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Radicalisation - An Ideological Chimera

بسم اللَّه الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Concise OED: Chimera or chimaera - 1 Greek Mythology a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. 2 Something hoped for but illusory or impossible to achieve.


In addition to and in furtherance of the aims of the well-publicised open letter circulated and signed jointly by academics and other notable figures, warning against the government’s ill-advised and wrong-minded pursuit of its Prevent Strategy and the CTS legislation that supports it, it is the aim of this short paper to attempt to demonstrate, without prejudice, the obvious benefit to be derived from people being encouraged to explore the ‘roots (radices)’ of our ‘received’ thinking and to present radical explanations for the questions that concern us all – in this case we hope to emphasise the useful relevance of the insights to be gained from taking a radical approach to understanding the foundations of the government’s determination to ride roughshod into the very heart of traditional Muslim belief in search of the errant Islamic ideologies which must be lurking somewhere thereabouts, and to send their spies and informers into our very homes and mosques by all available means to seek out the purveyors and the victims of these evil heresies, be they real or imagined! For as human beings we are inescapably inclined to prefigure the world into conformity with our own image, and to find there only that which is in keeping with our own expectations and prejudices. Eddington wrote: “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And Lo! It is our own.”

Is it by ‘accident’ that faithful reliance on a well-rehearsed fiction has come to characterise the central component of official counter-terrorism strategy? What mindset has produced this modus operandi? What manner of indoctrination or rhetoric has so completely persuaded the Muslims of its credibility that we rise to meet the accusations levelled against our Deen on the pretended substance of their own terms, instead of promptly pointing to the habitual features of this latest in a long line of figmental contrivances? 

This paper will suggest that a revealing light can be thrown on these and related questions by making direct reference to the philosophical legacy of Platonism, the intellectual legacy of the eighteenth century in general and the political legacy of the French Revolution in particular. The argument presented here aims to suggest that taking a radical approach to the understanding and explanation of the behaviours and actions that appear to be common to the principal actors in the drama, can only be of assistance to all those of us who wish to see the current problems and challenges intelligently and humanely resolved for the sake of the greater collective good. 

To that end, this sweeping, but well-intentioned commentary, offers what we hope is a useful contribution to the common search for clarity and insight by directing attention to the philosophical roots of western thinking with particular regard to the tendency towards reification, bordering on deification, of ideas, ideals, dreams and products of the imagination couched in terms of reason, but whose first appeal is to the arousal of positive sentiment or emotional excitement, generally leading to the generation of a widespread and uncontrollable hysteria clouded by passions too volatile to be conducive to clear thinking or reasonable behaviour.

The Ideological Paradigm

We would all be well advised to understand the deep-rooted cultural origins of the obsession with ‘ideology’ which we, as Muslims in Britain living under western cultural and doctrinal hegemony, automatically share, and hence, robotically affirm by our taking as given the ideological leitmotif in the prevailing political discourse, and the alacrity with which we have risen to it as the primary point of reactive oppositional engagement, so that we appear, by our heightened defensiveness, to confirm it as the principal ground of our own political motivations and the key to the interpretation of any expression of solidarity or sustained collective action on the part of Muslims in Britain. The following quote from the joint letter brings the issue of ideology to our immediate attention. However, we hope to show that there is even more to be gained from it in terms of pursuing a genuinely ‘radical’ understanding of the situation, which can only be of benefit to those of us in this country, whichever ‘side’ we find ourselves on, who are sincerely concerned with the response of western democracies to the threat of terrorism:

“3. However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism. This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.”

Ever since President G.W. Bush’s counter-terrorism response was globally promulgated at the turn of the new century as the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the English language has been commandeered as the principal medium of immersion in an expanding fog of toxic, psychotropic shibboleths and conceptual tokens, most prominent amongst which are: ‘terror’, ‘ideology’, ‘radicalisation’, ‘fundamentalism’, ‘Islamism’, ‘jihadism’, ‘democratic values’, ‘freedom’, ‘extremism’, ‘international community’, ‘clash of civilisations’, ‘9/11’, ‘Ground Zero’, ’British values’, 'FGM', 'honour killing', 'suicide bombing', ‘collateral damage’, ‘Gitmo’, ‘extraordinary rendition’, ‘Arab Spring’, ‘regime change’, 'forced marriage', 'Jihadi John', etc. A cloud of poisoned ‘darts’ shot into the atmosphere under the propulsion of fear and anger, which naturally find their targets not in the intellect but in the emotions. It is at this vast hornets’ nest of heightened emotions that the stones of ideology have been deliberately and mischievously aimed. Furthermore, it has been against the resulting backdrop of the academia- and media-driven ‘buzz’ of fear, anger, suspicion and rumour that democratic governments, such as ours, have pretended to calibrate a balanced and considered response to the tense situation they have helped to create, and which we all must now live with.

