Why Does the West Remain so Obsessed with “Radical Islam”?

Following the recent terrorist attack in Nice, France, French President Emmanuel Macron immediately proposed a new bill to defend “France’s secular values” against what he called “Islamist radicalism.” He also said that the religion of Islam is “in crisis” all over the world. Similarly, following a recent terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said that he intends to create a criminal offense called “political Islam” to go after extremists and those who are “preparing the ground” for such actions. Western politicians – particularly those on the political right – continue to champion the narrative that “radical Islamist” represent an existential threat to the West. Yet, they fail to address that radical Islamism thrives off of two interconnected factors: Islamophobia in the West and the autocratic governments in the Middle East.

 

 

Islamophobia for Domestic Purposes

There is a need to look deeper into the rhetoric used by political actors such as Macron or Kurz. These narratives are being used for domestic political purposes. In both France and Austria, “it is easier to place blame solely on the Muslim community than it is to address how factors such as systemic and everyday racism, job and housing discrimination, police brutality, poverty, etc.,” leading to the marginalization of these communities.

 

In Austria, the current ruling party – the Austrian Peoples Party – is a conservative party, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is particularly conservative. Islamophobic rhetoric tends to resonate well with conservatives, particularly those opposed to greater immigration.

 

In France, Macron’s support is faltering, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. With the 2022 election in France fast approaching, where Macron is likely to face far-right Marine Le Pen, Macron may be attempting to hedge against criticism that he has been “soft” on combating terrorism. He knows that rhetorically attacking Muslims will appeal to the supporters of the far right and its racist, anti-Muslim agenda.

 

France and Austria are not alone: such approaches remain front-and-center within the United States, particularly under Donald Trump. Whether it be his infamous “Muslim Ban,” constant fearmongering about “radical Islamic terror,” or attacks on Muslim politicians such as Ilhan Omar (whom he claimed hates the United States), the political right in the United States has historically sought to exploit anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric to appeal to its base. More recently, leading up to the 2020 election, Trump warned crowds that a Biden victory would “open the floodgates” to Muslims and pour “radical Islamic terrorism” into the country.

 

 

The Role of Middle East Governments

Several governments in the Middle East have a vested interest in maintaining their ability to exploit the “terrorism” card to gain Western support or acquiescence in cracking down on dissent at home. Various regimes throughout the region use particular interpretations of religion both as an instrument to counter political adversaries as well as to provide a veneer of legitimacy to their autocratic rule. Interpretations that challenge the status quo can represent an existential threat to the ruling elite. The priorities of these governments are regime preservation and power projection, and religion is used to serve these ends.

 

The persistence of the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East – which is often supported by the West – and the continued denial of political and human rights to the people in this region provides radicals with opportunities to recruit and further propagate their message. This anger is often directed at the West, who has a long history of supporting such autocracies.  

 

By eliminating avenues for the peaceful opposition and repressing those who criticize the ruling elite under the guise of “fighting terrorism,” governments in the region seek to present themselves to the West as the only barrier to extremism, thereby garnering more support for their flawed policies and the authoritarian status quo. When the West buys this narrative and supports such heavy-handed policies, it is in turn fueling the grievances that lead to radicalization.

 

 

Conclusion

Despite the West’s obsession with “radical Islam,” it still does not understand what “radical Islamists” thrive off of: Islamophobia in the West and the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East. In order to properly address radicalism, the West needs to fundamentally reconsider how its own actions – both domestically and abroad – and the actions of their allies can serve to exacerbate the very threat they are trying to eliminate.


Jonathan Hoffman is a political science PhD student at George Mason University’s SCHAR School of Policy and Government. He holds an M.A. in Middle East and Islamic Studies and a B.A. in Global Affairs. His research focuses on Middle East geopolitics and political Islam. 

 

Photo can be found here.