I have been watching a bit more television than usual, certainly more than I expected to in this blessed month of Ramadan. I was gripped, in part due to the never-ending conversations about Islam; partly because I despair at the rhetorical belligerence of neo-cons like Douglas Murray; and also, I confess, to watch the performance of a friend on BBC Question Time. A variety of channels have had a veritable media-fest on Islam.
This is to be expected, given the shock of the terrorist attack in Tunisia, which coincided with the re-launch of the British government's Prevent strategy, as well as the rather revealing quarrel between the BBC and the prime minister about what to call the "Islamic State". It's all been happening this week.
In programme after programme, the confusion and sheer lack of knowledge about Islam and ISIS has been obvious. One of the striking features was the misplaced conflation – or should that be cynical exploitation – of the tragedy in Tunisia with the government's controversial strategy to tackle extremism and radicalisation in Britain, called "Prevent".
I felt that Muslims in the UK are being made to feel responsible for the murder of thirty of their fellow Brits. Suspicion had already been set in the public mindset by David Cameron's ill-advised slur against Britain's two and half million Muslims with his claim that they – we – are "quietly condoning" ISIS. With such rhetoric from the prime minister exploded out of proportion by a compliant media it would have been easy to think that what took place in Sousse was actually an atrocity committed on British soil by a British citizen.
The murderous attack in Tunisia, by a Tunisian citizen, remember, looked like the government's trump card to disarm critics of Prevent. It was, though, both disingenuous and blatant political opportunism to suggest that the Prevent strategy would have made any difference to the terrorist attack in Sousse.
Not only was the killer not a British citizen, but he was also trained in Libya, a failed state that is now over-run by ISIS wannabes who were created by failed Western interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. They have been armed by regimes in the region which are themselves armed by countries in the West, including Britain.
It behoves David Cameron, as the Prime Minister, to provide clarity over the sources and causes of terrorism. He has to explain exactly how "making life hard for Muslims" in Britain through Prevent is the solution for terrorism carried out abroad, notwithstanding the relatively insignificant number of British Muslims in the ranks of ISIS. He has failed miserably to do so.
The prime minister and his government are in denial that it was Britain and its allies which invaded two countries in the region, toppling the regimes in the process, and that this has probably done more for ISIS recruitment and the incubation of terrorism than anything else (apart from Cameron's "staunch" support for Israel's brutality against the Palestinians). It is we in the West who have left Muslim countries with unstable governments and prey to terrorists and yet we are to swallow the lie that "making life hard" for British Muslims is the solution? How misguided is that?
We can only defeat terrorism by promoting the "British values" of "peace, democracy, tolerance and freedom," insists Cameron. "We must be more intolerant of intolerance and reject anyone whose views condone the Islamist extremist narrative and create the conditions for it to flourish. We must strengthen our institutions that put our values into practice: our democracy, our rule of law, the rights of minorities, our free media, and our law enforcements – all the things the terrorists hate."
This is a throwback to George W Bush's claim that the terrorists "hate our way of life", as if US exceptionalism and Western military interventions have anything to do with democracy and the rule of law, never mind the West's support of Israel as it treats international law with contempt. Now I don't really want to accuse the prime minister and the mainstream media of lacking serious intent in the desire to target ISIS at its roots, but what other conclusion can we draw from the fact that they have consistently overlooked the main agencies in the creation of ISIS and still blame British Muslims for "not doing enough"? Do they not see that British Muslims have had no role in the rise of ISIS and nor do we have the capabilities to undermine ISIS beyond our condemnation? Muslims in the west cannot perform miracles; they cannot push the water backwards when it is their own governments, with the support of despotic regimes in the region, which have opened the floodgates of terrorism.
In short, the government and media are looking in the wrong place. If Cameron really wants to show leadership, he ought to stop cosying up to regimes which have incubated the growth of ISIS through a shared ideology, if not a shared methodology, and helped the deadly organisation to grow by pouring in weapons that have been supplied by Western governments, Cameron's amongst them.
Using British troops in full dress uniform to repatriate the casualties from Tunisia does not demonstrate leadership; in giving the order for this, Cameron was playing to the gallery and milking a tragic situation for propaganda purposes. ISIS is not an "existential threat" to Britain and pretending that this is a "war" is just plain silly when some of our closest allies are a far greater threat- if a threat is defined as purveying a toxic ideology – to "British values" and "our way of life".
David Cameron's attempt at theological hermeneutics by calling on the BBC to drop the use of "Islamic State" prompted a flurry of convoluted discussions. Historian and author Tom Holland, for example, made the tired claim that the "Islamic State" is rooted in Islam, the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions and practices, and that this disabuses any pretension that it is anything other than what ISIS itself claims to be. As far as he is concerned, it is an "Islamic State", even if the majority of Muslims disagree.
The prime minister's contention that the BBC would "delegitimise" the group's "Islamic credentials" if it used ISIS, ISIL or the Arabic acronym DAESH is perhaps well-intended, but, of course, his proposed alternatives all contain the word "Islamic". Once again there is an obvious absence of clear thinking on this issue but that didn't stop the intellectual credentials of the many pseudo-experts on Islam from filling the media with their crude crusader talk and fooling even experienced presenters like Andrew Neil. Nobody challenged their alleged expertise on the subject.
According to Holland, we should take the claims of ISIS as a version of Islam at face value. Such a crude reading of Islam fuels Islamophobia and demonstrates a great deal of ignorance about the faith of more than a billion Muslims around the world. If Muslims made such preposterous claims they would be banned by Prevent from speaking in universities and on television, and would probably face arrest. Without entering into a lengthy theological tract about Islam, it needs to be acknowledged that Islam is not just what Muslims do and say, and nor are Muslims simply the product of Islam.
Even in our current age, a postmodernist take on Islam does not preclude a recognisable and legitimate manifestation of the faith. The intellectual gridlock displayed by the likes of Tom Holland is disingenuous to say the least. Muslims agree universally on key principles and methodology for interpreting religious texts, including Qur'anic verses which, to the uninitiated and uneducated, apparently "mandate violence".
One of these principles and, indeed, a touchstone in reading and understanding Islamic texts is the famous saying of the Prophet that, "My Ummah [people] will not unite on error." Throughout the ages Islam has been a broad and extremely tolerant umbrella faith; it will continue to be so as far as the vast majority of Muslims are concerned.
This does not mean that differences of opinion do not exist; of course they do, and that is perfectly legitimate and valid, but there is specific guidance for dealing with such instances. To suggest that the practices of ISIS fall within the list of acceptable differences of opinion is to completely misread Islam and its texts.
This is a matter of great importance for us all, especially the politicians, journalists and pseudo-experts of Islam who are driving the clearly misguided policy for tackling the cult of ISIS. Instead of talking down to British Muslims, it is time for them to talk with British Muslims in the search for solutions (there is bound to be more than one; Prevent is not a panacea). It all depends, of course, on whether or not the government is really serious about destroying ISIS. At the moment, that is very much open to question.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.