ANALYSIS: The Rise of “Woke” Islamism in the West


by Lorenzo Vidino

Wokeism, in its various manifestations, arguably constitutes a perfect political vessel for Islamists.

Islamism in the West has an almost 70-year history, dating back to when the first members of the Muslim Brotherhood, either students pursuing graduate studies in Western universities or senior leaders fleeing persecution in their home countries, arrived in Europe and North America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since then, activists linked to various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and other movements from the Indian sub-continent (Jemaat-e-Islami) and Turkey (Millî Görüş) that belong to the broad family of political Islam have established a stable presence in the West. These movements have since evolved ideologically and organizationally, and, despite their still relatively small size, they have become disproportionally influential forces in the West’s heterogeneous Muslim communities.

Some aspects of this presence have not changed substantially over time. For example, the inner workings of many Western Islamist networks, such as the scrupulous selection process, the internal secrecy and the hierarchical structure, are virtually identical to those of the early days, in substance replicating those of the mother structures in Muslim-majority societies. Yet, over the years, Western-based members of the characteristically flexible and pragmatic Islamist movement came to understand that several aspects of their political matrix had to be adapted.

Firstly, they understood that the goals the movement harbored for Muslim majority societies—Islamization of the entire society and installation of an Islamic government ruling based on sharia—could not realistically be achieved in the West, where Muslims constitute just a small minority. Western Islamists went on to see disseminating their politico-religious worldview inside Western Muslim communities and influencing Western policies and debates on pertinent issues as two more suitable goals.

Moreover, with time, Western Islamists understood that not only their goals but also their tactics needed to be adapted. Some of the narratives, frames and language that constitute the traditional repertoire of Islamism have remained unmutated. This has been particularly true among the tightly knit older members of the movement, and as the movement has sought to engage with the wider but still relatively small audience of conservative sympathizers in Western Muslim communities. But, at the same time, Western Islamists have substantially altered how they present themselves to two of its core audiences: Western Muslim communities (the majority of which have little knowledge about or interest in Islamism) and Western establishments (broadly intended to include governmental actors, media, and civil society).

Making traction with these two constituencies has been crucially important to Western Islamists since they realized, by the early 1980s, that their presence in the West was not temporary and that they could use it not just as a refuge from Middle Eastern regimes but to achieve a new and broad set of goals. The recently established and fast-growing Muslim communities of the West came to be seen as an ideally receptive audience for the Islamists’ religious and socio-political worldview, and Yussuf al-Qaradawi, the putative spiritual leader of the global Islamist movement, posited “the duty of the Islamic Movement [is] not to leave these [Western] expatriates to be swept by the whirlpool of the materialistic trend that prevails in the West.” As for influencing Western establishments, over the last thirty years Islamists have consistently sought to present themselves as legitimate representatives of local Muslim communities, reliable and moderate interlocutors for governments, media and society at-large.

In order to win over these constituencies, Western Islamists soon understood the need to tailor their messaging and frames. This process of language adaptation started decades ago but has deepened and accelerated over the last 10-15 years, as a new generation of young activists has come to the fore. Unlike the first generation of Islamists who arrived from the Middle East, this new cadre is more attuned to Western cultural sensitivities by virtue of being born in the West and having mostly been educated in social sciences, humanities and communications (while the educational background of most activists of the first generation heavily tended to be in disciplines such as engineering and medicine).

Many from this new generation of Islamist activists retain only tenuous formal links to established Islamist structures. They might have grown up with Islamist influences—in some cases literally, as some of them are the children of Islamist pioneers in the West—such as being active in Islamist youth groups or giving frequent lectures at mosques and events linked to the network. But they have often created their own ways of amplifying their voices, from establishing new organizations and a multi-platform online presence. Their degrees of connectivity with traditional Islamist organizations varies but is at times quite limited, at least formally.

Moreover, most of these young Islamist actors rarely use Islamist references and if they do so, it tends to be done in somewhat veiled terms. Instead, they speak the language of discrimination, anti-racism, internalized oppression, intersectionality and post-colonial theory. Several of the causes they embrace, such as the environment or lowering university fees, have nothing to do with Islamism. Others can be seen as overlapping with Islamism’s traditional grievances but are framed in typically progressive terms and with no apparent Islamist undertone. For example, Western Islamists’ recent adherence to calls to “de-colonize” school curricula fit the ideology’s inherent anti-colonial nature but are formulated adopting the phrasing commonly used in progressive circles.

