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Stephen Ulph: Islamism and Totalitarianism

Islamism and Totalitarianism

May 25, 2011

Stephen Ulph

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Stephen Ulph is a member of the board of the Westminster institute and Senior Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation. One of the preeminent analysts of the Islamic world, Mr. Ulph specializes in the analysis of jihadist and Islamist ideology and regularly lectures on aspects of Islamist and Jihadist ideology impacting on Western democracies and the course of the war on terrorism. He is the founder and former editor of Islamic Affairs Analyst and Terrorism Security Monitor for Jane’s Information Group.

His publications include an analysis on jihadism in Syria for the CTC, an ideological analysis of the ‘Virtual Border Conflict’ (the online arena for Islamist extremism) for The Borders of Islam, an in-depth examination of the relationship of Islamism to other totalitarian systems of thought in Fighting the Ideological War, and a 4-part reference work, Towards a Curriculum for the Teaching of Jihadist Ideology, available online at the Jamestown Foundation. He is also the Director of The Reform Project and its bi-lingual website Almuslih (‘The Reformer’ www.almuslih.org) which supports Arab reformist writers and promotes their work to an English-language readership.

He also spoke at Westminster on the subject of The Importance of Muslim Reformers.


Right, thank you. I just want to pick up on that very interesting last point that Patrick made. We’ve left the field. Who is going to do this? Who is going to engage in this ideological warfare? One of the problems as you all know is how to embark on such a thing. There’s a lot of resistance. One of the basic lines of resistance is it’s an internal Muslim affair and then we have this sort of reticence that we shouldn’t- especially as non-Muslims we shouldn’t engage in this.

Among Muslims too there is another problem because there’s a hermetically sealed universe that the Islamist radicals are living in and they can’t easily penetrate through that themselves because what actually happens is that any debates tend to dissipate in endless Qur’anic verse and hadith wars. This is why de-radicalization initiatives have very mixed results, usually varied results, so what we’re- what we’re looking for ideally if we- if we can find one is a neutral debating ground where we Muslims and non-Muslims alike are not being wrong footed, okay?

So we need some way to force the Islamists to bother to undertake the debate in the first place, but obviously they feel they don’t need to, so I’m going to possibly to resolve these concerns come up- bring up a comparative approach, which may be the most effective. That’s the comparison between Islamism and the various historical manifestations of totalitarianism and what I wanted to do here is to explore how some deeper mental mechanisms may allow us a point of entry into deconstructing the threat.

Now, you’re probably aware this has been subject of some controversy. There have been- there’s been objections to the idea that you in the same paragraph you might mention the word Islam or Islamism and a word such as fascism. There’s been a very thorny issue. I personally have experienced some rather rough rides when I brought up the subject in the same paragraph but I think we have to, you know, take courage and just push, push on on this.

Question of observing the common mental trajectories. The key to all of this is is to try and find the common ground and the way it’s useful is that it argues by using the terms of reference of the extremists themselves, the uniqueness of their model, the divine origin that they claim for their ideology, and the uniqueness of the political applications of this, so we want to put question marks to this point that Patrick importantly flagged up, the authenticity preoccupation.

How solidly founded is that authenticity? Why – just to recap – why is authenticity important? While military reverses can always be brushed aside and they often do by saying well it’s a long term struggle. It’s not something which a defeat on the battlefield makes no particular difference here or there, but ideological justification cannot brook defeat at any point not at any second and a basic building block for that is the resilience that comes from authenticity.

It’s the key. It’s their moral authority is their yardstick for determining what is true and counterfeit Islam and why they should be listening to anyone in the first place. It’s based, as Patrick mentioned, on the words and deeds of the virtuous predecessors, the salaf assalihoon (السلف الصالح), or the Salaf assalih, and the reason why that’s important is that they are the pattern to be emulated.

They are the authentic pattern because they predate the compromises made in Islamic medieval and modern history with grubby compromises of mandate power, so they keep a nice purity to them and it’s a very handy way of maintaining an authenticity and Salafi or the Salafist groups are the intellectual cradle in which groups such as Al-Qaeda, who call themselves jihadi Salafists, that’s the intellectual cradle that they- that they are born in.

So, it allows us to- allows them to justify their position because they are commanded for instance to imitate the prophet and the prophet, of course, was fighting a jihad so QED, following the- the precedent is outlined in- in the text, the hadith and the sira literature, the biography literature, means that they are more authority than the other Muslims and finally, they don’t therefore have to worry about what scholars will say because they’re collaborators. They’ve been got at by the world system, so who are they to talk about- talk to us anyway? That’s- that’s the problem we’re faced with, so what is it that could damage this claim to authenticity?

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