The notion of Islamist extremism to many commentators is a spectrum which at one end has violent fanatics – the likes of Daesh/ISIS and al-Qaeda, followed by sympathetic fanatics, through to the other end, the so-called non-violent Caliphites seeking to re-establish a Khilafah or Caliphate using non-violent means. Government policies have for some time assumed that non-violent extremism leads progressively to violence. How that happens is of course much debated and many explanations of radicalization theory and, indeed, the very contentious definition of non-violent extremism have been offered. Why the Government chose to take such a course, it could be argued, was partly because of what seems like an elephant in the room: the confrontational activities of British non-violent Caliphites who from the 1990s did much to add to the ideologisation of the image of Islam and Muslims.
For nearly a decade before 9/11 non-violent Caliphites were by far the most active political voices in Muslim activist circles in Britain. They were young and articulate, but had a very naïve take on what is otherwise a complex interaction between society, religion and politics. It meant that they were quite easily seduced by the ‘endism’ of a ‘pan-Islamic State‘ or Caliphate as the bona fide solution to grievances and problems in the Muslim world.
In return, new Caliphites got answers. They became aware of a dimension of Islam (siyasa al-shari’ah) seldom heard in mosques, though grossly decontextualized and misappropriated. They also acquired new-found identity and belonging to a group with a utopian-like mission. Moral relativity became at once banished. All that mattered was the triumphalist rhetoric of separation between them and what they saw were Western neo-colonial impulses and contradictions.
Unfortunately the damage was great. This period spread among some a narrow, politicised take on Islam, where Islam was reduced to a mere political ideology (mabda’). It became necessary to see world events through narrow, political filters. The mother of all root causes to problems of society, international conflicts, poverty etc., was almost always retro-fitted to the lack of a Caliphate. As time went on, some in Britain splintered into a violent streak in the form of sympathetic fanatics.
Mosques for their part took to banning Caliphite literature. Many scholars and imams did much to refute non-violent Caliphites, though most struggled to deconstruct arguments intellectually. And with that, despite much sporadic effort, a well-organised, robust counter-narrative or strategy was lacking. On the side of policy makers and perhaps some sections of British media, too, this period may well have hard-wired a particularly sweeping take on political imperatives normative to Islam – one that would have found salience in intolerant orientalist images.
Eventually, as often the case with extreme tendencies, counter reactions are born. The Quilliam Foundation, a prime example, was founded by those who were themselves once non-violent Caliphites. They now positioned themselves as bludgeon-cum-saviour: the apparent voice of liberal rationalism to counter non-violent Caliphites. But their lack of connection with Muslims communities was very telling. And to top it all off, alliances forged with sinister organisations who it turned out were more interested in anti-Muslim hatred, meant that they quickly lost credibility and became themselves an inverted mirror image of the very extremists they were trying to oppose.
The damage, however, was unrelenting. In all of this the relationship between Muslims and also of the Islamic faith, with the Government and parts of the media became progressively less and less about the sincerity of faith (imaan) and people coming together in mutual respect and harmony.
Beneath the surface what we see is the real problem of the non-violent Caliphites’ lack of erudition, immature attitude, and quite clumsy use of language. What non-violent Caliphites mean by deen to describe Islam as a way of life is brazenly synonymised into the term ‘ideology’, in an effort to compare and compete against other political and economic systems like democracy, capitalism, socialism etc. But in doing so they lost the very spirit and form of Islam.
In his book ‘The End Of Ideology’, the sociologist Daniel Bell describes ideology as ‘reification, a frozen mimicry of reality, a hypostatization of terms that gives false life to categories. And that it is also its fatal flaw, its Achilles, which leaves it vulnerable in the end to other forms of cognition and faith.’ It’s ‘frozen’ because it lacks an adaptive quality. Whereas, in the Qur’an help is there ‘for anyone who wants to ask’ (12:7). That’s because it’s a living speech. The word of God (kalam Allah) meets people’s own spaces and contexts as guidance always in the making if attention is paid to it.
