From Terror to Deliberation

The United Kingdom has been shaken by four terror attacks in three months. Three were carried out by ISIS supporters and the latest was the result of anti-Muslim sentiments. These attacks follow a number of jihadi attacks in other European countries: France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden. The recurrence of these events (and often their low-tech dimension) is worrying and it has become clear that intelligence and military-based responses to the jihadi phenomenon are insufficient. On the other hand, far-right political solutions to the problem are usually simplistic and contradict democratic and liberal values. Here, I propose a deliberative approach to the problem.

In the aftermath of the third Jihadi attack Theresa May argued that this recent wave of attacks shows that Britain has been too tolerant of extremism. I ostensibly agreed with May. For decades Britain and other European countries have turned a blind eye to (and to a certain extent helped) the establishment of Salafi ideology in Europe. Salafism (or Wahhabism) is the intolerant radical Sunni theological school of thought which informs current terrorist organisations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. The close economic and military relationship between Western powers and Saudi Arabia (where Wahhabism is the state religion) is one of the reasons behind this tolerance of Salafism. Saudi Arabia has a huge influence on Sunni Muslim communities worldwide and is responsible for the training of a majority of Salafi clerics and the propagation of Salafi-oriented educational material in the West.

While recognising that Europe has been too complacent with certain extremist strands of Islam is a step in the right direction, it creates a number of epistemic and strategic issues. Here, I will only focus on two questions. First, how do we define and then recognise extremist ideas rooted in certain Islamic schools of thought? Second, once extremist views have been identified, what can be done about them? I believe that deliberative democracy can be a tool for answering these questions.

According to Jane Mansbridge et al., deliberative democracy performs three functions: epistemic, ethical, and democratic. The epistemic function relates to the importance of seeking a better understanding of political conflicts through the exchange of facts, justifications, and reasoned arguments. The ethical dimension relates to the requirement of mutual respect and recognition between the participants engaged in the deliberative process. Finally, the democratic function underlines the egalitarian and participatory dimension of the process: the capacity to argue and offer justifications determines the political power of the participants, not their wealth and status.

A deliberative approach to the problem of extremism would offer answers to the aforementioned questions and would create a climate of mutual discovery. It would allow non-Muslim communities to learn from Muslim communities who the extremists are and what their theological, social, and psychological motivations are. This would allow the non-Muslim public to differentiate between common Muslims and extremists and to, thus, avoid generalisations. A better understanding of the plurality of thoughts amongst Muslims would also allow authorities to better target their policies against extremism as some literature and speech patterns would reveal potential Salafi influences in mosques and community centres.

At a theological and ideological level this approach could create beneficial debates within Islamic communities, forcing members to engage with their scriptures to provide arguments and justifications (from within their own normative framework). The debates would highlight whether or not some Islamic texts are ethically and politically problematic, and whether or not these texts are a) historically and theologically sound and/or b) open to socio-historical contextualisation. Given that Islam is a religion with social and political dimensions, these theological debates would have a socio-political impact. This approach would represent an important step in fighting the ideological power of jihadi organisations.

At a socio-political level, deliberative approaches would also benefit non-Salafi Muslim communities (in particular the minority communities who suffer from Jihadism even more than non-Muslims) as these communities would be treated as equals and as partners in the political process. Their agency would be enhanced as they could further clarify aspects of their religion to the broader public and be recognised as valuable members of society with a rich, sophisticated tradition while clearly establishing the differences between their Islamic worldviews and the Salafi version of it. This approach is, in fact, not alien to Islamic doctrines as some school of thoughts emphasise the importance of the use of reason and value argumentation.

Deliberative practices would therefore answer both questions. They would help define the problem, and this process of definition through deliberation would in itself be a first step towards solving the problem. Indeed, these democratic practices would generate an increased feeling of mutual trust and respect between communities, helping to mitigate against the social isolationism and stereotypes that can lead to radicalism. It would also help in creating prevention policies developed from the bottom-up which would likely be more effective than a-posteriori initiatives focused on “de-radicalisation”. Finally, deliberative democracy and its emphasis on facts, justifications, and argumentation would offer an epistemically robust alternative to the simplistic political explanations and conceptual caricatures of both islamophobes and islamophiles.

Image: Gerry Popplestone

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About Nicolas Pirsoul

Nicolas Pirsoul is a doctoral candidate in politics & international relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, deliberative democracy, Islamic and Middle Eastern politics.

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