When angry protestors marched through Dhaka in early May, we might have assumed that they were protesting against pervasive corruption or were demanding economic reforms after a building collapse disaster which killed 1,100 workers and injured many more. If we had attributed the protests to any of these reasons, we would have been deeply mistaken. Instead, these protesters, rallied by a hardline Salafist group, were calling for the arrest of bloggers, the hanging of atheists, and the death penalty for those accused of blasphemy.
The juxtaposition of Bangladeshi extremists demanding an end to free speech and gender equality with a country facing mass poverty and systematic government failure is stark. Moreover, this incongruity is emblematic of the challenge posed by extremist Salafism, which turns disillusioned young men into brainwashed followers who ultimately become dedicated to the destruction of liberty and democracy and to the elimination of those who disagree with their views.
The type of terrorism that originates with extremist Salafism is different from the terrorism of the nationalist or regionalist types which can usually be identified because they are region-specific. Instead, the extremist Salafism promoted by Al Qaeda and its sympathizers and apologists, is a totalitarian, collectivist and global movement which wants to force the entire world to submit to its warped perversion of a beautiful, noble religion.
Extremist Salafism resembles a festering sickness which thrives on the lack of moral certitude amongst its opponents. The tendency towards moral and cultural relativism has taken hold of so many policymakers, to the benefit of extremist fanatics. This relativism declares that all cultural practices are equally acceptable and that any criticism is insensitive and therefore unacceptable. This relativism tolerates extreme intolerance and promotes the dogma that any attempt at intervention infringes upon the rights of a community.
This unwillingness to permit moral judgment is a force which actually empowers tyrants and terrorists. Extremist Salafists and others who peddle pathological fantasies masquerading as worthy causes are licensed to spread their vitriol without a firm opposition. This has led to the acquiescence of some policymakers towards female genital mutilation and similar practices (which have no basis in classical religion). However, surely we have a duty to uphold the rights of human beings, even if this means that we annoy some extremists?
Whether these Salafist extremists are burning ancient libraries in Mali, shooting female students in Afghanistan or bombing mosques in Iraq, these extremists must be faced with a clear and united opposition. The resistance must oppose their attempts to enslave humanity in the same way that a century ago, a unified front of countries and people opposed and defeated fascism and communism.
Ultimately, we all require a little more moral certainty and self-confidence. We must assert that every single human being is born with natural rights to freedom and dignity. We must clarify that everything is not simply a matter of subjective debate but that we can be confident enough to identify actions which are objectively right and objectively wrong. We must not be too embarrassed to assert the superiority of liberal democracy over brutal totalitarianism. Only then can we begin to eradicate the spreading cancer of extremist Salafism.
By Adam Memon, a WYA UK member studying Economics at University College London