In fact, the Qur’an and Prophetic ways (Sunnah) speak about knowing God as a process realised through striving with good action. And Muslims believe that people are naturally predisposed (fitrah) to believe in God, to prefer good and to recognise the beauty of Prophetic ways. In practice, whether one achieves this or not is another matter. But to call Islam an ideology implies that Muslims can act unnaturally, yet remain normative to the religion. Moreover, the idea that ideology follows when power is exercised without some ideas or beliefs that justify support—implying that submitting to God is not something self-evident or natural—also seems quite alien to Islam.
What’s more, Islam has not historically been viewed as a political solution that avoids the element of test or conditionality, or the ever-present need to refine one’s character (adab), to strive for sincerity (ikhlas), to act with excellence (ihsan), or to remain in need of God (faqr). The word ‘solution’ is often used by non-violent Caliphites to give the impression of final outcomes even though they are only for the Hereafter, before which nothing can be deemed absolutely final. Islam tasks people to continuously seek improvement in their character, responsibilities and obedience to God. To the extent that even good actions are necessarily qualified by a state of imperfection, striving and repenting. Thus, to label Islam as an ideology is to grossly overlook all of these aspects.
Moreover, the motivations of non-violent Caliphites were set against a number of reality checks, as interpreted by well-known scholars and thinkers. Some argue that the so-called Islamic world are only places where Muslims live, where Islam is followed as a culture not as a faith. And certainly, where they ‘are not able to come into contact with one another and constitute a union, to work together to solve common problems, to interpret the universe, to understand it well, to consider the universe carefully according to the Qur’an, to interpret the future well, to generate projects for the future, to determine their place in the future.’ It thus seems somewhat fanciful to talk about an ‘Islamic world.’
Others have argued that the Prophetic sense of Caliphate ended with the Khulafa al-Rashidun – the four rightly guided caliphs (632-661). In the words of the great historiographer, Ibn Khaldun, with the Umayyads the Caliphate system turned into one of ‘Royal Authority’. Leaders gave ‘preference to their own sons and brothers, [and] in that respect departing[ed] from the Sunnah of the first four caliphs.’ It was the restraining influence of Islam, Ibn Khaldun argued, which gave way to people’s worldly motivations. The knowledge of Islam by consequence depended increasingly on independent scholarship which quickly became the mechanism through which the integrity and interpretative authority of Islam came to be preserved.
Yet others argue that Muslims are unable to express a normative conception of Islamic government because, ‘we do not fulfil the commandments of Allah and refrain from the forbidden in our [own] personal lives over which we have full control and there is no obstacle or compulsion.’ And if that is not possible, ‘how is it possible that we … [are] entrusted with … governing … this world?’ Thus, it is argued that, ‘when we are not doing this in the sphere of our own choice (in our individual lives), how can it be expected, when tomorrow we are given the reins of government, we shall do so?’
In practical terms, too, ordinary Muslims right across the world see the value of Islam, but rather than be told by an autocratic-like state to ‘conform or else’, they would prefer to embrace faith out of their own inner devotion and love for God in a mutual relationship with the state. The non-violent Caliphate narrative thus comes across as something that tells ordinary Muslims who may not have known much more than the basic rites of Islam that the complete way of life of Islam requires political activism as a priority. You can expect at this point of course that the slightly rebellious, vulnerable or over-zealous take most notice.
Given these reality checks, one cannot help but notice just how reactionary and misguided non-violent Caliphites were. And they, alongside other sociological factors, did much to obfuscate many from establishing deeper cultural roots in Britain.
The Government for their part would do well to see that the Muslim communities’ failure to respond to non-violent Caliphites was not because they tacitly supported it – far from it, but because they lacked civic structures, leadership and institutions. Thus, counter-extremism policy must somehow take this into account to be seen as fair, targeted and proportionate. It also means that today’s ideological threat of radicalisation ought not to be overly-conflated with the more sociological challenges of integration.
For their part, Muslim communities would do well to go back to the future as it were, to dispassionately reflect, study, and find answers to past failures and missed opportunities. The term muhasabah – a type of self-criticism, when at a convenient time one critically evaluates one’s actions until finding oneself failing judgement and being motivated to doing better next time is something we Muslims should be habitually tuned into.
 M. Fethullah Gulen: Essay – Perspective – Opinions, The Light, 2006, p130-131.