Modernism vs Medievalism

If we look a little more closely at the obsession with ideology and its potential for ill, it will not take us long to realise that it arises by way of Platonic Idealism out of the very DNA of inherited western thought and the philosophical tradition. In other words, rather than having recourse to a fund of knowledge and understanding derived from empirical experience or historical precedent, the predominant historical western approach to the business of delivering profound social reformation and new political formations, i.e. 'progress' as underpinned by Enlightenment speculation, has been idealistically driven, and therefore, has amounted to nothing short of horribly violent and genocidally bloody experiments based on dreams, which are totally unprecedented and hence, unguided. 

Needless to say, there is nothing like an abstract political or philosophical ideal to trigger internecine conflict, factional hatred, ideological schisms and vengeful bloodletting on an industrial scale. These are the very foundations of the nation state, and the boiling crucible out of which have emerged modern constitutionalism and the conventions of international relations, so how can it come as a surprise to us that ideology presents itself as the ultimate paradigm through which to interpret the behaviour of socially and politically restive Muslims? 

By the same token, how can we, having undergone a thoroughgoing process of modernising occidental acculturation for over a century and half of Muslim history, not realise that this rationale also makes perfect sense to us also, with the 'ideational' mode having become second nature to us, as seen in our own modernistic approach to the socio-political reactivation of the Deen? Have we all not inherited the blueprint bequeathed to modern politics by the historical modalities of European statism? Is it really so difficult to see that the ‘ideological’ roots of IS are a hybrid combination of radical Enlightenment utopianism clumsily grafted over a modernist ‘Islamic’ expression of fundamentalist western idealism? No wonder then that ill-prepared Muslim ‘apologists’, when brought to account, find themselves trapped within a dialectical discourse that leaves them with no choice but to attempt the losing battle of confronting modern, democratic ‘ideals’ and ‘values’ with the apparently ‘medieval’ ideology and anachronistic morality of Islam, as best they can.

The Human Price of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

The following short extract from Prof. Timothy Tackett’s excellent recent study, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution [Belknap HUP, 2015], perfectly conveys the reality of the primordial savagery and hysterical violence of group behaviour when driven by extreme idealism:

“… even when so many of the egalitarian decrees of the Convention, including women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, were swept away by later regimes; the attempts would serve as a powerful legacy for future generations of men and women, inspiring dreams throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of a more equal and humane society. Unfortunately, however, during the Year II [of the new Revolutionary calendar i.e. 1793] such dreams did not include the virtues of tolerance. From early in the Revolution many patriots had shown impatience toward those unprepared to embrace their vision of the ‘new man’. By 1793 a whole segment of the most radical militants were attacking not only the counterrevolutionaries, but anyone whose attachment to the Revolution was deemed insufficiently energetic.” [p. 314]

As to the cost in human misery:

“At the height of the Terror at least 300,000 suspects had been arrested […] We will never know the precise death toll. One careful count of all those executed through the judicial process yielded a total of just under 17,000. But such figures do not include executions without trial or deaths during incarceration–and given the miserable conditions in many of the prisons, a substantial number succumbed before they could appear before a tribunal. A total of at least 40,000 deaths seems not unlikely.” [op.cit. p.330]

IS has some way to go before they even begin to match the achievements of their celebrated ‘progenitors’ or their contemporary western counterparts. A recent report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) puts the number of civilians killed in the War on Terror between 2006 and 2013 at between 1.2 – 2 million and labels it categorically as a genocide.1

To be clear, the point is that the present government and its paid-up advisors have embarked upon a determined quest for confirmation of ideologically inspired Islamist radicalisation at all costs, based on the conviction that it is the only explanation that makes sense to them, while failing to acknowledge that every major historical expression of western ideological radicalism of the last two centuries has grown out of the very same ancient philosophical tradition of pure Platonic idealism that, by way of the European Enlightenment, has fed the roots of our much vaunted and frustratingly elusive ‘British values’, as surely as they continue to feed the determination of the IS idealists and those inspired by admiration for them. None of this involves ‘rocket science’, except perhaps in the deployment of the armed drones and surveillance technology that we can expect to become as much a feature of domestic policy as they already are of our Parliament’s foreign policy responses. In such a scenario, one is reminded of nothing so much as Shakespeare’s chilling expression of the threat levelled by the young King Henry V at the French in righteous pursuit of his claim to the throne of France. The French King is warned in no uncertain terms by Henry's emissary, the Duke of Exeter, as to what response to expect from King Henry, if they choose to resist him:

“Bloody constraint, for if you hide the crown
Even in your hearts, there will he rake for it.” [Henry V, 2.4]

Therefore, by the same token, Muslims who believe that they can succeed in maintaining personal sovereignty over their seditious ideological beliefs by keeping them concealed within their hearts, are hereby warned that they are much mistaken, if they imagine that even a modern Conservative government would be found so lacking in faithful allegiance to the romantic ideal of the ancestral preservation of national character, that their policies would fail to reflect the tenacious bulldog spirit of Henry V by hesitating to follow his example and “rake for it” even there!

