Islamic State: built on the West’s cult of victimhood

The Western politics of identity is the fuel of modern jihadism.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

It comes as a bit of a shock when a young Muslim university student informs you that ‘democracy is a con’ and that ‘Brits can shove their democracy up their rear end’. The student, who had just completed a computer-science degree, observes my uneasy reaction and reproaches me for my naive faith in the idea of freedom. As far as he is concerned, freedom has no value other than to distract Muslims from pursuing their religious duties. ‘Choice is a fraud’, he confidently asserts. Like a significant minority of educated young Muslims today, he believes that liberal democracy and its institutions serve only to confuse and corrupt.

The blithe, casual manner with which British- and other Western-born Muslim youths dismiss the ideals of freedom and democracy is testimony to the political and moral chasm that separates them from the societies into which they were born. They are not just rejecting democracy; they are also turning the clock back on it. This contempt for freedom and democracy was captured in a press statement issued on behalf of the Mannans, a British family of 12 who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) earlier this summer. Entitled ‘From the Mannan family in the land of Khilafah [Caliphate]’, it declared that the Mannans have voluntarily chosen to live in a theocracy in preference to a land where ‘manmade law’ prevails.

According to the statement, the Mannans are now ‘free from the corruption and oppression of manmade law’. Their statement implies that institutions that deviate from the laws of Allah will have a morally corrupting impact on devout followers of Islam. From this perspective, ‘manmade’ secular law is a form of moral contamination. That is why the Mannans have decided to leave ‘the so-called freedom and democracy that were forced down their throats in the attempt to brainwash Muslims to forget about their powerful and glorious past and now present’.

The contention that freedom and democracy are values that need to be forced down people’s throats may come as a surprise to many. It assumes that secular and humanist values and institutions are so unnatural that no faithful Muslim could willingly embrace them. Such sentiments are regularly promoted by radical jihadist publications such as IS’s glossy magazine Dabiq and al-Qaeda’s Inspire – both widely circulated on the internet. There is evidence that the views expressed by these and other outlets have gained influence among a significant minority of Muslims living in Western societies.

A poll of over 2,000 British adults, conducted by ICM during the first weekend of July, showed that nine per cent of respondents viewed IS in a positive light. It found that three per cent held a ‘very favourable view’ of IS, and six per cent held a ‘somewhat positive view’. Despite the numerous atrocities reported in the media, the proportion of those with a positive view of IS has increased by two percentage points over the past year.

The meaning of public-opinion polls is always difficult to interpret. However, what the ICM poll suggests is that a significant minority of British Muslims may be sympathetic towards some of the ideals advocated by IS. The majority of those who expressed positive views towards IS are likely to be passive sympathisers with no ambition to follow the Mannans to the Middle East. However, what their sympathies and attitudes signify is that radical jihadist ideas have gained influence in British society. At the very least, the poll suggests a sizeable group of British Muslims expresses its everyday frustrations and resentments towards the world, and particularly towards the West, through a favourable attitude towards IS.

Morality trumps secular politics

One of the most remarkable features of radical jihadist propaganda is the emphasis it places on discrediting the ethos and values associated, not just with liberal democracy, but with democracy in general. In this respect, it is one of the few modern political movements which explicitly rejects the very foundation of secular politics. It is worth recalling that although the Nazis condemned parliamentary democracy, they still sometimes called for a ‘German democracy’. Indeed, Hitler once asserted that ‘National Socialism is the true realisation of democracy’. In contrast, IS’s political theology rejects all forms of democracy and denounces it as immoral.

IS propaganda does not depict the West as merely bad; it rejects it as evil. Its objective is to present the distinction between itself and the West in a language that morally polarises, a language that heightens the difference between IS and the West. From IS’s standpoint, the values of Islam and those of democracy are fundamentally antithetical. It claims the threat a secular society poses to Muslims living in the West is above all a moral one. The statement circulated on behalf of the Mannans says that, in the Khilafah (the Caliphate), ‘a parent doesn’t feel the worry of losing their child to the immorality of society’. The implication of this statement is clear: Western societies exercise a morally corrupt influence on their Muslim inhabitants.

