A few months ago, William Shawcross was asked by the government to lead an independent review into its anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent, and to ‘consider the UK’s strategy for protecting people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism’. Ever since his appointment was announced, Shawcross has been attacked by an array of activists who want to minimise any scrutiny of Islamist organisations. The campaign against him has been vicious but it has also been deeply instructive.
The opposition has been so intense that it has led some to believe that the UK Muslim ‘community’ is outraged by the independent review. There is a significant difference, however, between Muslims and Islamists. Shawcross is an exceptionally talented man whom I know well. His career of service is a distinguished one. For six years he ran the Charity Commission with strength and skill. He has been a member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Informal Advisory Group, among many other roles, all while being a prolific and renowned author. He has a reputation for fairness and fearlessness; he is an excellent choice.
But if I could give him one piece of advice, it would be this. The scope of his review should be expanded to look at the individual networks of Islamist groups which are technically separate but in practice hunt as a pack. Their approach forms the basis of what is known in Islamic culture as ‘dawa’. The campaign against Shawcross is in fact a good illustration of the Islamist dawa programme, which is why it badly needs his scrutiny. To solve any problem, you must first recognise it. Nearly 16 years after the 7/7 attacks in London, it is striking how many policymakers struggle to see the true face — and nature — of the jihadi menace.
Formally, dawa refers to a ‘call’ to Islam. But in reality, Islamist groups use a wide range of mechanisms to advance their goal of imposing Islamic law (shariah) on society. In western countries, dawa aims both to instil extremist views among existing Muslims and, to a lesser extent, to convert non-Muslims to a fierce version of political Islam.
Shariah law is hostile to women’s rights (legally and in the family sphere), religious minorities, religious tolerance, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, social pluralism — in short, all the values Karl Popper described as being the foundation of the ‘open society’. Although Islamists use proselytising in their dawa programme, it extends well beyond that, to a process of personal indoctrination and total social and institutional transformation.
Some adherents to dawa reject democracy, while others see it as a useful mechanism, provided either Islamists win (as they did after the Arab spring in Egypt) or that electoral options are restricted to Islamist choices determined well in advance (as in Iran). Other Islamists who pursue dawa are politically ‘quietist’, focused on Islamising all of society and its institutions before tackling the political domain. Pluralistic, reformist Muslims (to say nothing of ex-Muslims) are viewed by Islamists as a problem that must be dealt with.
A number of Islamist groups countenance violence as a tactic. But whether or not violence is used, the endpoint favoured by Islamists is at odds with British society and its governing institutions. If Boris Johnson’s government avoids tackling the ideological infrastructure of Islamism, the UK will be forced not only to deal with spasmodic eruptions of violence, but with a fracturing of society.
If Shawcross fully investigates the challenge of Islamism as part of his review, he will be in good company. A number of European governments have introduced new ways to monitor and counter Islamist activities in order to reverse ‘separatism’ and the creation of ‘parallel societies’. In July last year, for example, Austria announced the creation of an Observatory for Political Islam in order to tackle Islamism within its borders. In France, in the wake of the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty, President Emmanuel Macron made waves with his initiatives to counter Islamist separatism — and to build up mainstream Islam.
If Britain is to do the same, it needs to look at its own homegrown dawa networks. Groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood should be investigated, but so should Jama’at-e-Islami, Hizb ut-Tahrir and similar organisations. Some are registered as ‘charities’, though the destination of some funds is questionable. Shawcross has experience of dealing with these groups, having looked into many of them while running the Charity Commission. This may explain some of the ire of his critics.
Other dawa groups are registered as mosques and Islamic centres, but if these are Islamist in orientation they should be investigated too. Then there are the schools that impart an Islamist ideology as well as the informal groups that gather online and in person.
Some dawa programmes have benign elements that qualify as ‘religious teachings’, including harmless exhortations to pray, fast during the month of Ramadan or give to those less fortunate. But others preach that almost all modern-day activities are haram, or prohibited. Men and women mingling together socially is considered taboo, and genders must be segregated. Some organisations offer services related to shariah family law. Many of these archaic rules compromise the rights of women: divorce, inheritance, and child custody rules all favour men in ways incompatible with modern equality.
The people targeted by dawa programmes tend to be young, impressionable Muslim men and women. They are often from immigrant communities, including those with low incomes and little education. Prisoners, as well as young children and teenagers, are also targeted. By far the largest category of people approached are those born into Islam, but non-Muslims are also targeted.
France failed to tackle the structural challenge of Islamism in a timely manner — with calamitous results. Britain ought to waste no time in investigating the infrastructure of dawa as it exists in the UK. To miss the chance for such an assessment now will come back to haunt the UK in years to come.
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