Defeatists, Apologists and Islamists

In the western experience, political and/or religiously derived ideologies have invariably been the ‘logical’ expressions of political/religious idealism, the figurative ‘smoking gun’ that makes political Islam a perfect fit! Hence the recent coinage of  terms such as ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamists’ follow in the long and bloody tradition of political idealism that includes: Nihilism/Nihilists, Communism/Communists, Maoism/Maoists, Marxism/Marxists, Fascism/Fascists, Socialism/Socialists, Nationalism/Nationalists, etc… – dare we also suggest the Capitalism/Capitalists pairing? – the entirety of the ‘neo-idealist’ Environmental and Occupy Movements would certainly reply in the affirmative!  

Inevitably, the Muslims, in their long since defeated and colonised mental state, being readily convinced of the superior efficacy and attractiveness of experimental idealism over the Muslim legacy of demonstrable historical precedent, have sought to imbibe the abstractions of the former rather than trusting to the self-evident legitimacy and workability of the latter. The failure to appreciate this dynamic ‘switchover’ is the reason we are forced to put up with the endlessly pitiful and pointless bleating from our class of ‘moderate’ apologists in their panic-stricken rush to distance themselves from the ‘Islamist’ impostors by the parrot-like repetition of the unconvincing mantra that IS have nothing to do with their kind of ‘moderate’ Islam which has been hijacked and traduced by this uniquely savage and malicious misrepresentation of the Shari’ah. Often though this is repeated, it lacks explanatory force and has an increasingly hollow ring to it. Needless to say, what has become abundantly clear is that however much they screech, it will never be loud enough to  convince Mr. Cameron that the lukewarm energy of their sycophantic protestations can be anything more than a smokescreen concealing a quiet respect for the ubiquitous and ever-present radical ideology simmering away just beneath the surface. 

Would it not be closer to the truth and possibly less frustrating for our would-be public champions and standard-bearers to at least attempt to appreciate for themselves and try to explain to their masters in Westminster just how these radical Islamist movements have concealed their idealist identities (even from themselves!) under the military fatigues that are now widely accepted and recognised as the standard uniform of any modern Guerilla Resistance Movement, whilst also effectively taking complete charge of Islam’s most potent semiotic components in both Arabic and English, as well as its most iconic representations?

Madinan Mu’amalat

What the Cameron government and its compliant cadre of pet moderates, as well as actual and potential Daesh recruits, young and old, need to remember and recognise is that the authentic Madinan Sunna exists as readily accessible and comprehensively preserved sets of ascertainable behaviours, standards and well established and socially contextualised interactions (mu‘amalat), extending to every facet of the daily human life-transaction. Such a resource precludes any need to resort to the heuristic tools of ideology as a speculative means to the translation of idealism into real life and meaningful action, with all of the dark terrors that persistence on such a path sooner or later implies, as we are reminded by the bloody turmoil of the most recent centuries of western political and social history. The potentially transformative realisation that Islam is not of itself an ideology, and does not depend upon ideological method, may yet discourage our governments and their Muslim advisors from applying the proven historical mischief of an ideological framework to Muslims in Britain as the main thrust of their counter-terrorism rationale. 

The same realisation on the part of ordinary Muslims themselves will be the best protection against vulnerability to the dangerous allure of the political idealism that we have absorbed by dint of our western acculturation, education and aspirations; particularly as we find it being presented back to us, yet again, in the insidious guise of the ‘British values’ which all true ‘moderates’ will be tripping over each other in the media and elsewhere to show how these, and similar theoretical abstractions, which are nowhere to be commonly seen or consistently demonstrated anywhere in the public or private life of this great nation, can be accommodated alongside of, or even improved upon by full incorporation within, the peaceful and harmonious morality of moderate Muslim individuals and communities.


Of course, once this fundamental understanding regarding the silent dangers of ‘creeping idealism’ (like hidden Shirk) has been made clear, we will only have ourselves to blame if we fail to check the persistent tendency to fall into a ‘textual’, legalistic, and conceptual approach to the understanding of our Deen, which is the surest way to end up back on the path to the extremes of the idealist mode of interpretation and the potential for violence typical of the classical revolutionary modalities, based on the unfettered dreams and imaginings of 18th - 20th century European ideologues and the extremist demagoguery, that have provided the originating template for the justification and legitimation of tyrannical measures in response  to exaggerated threats to public safety, the most credible and likely of which emanate from the state itself, as the thin veneer of democratic values is systemically peeled away to reveal the bloodthirsty alter-ego of state-sponsored terror, preferably abroad, but just as readily at home, and always in the name of ‘public safety’ or 'security', ideationally at least, the first and foremost duty of democratic government.