Jihadists’ propaganda frequently refers to their enemies as ‘crusaders’. This term, however, is a far better description of the moral crusaders of IS and other jihadist groups waging a war against the way of life of their opponents. As they see it, there is no moral equivalence between the devout and the sinners. Consequently, IS propaganda not only condemns but also dehumanises what it castigates as its ‘dirty kuffir’ opponents. Dabiq actually argues that it is legitimate and Islamic to capture and force infidel women to become sex slaves.

One reason Western governments often find it difficult to counter jihadists’ influence over sections of their Muslim populations is that they attempt to use political arguments to counter moral ones. But political arguments about the virtues of democracy rarely succeed in negating moral claims about the corrosive effects of the Western way of life on Muslims. The language of good and evil appears more convincing than arguments based on secular logic and reasoning. Until Western society articulates its own moral vision of the Good Life, it will struggle to contain the influence that jihadist political theology exercises over its target audience.

Turning the clock back

At first sight, it is difficult to account for the growing influence of radical jihadist sentiments among young Muslims living in Western societies. In the aftermath of the 2001 riots in Oldham, in the north west of England, I talked to Muslim students about their impression of life in Britain. Most of them spoke in a language that conveyed a strong sense of bitterness and, in some cases, hatred. In the early 2000s, however, their response was couched in a language of disappointment and disillusionment. Their criticism was not directed at ‘manmade law’ or democracy, but at the failure of society to live up to its promises.

That was then. Since 2001, the attitudes of some young Muslims towards their society have not only hardened, but have also altered in character. Some no longer want society to accommodate their grievances; they want to inhabit a different moral universe. There are many reasons for this radical shift in attitude. The military success of radical jihadist groups in many parts of the world has created the impression that the West has finally met its match. For many Muslims, the success of jihadist forces serves as a source of pride. Stories about how an individual, or a couple of ‘fighters’ – such as the Boston bombers – created such fear in the US travel well among some young men and women in search of a hero.

However, the most powerful driver of jihadist influence in the West is the sacralisation of victimhood. In recent decades, the victim has acquired a quasi-sacred status. Competitive claims-making about victimisation has become widespread, and misfortune is frequently represented through the prism of victimisation. From a victim of bullying to a victim of a heart attack, the variety of victimising experiences is continually expanding. Coincidentally, one of the most powerful themes promoted in radical jihadist propaganda is the representation of Islam as the universal victim of Western aggression. Jihadists frame virtually every dimension of local and global misfortune afflicting Muslims as the outcome of a permanent war waged by Western crusaders.

The jihadist media present the predicament facing Muslims through the fantasy of eternal victimhood. From this standpoint, any form of behaviour that does not accord with the worldview of jihadist political theology can be represented as an act of victimisation – an insult to Islam. The mere existence of a way of life that contradicts an IS-sanctioned lifestyle is a provocation, an act of victimisation and, therefore, an insult to Islam. In such circumstances, the reaction to a provocation is legitimised both by jihadist ideology and the Western cult of the victim.

Outwardly, IS’s political theology appears to be a throwback to medieval barbarism. However, it is much more than that. Its claim to recover Islam’s golden age is often expressed through a language that the Palestinian cultural theorist, Edward Said, once described as the ‘sanctimonious piety of historical or cultural victimhood’. It is a language that bears an uncanny resemblance to Western identity politics. At least within Western societies, the jihadist sensibility of eternal injury enjoys the cultural validation emanating from the sanctification of the victim. Arguably, the jihadists travelling to Syria are as much a product of contemporary Western global culture as they are of traditional Islam. Until secular societies understand the cultural and moral dynamic that leads some of their citizens to reject their way of life, they will struggle to match the appeal of jihadist political theology to people like the Mannans.

Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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