The power of ideas

Posted On: 
8th February 2016

The world has a long and tragic history of people being prepared to kill – and die – for ideologies. Understanding Islamic radicalisation in this context is key to a meaningful debate on the issue, says Lord Soley  

As a young man growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was an avid reader of any books on the political disillusionment with ideology. Fascism had run its dreadful and brutal course; its pre-war attraction had now lost all respectability and few dared admit to supporting the Blackshirts of the British Union of Fascists, as they might have done in pre-war Britain.

Communism, however, was still going strong, and given strength by support from the Soviet Union. Despite the growing evidence of Stalin’s brutal dictatorship, there was still a blind loyalty among adherents to the ideology and a belief that, whatever its current shortcomings, it was on the right road.

Eventually, socialism and capitalism gave birth to our all-embracing social market democracy. True, committed loyalists persevere, but they are not typical of today’s political activists – the majority are now firmly wedded to practical politics in the social democratic mould, even if the electorate seem disenchanted with the prevailing orthodoxy.

I have always struggled with ideology. Yes, it can and does provide a useful set of guidelines in deciding policies, and allows us to set defining boundaries of behaviour in our assumptions about the nature of society and the exercise of power in society. But pushed too far, ideology destroys the very freedoms that are so often part of the assumptions that underpin it. 

In the past 50 years, we have borne witness to the slow death of political ideology. And yet, and yet – are we not present at the birth of a new ideology dressed in religious clothing? God is an idea.

Religion is an ideology. And Islam is the newest and strongest of these ideologies. If there is a God, and I have never believed there is, then it is a more powerful and knowledgeable being then any one of us can imagine. In the Abrahamic faiths, the message from God is handed down by the prophets, and the messages are not always consistent. That, however, does not make supporters of a religion any less convinced that the message given to them is correct. And in too many cases, they are prepared to fight and die for their interpretation.

Like political ideology, the strength of religious ideology is the sense of unity and ethical direction it gives to followers. Religious ideology has the same weakness as political ideology – it is prone to splits resulting from different interpretations, and it is from these splits that dissent and disillusionment spring and are followed, all too often, by war.

In Alexandria recently, I was talking to a man teaching preschool children about Islam. I asked him why it was that, in the last 20 years, many millions of Muslims had been killed in conflicts, nearly all of them by other Muslims. He asked for examples and I gave the conflict between Iraq and Iran. “Ah”, he said, “they [Iranian Shias] are not true Muslims”. Such religious divisions are not unique to Islam. My political experience of dealing with Northern Ireland in the 1980s was a forceful reminder of the potential for splits and violence within Christianity.

It seems to me at least arguable that when religious ideology declines, political ideology rises to replace it and vice versa. The strength of religious ideology in 17th century England , for example, both during and after the Civil War, was often exhibited in brutality; and following the peace, Cromwell’s authoritarian view of his Protestantism saw women having to cover their heads and be stopped in the street by troops if some of their hair was showing. This practice is now common with ISIL and also in Iran and Saudi – countries with different interpretations of Islamic history.

Islam is the new ideology of our time. The Arab nations where it holds so much sway have tried other ideologies and lost faith in them – nationalism, socialism, communism and even fascism in the form of the old Bath Party that ruled Syria and Iraq under the dictators.

They are cast aside in favour of the rising star of Islam and even the dream of a caliphate. And in societies still struggling with modernisation and with tribal loyalties not yet forgotten, religion can offer a binding loyalty and be a reminder of past greatness.

So when some of our people sign up to fight in Syria, should we really regard it as something new that we call radicalisation? Is it not better understood as another ideology shrouded in a religious cloak?

The majority of Muslims around the world do not interpret their religion in a rigid and authoritarian way. In recent years, however, there has been a rise in more extreme interpretations, but even these views do not always end in violence.

An extreme interpretation may rather persuade the individual to uphold a number of beliefs that together limit the ability of that individual to adjust to a society where such beliefs are seen as wrong or absurd.

It is possible, for example, for a believer to use Islamic teaching to confirm that a woman must never travel without a male member of the family; that a true Muslim will not have pictures of the human form displayed; that a true believer will not share a religious ceremony with another faith believer; that a non-believer who has had Islam explained to them but still rejects it will ‘burn in the everlasting fire’.

The latter view is particularly important as it is a short step from there to concluding that such people are apostates, and that can lead to violent punishment. I heard similar views expressed by some Christians in Northern Ireland. These and other beliefs mark out the signs of what I can only describe as an extreme view of faith.

The problem for all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is how to deal with an ideology promoting beliefs which can result for a minority in violence, but for a larger number will limit their full involvement in modern British society. Hasidic Jews are an equivalent of the extreme interpretation of Islam, with strict rules about dress and behaviour that restricts their involvement in society, but without recourse to violence.

Do we really want to see similar rigid interpretations of Islam, with the inevitable marginalisation of such groups in modern and diverse Britain? I don’t, but I am unsure how to address the problem, and that is why we must open up this debate – and we should do it in the context of an extreme view of ideology, rather than just radicalisation.

To facilitate this debate I have invited Aliyah Saleem and Imtiaz Shams, co-founders of Faith to Faithless, to speak on the problems some have in leaving a faith when family and other pressures can be very strong. I think it important that we hear this argument as, for reasons we all understand, radicalisation towards violence is our central concern. But it is not the whole story. There is an ideological debate going on within Islam and we need to hear all aspects of that debate.

Lord Soley is a Labour peer. The ‘Leaving a Religion’ meeting takes place in Committee Room 1 from 6.30pm on Tuesday, 9th February