Julie Lenarz: Evolution is Better Than Revolution

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Julie Lenarz is the Executive Director of the Human Security Centre, an independent, not-for-profit, foreign-policy think tank based in London, United Kingdom. Her areas of expertise include : (counter-) terrorism, Islamism, jihadism, Kurdish affairs, religious persecution and military intervention.

She tweets @MsJulieLenarz

She graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about human security and the fight against Islamism. The opinions expressed herein are the authors own and do not neccesarily reflect the views of Clarion Project. 



Clarion Project: What does 'human security' mean to you in the context of Islamist extremism?

Julie Lenarz: The organization that I lead – The Human Security Centre – believes that the practice, promotion, toleration and relativization of terrorism or otherwise the intentional killing of civilians should be vigorously challenged.

The idea behind the concept of human security is that individuals and communities everywhere should be able to live free from fear, free from want and free from indignity.

In that sense, Islamist extremism is the enemy of human security – the epitome of inhumanity.

Islamist extremists’ contempt for human life is absolute. Human dignity is an alien concept to them. The destruction of the kuffar is the paramount theological imperative and their only goal on their way to paradise is to terrorize and kill as many innocent men, women and children as they possibly can.

Unopposed they will continue to carry out crimes against humanity ranging from indiscriminate attacks against civilians on our soil to ethnic cleansing and outright genocide in other parts of the world.



Clarion: What in your eyes has been the biggest mistake made by Western governments in reacting to the Arab Spring?

Lenarz: The combination of not realizing that evolution is better than revolution – democracy is more than protests, elections and the sum of its institutions – and not realizing that watching from the sidelines – inaction is a form of action sometimes with more devastating consequences than involvement – is not an adequate response to one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the Middle East.

If there is a lesson we must learn from our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, then it is that a change of the political landscape needs to be matched by appropriate cultural, social and economic changes as well. 

I do not believe in Arab exceptionalism – the wish to be free is a fundamental manifestation of the human spirit – but to want something does not necessarily mean you are ready for it. The truth is that the conditions for the Arab Spring to succeed were never there in the first place: respect for women, tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities, civil society, pluralism of ideas.

All these things have either been neglected or actively opposed and suppressed for a very long time and you cannot impose them on a society overnight. It is a learning curve, a steep and bloody learning curve, and that brings me back to my original point that evolution is better than revolution. Look at Egypt and Tunisia, where revolutions ended relatively quickly, and compare the situation to that in Syria and Libya.

We should have invested more time and effort in channeling peaceful transitions when we still had the chance.

That brings me to my second point: the West was naïve thinking it could stay out of events of such scale and magnitude as the Arab Spring. We live in an extremely interdependent world, where we cannot turn our backs on conflicts within other countries if we want still to be secure.

What happens in one part of the world does not necessarily stay in that part of the world and, as such, a robust foreign policy attentive to international concerns is preferable to isolationism.

First, the Islamic State came for the Christians and Yazidis. Then, they came for everyone else. We know that thousands of our citizens, male and female, have flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight for or otherwise support the Islamic State and 10-30 percent are in the process of or have already returned home. Foreign fighters, battle-hardened and de-sensitized to violence by months of intensive combat, have the ability and often the appetite to engage in homegrown attacks and wage jihad on our streets.

I understand that the public is wary of war and our political leadership is cautious not to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. I sympathize with those who find it irritating to be the recipient of every demand, to be called upon in every crisis, and to always be expected to get involved everywhere. 

But look at the bloodshed in Syria, the re-emergence of Russia and the newly enriched and emboldened Iran and you will see that Obama’s approach of whatever-George-W-Bush-did-let’s-do-the-exact-opposite is deeply flawed. Of course we must learn lessons from previous mistakes, but we must also not overlearn them.



Clarion: Which actions do you think ordinary citizens can take in their own lives to combat international Islamism?

Lenarz: Talk about it. Reject their narrative whenever and wherever you encounter it, and do not get intimidated by charges of Islamophobia. Make clear the distinction between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the ideology. Islam, like any other religion, is a set of ideas, and if some of those ideas are harmful and antithetical to our values, that is something we need to talk about, even if some people may find it offensive.

We must not draw the false analogy that Islam = Islamism = jihadism. There is a problem with Islamic law (sharia) in terms of gender equality, tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities and other things that I have previously mentioned and then there is a problem within Islam, the ideology of Islamism, which derives from a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of the religion.

The majority of the 1.6bn Muslims are not Islamists and even a smaller number are jihadists. However, and that is a truth we have neglected for too long, a significantly larger minority than we had originally anticipated sympathizes with and supports non-violent and violent-Islamism.

We have to be more confident and stop apologizing for our own position. The West’s perpetual sense of guilt, the absurd notion that we are somehow to blame for Islamist extremism, is playing right into their hands.

Hundreds of terrorist attacks predated both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Ask yourself how wars fought by American and British soldiers justify atrocities in the name of Islamist extremism in Indonesia, Nigeria or Turkey.

Ask yourself how jihadists can decry neo-imperial aggression and criminal foreign occupations, when they fight as religious mercenaries all over the world. And ask yourself how Islamist extremists can denounce the killing of Muslims, when every day across the Middle East and other parts of the world, Muslims get killed by the very same people, if they happen to be of the wrong sect or ethnicity.

We are not to blame for Islamist extremism. They hate us not only because of what we do, but because of who we are. Take away foreign policy and Islamists and terrorists would still hate the principles and values that we stand for. This is what every ordinary citizen must internalize because only if that thinking takes hold in our collective mindset, we will stand a chance of defeating the ideology of Islamism.



Clarion: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to defeating Islamism?

Lenarz: Denial. Islamist extremism is the greatest security threat the world faces today and the greatest struggle of our generation and likely the next generation to come. That might be clear to you and me, but still too many are in denial.

A problem cannot be remedied while it remains undefined and failing to identify Islamism by its name guarantees defeat.

Unfortunately, the President of the United States, the leader of the free world, is the prime example. Barack Obama has repeatedly refused to draw a connection between the religion of Islam and the acts of barbarism perpetrated by Islamists and jihadists in the name of Islamism, even though they shout “Allahu Akbar” when they pull the trigger of their suicide vest.

Such posture of denial is not just intellectually dishonest, but fatal as well. Obama might think that by not calling the problem by its name, he avoids the stigmatization of all Muslims and the conflation between the religion of Islam, with all its problems, and the ideology of Islamism, which albeit connected, is a separate thing.

In fact, the opposite is true. By not explaining adequately the similarities and differences between the religion and the ideology, Obama is encouraging the very conflation he tries so hard to avoid and with his denial, he not only aids the extremists, he also betrays the Muslim reformist, in the Muslim world and in our own countries, who try to free themselves from the shackles imposed on them by religious reactionaries.  


Clarion: What is the role of international civil society in combating Islamism, as opposed to government actions?

Lenarz: Civil society and government must work together in genuine partnership to effectively combat Islamism and Islamist extremism. NGOs and think tanks can provide expertise and policy advice in areas not available within government.

High-quality research on issues such as non-violent and violent extremism and radicalization is vital for pragmatic and credible prevention efforts and counter-terrorism strategies. The government, on the other hand, can provide civil society with information that otherwise would be hard to obtain and provide the necessary tools and legal framework to translate research into policy.

Such partnerships enable both civil society and government to engage in a facts-based dialogue and honest evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses as well as the effectiveness of our counter-extremism and counter-terrorism strategies.


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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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