the previous Labour government and starts challenging young British Muslims that advocacy of sharia is a line that must not be crossed.
To counter the growing sharia based radicalisation I would recommend that the government considers at least the following steps:
- Set up a commission to examine what needs to be done to reverse the steps towards accommodation of sharia that the previous government made. These include a whole range of ‘sharia complaint’ financial products, which as has been outlined elsewhere are not only seen by Islamists as a major way of gaining influence and control over economic affairs, but are also almost impossible to regulate. However, the scope of the commission needs to go well beyond financial affairs to include education, the police and such public bodies as the Food Standards Agency, of which serious questions need to be asked about its role in promoting halal food (halal literally means sharia compliant), which is now being served in unlabelled in many non Muslim food outlets, including even the Houses of Parliament.
- As an immediate step the government should halt all progress by the Treasury towards the issue of sukuk (sharia) government bonds and suspend the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 Order 2010 which effectively allowed commercial sukkuk bonds to be use in Britain (hyperlink).
- Immediately restrict the use of arbitration tribunals to purely commercial issues to prevent them being used as backdoor sharia courts to enforce sharia judgements on issues such as family law and other non commercial areas.
- Replace Labour’s 1998 Human Rights Act with an alternative act based on the British, rather than European system of human rights, so that Islamists cannot use it to push test cases through the courts that seek to increase the islamisation process.
- A firm but gentle challenge needs to be made to ordinary British Muslims that sharia is the touchstone, the line towards radicalisation that must not be crossed. This is necessary both because the previous Labour government failed to send out a clear signal to Muslims about where they were drawing the line between radicals and ordinary Muslims and because many Muslims have somewhat romantic notions about sharia, but little real knowledge of what it actually involves.
- Counter radicalisation programmes should highlight the differences between key aspects of British law and historic British values, such as one law for all - Muslim and non Muslim, male and female etc; freedom to practice and propagate religion, including the freedom to convert to another faith; freedom of speech etc. Unfortunately, the previous government was unable to do this because, as I observed two and half years ago, the Labour government themselves were undermining at least 50% of key historic British values.
- In determining whether faith based schools should receive registration from the Department for Education, the known attitudes of key sponsors and board members to sharia should be a key factor. This will enable schools that are likely to promote extremism to be identified, whilst avoiding the sort of one size catches all approach to faith based schools that led the previous Labour government to apply anti extremism measures to Anglican and Catholic state schools as if they were creating the same sort of problems that certain Islamic schools were.
- End all forms of government support and engagement with organisations that either support sharia themselves or have key leaders who advocate its adoption in Britain. Islamist extremists need to be treated in exactly the same way as other extremists such as white racist groups.