The Six Levels of Countering Islamism

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UK counterterror police take part in an exercise in London 2015. (Photo: BEN STANSTALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamism, the political ideology that seeks to impose its vision of Islam over others and implement sharia as state law, is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea in the same ballpark as other totalitarian ideas, such as communism and fascism, and if allowed to fester un-checked, seems liable to rack up a similar body count.

So how is such an ideology countered? Governments can’t just ban ideas or round up everyone who believes them (or at least, they shouldn’t). We map out the struggle on six levels, going from the macro of government policy, down to how the individual can tackle Islamism in their daily lives.

Let’s get started.



United States soldiers. (Photo: Pixabay)

This is probably what most people think of when they talk about countering Islamism. Soldiers shooting bad guys is how jihadism is fought, both domestically and abroad. When special forces are deployed against ISIS in Syria, when drones are dispatched to eliminate al-Qaeda operatives in Waziristan, Pakistan and when soldiers are deployed to the streets to guard against possible terror attacks, this is what we are talking about.

This category also includes armed security measures such as the TSA at airports, counter-terror units within the police and SWAT teams sent to make arrests.

In democracies, despite the existence of strong military institutions, decision-making powers are concentrated in the hands of elected officials and government departments. In the United States, they ultimately are deployed at the discretion of the commander-in-chief, at this moment the 45th President of the United States Donald Trump.

The way an ordinary person can have an impact on what goes on at this level is limited to voting in elections, although protests can have an impact on occasion, if the movement is large enough.

But this level can’t do anything about non-violent expressions of Islamism. For that the government turns to …



The US Capitol
The US Capitol (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP / Getty Images)

Although the state’s power rests on its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, it has many other tools at its disposal. At this level, measures such as banning face veils in places like banks or courtrooms can be imposed. Financial powers include banning funding for educational institutions from countries like Saudi Arabia which support Islamist values, freezing the bank accounts of known extremists and forbidding businesses from investing in countries that sponsor terrorism. 

If laws are disobeyed, the state can enforce them using the legal system, which can result in financial penalties and/or prison sentences.

This level is what a lot of the debate surrounding Islamism in the media focuses on: What the government should or should not be doing to stop Islamism in its tracks. Laws are decided by the legislative branch of government.

At this level, an ordinary person is limited primarily to voting or grassroots actions (writing letters to or calling elected representative) or bringing law suits (either through organizations or from groups of aggrieved parties).

These methods, however, work best with the next level …



Illustrative Picture. (Photo: Creative Commons/Johannes Thiel)
Illustrative Picture. (Photo: Creative Commons/Johannes Thiel)

Education is how the next generation is taught to think. What goes into the school curriculum is very important here. How history, religion, civics and philosophy are taught in schools has a big impact on fighting Islamism. It is at this level that the government can implement programs that focus on core Western values (i.e. freedoms guaranteed in the constitution) and engage in diversity and inclusion programs to reduce alienation among minority groups at risk of radicalization.

It is at this level that the ordinary person can have the most tangible impact. Talking to your local school about what your children are being taught and raising any objections is important. So is joining the Parent Teachers Association and getting involved with school life. Many extra-curricular activities are run by ideologically-motivated adults seeking to be mentors. Your job as a parent is to make sure that what is being taught is fighting the institutions of Islamism and not fostering it.


4.Civil Society

A rally for Asia Bibi and against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (Photo: Reuters)

This level is very important for a functional democracy and includes a range of institutions. Some are religious institutions — mosques, churches, synagogues, etc. — while other may be lobbying groups or activist organizations that aim to influence lawmakers on specific issues. Other organizations may provide much-needed front-line services such as social care, food banks, youth clubs or group therapy.

Counter-extremism programs fit into this sphere, because even when they are run by the state, participation in them is normally voluntary, and they are usually run by semi-independent practitioners. 

Anyone can become involved in civil society through such a program. Combating extremism by building resilient, integrated communities is a good preventative measure against kids turning to bad ideas as a salve for their problems. Beware Islamists also take advantage of free societies and run their own civil society organizations in order to advance their agenda.

With this in mind, people can also engage in the public conversation about Islamism …



Clarion's Ryan Mauro on Fox
Clarion’s Ryan Mauro on Fox

Media covers the whole informational sphere, from traditional broadsheet newspapers and TV networks to newer forms such as podcasts, blogs and niche websites (such as Clarion Project). What gets talked about is important because it shapes people’s attitudes. What people think will then determine how people act and vote.

Media also reacts to other media, so it acts (at its best) as a vibrant space for public debate on issues that matter (like Islamism and how to counter it effectively). Heated exchange on Islamism at this level helps the best ideas rise to the top where they can hopefully be carried out later.

An ordinary person can become involved in media by blogging, writing letters to the editor and educating themselves about Islamism, as well as supporting organizations that work to educate others, such as Clarion Project.

If you see something false in a media piece or on TV, write in to correct them, making sure to provide your sources, and do so politely. If they are rigorous, they will issue a correction and be glad you pointed it out.

What people think also matters beyond their voting habits because it impacts the last level …



Egyptian President Abdelfattah el-Sisi shakes hands with Pope Francis during a meeting between the two at the Vatican in 2014. (Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

This level is perhaps the most important of all. Challenging Islamism at this level means calling out extremist views when a person encounters them in real life, whether in their community, in a cafe or from friends and family. It also means calling out anti-Muslim (as well as all) bigotry and promoting positive values on a day-to-day basis.

A person can combat Islamism in their lives by setting a good example on how to live as an excellent and flourishing individual and by speaking up when they encounter poisonous beliefs.

Defeating Islamism requires engagement on all of these levels in order to effectively discredit the ideology totally and completely.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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