These approaches have allowed the new generation of Western Islamists to make inroads in political, media and civil society circles in ways their predecessors could only hope. By largely shedding Islamist tropes and adopting progressive frames and causes, young Western Islamists have forged strong alliances in mainstream society and have come to be widely accepted in Western establishment circles. Many of them have therefore come to run as candidates in political parties, pen op-eds for and appear in debates on mainstream media; forge alliances with a broad array of progressive organizations and thought leaders; receive grants from respected foundations and governmental agencies.

In substance, long gone are the days in which Western Islamists publicly burned books, as during the Rushdie Affair in 1988. Many of today’s Islamists use frames, embrace causes and make alliances that puzzle not only long-time observers of the movement but also the first generation of pioneers. Some, particularly in Europe, have begun to refer to this trend as “woke Islamism”. The term is contested and can be seen as somewhat disparaging. But it has become relatively common among both observers and old-timers of the Islamist scene in the West, aptly describing a trend that has substantially accelerated over the last couple of years.

This article seeks to analyze some of the key dynamics behind woke Islamism in the West, from its origins to its many manifestations. Doing so is a complex endeavor, as the trend changes from country to country and is relatively new, making its developments and implications impossible to fully assess. Despite these challenges, the article aims to shed some light on a phenomenon that is substantially changing the face of Islamism in the West and that should therefore be understood by academics and policymakers alike.

Islamism and Ultra-Progressive Politics

The relationship between the Left and Islamism—both terms, to be sure, that include an incredibly diverse array of political views and currents—is a complex one. Even by limiting our analysis to the West, it is impossible to even remotely capture its many facets, a task that is anyway beyond the scope of this essay. Yet it is fair to say that one of the most prominent trends that have characterized the relationship between at least some of the most progressive and at times radical elements of the Left and Islamism is that of sympathy and desire to cooperate.

Many voices on the Left, including in its more progressive quarters, take a markedly different approach, highlighting the many issues on which the two movements sharply differ and arguing against any favorable view of Islamism. But a fascination with Islamism has gripped substantial parts of the Western Left since the 1950s. Islamism’s strong anti-colonial views, rejection of what it perceives as Western-imposed social and economic constructs, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, and its ability to mobilize masses have garnered admiration in broad sections of the Western Left.

This sympathy and perceived commonality of enemies have led many to postulate an alliance with Islamists. The view has been held, whether openly or not, by many in the Western Left, from mainstream voices to, at times, fringe, violent Leftist groups. Many of these theorizations have found little to no concretization. But, over the last twenty years, several operationalizations of the potential alliance (at times dubbed as red-green) have happened in more mainstream quarters of the Left in various Western countries. Many see a quintessential example of this dynamic in the alliance that emerged in the UK in the early 2000s around the Stop the War Coalition (STWC).

Originally a partnership of various organizations led by the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain, in the run up to the 2003 Iraq war STWC reached out to the Muslim Association of Britain, an organization founded and headed by prominent UK-based Muslim Brotherhood activists such as Kamal Helbawy, Azzam Tamimi and Anas al-Tikriti. Impressed by the turnout an anti-Israel protest MAB had organized in central London in April 2002, STWC leaders asked MAB to join the coalition. It should be noted that MAB’s anti-Israel protest had received widespread criticism for the presence of emblems of Hamas and Hezbollah and the burning of Israeli and American flags.

The offer generated intense internal debate, as MAB leaders weighed the benefits of extending their message on a much larger level and the potential costs that an alliance with Marxists, atheists and homosexuals could have caused them, particularly among the most conservative segments of the Muslim community. In the end, MAB accepted to enter in a form of a partnership on an equal basis, cooperating closely but remaining an autonomous bloc with its own agenda. It also imposed as necessary conditions for its participation the presence of halal food, faith-sensitive accommodations and gender-segregated meetings and demonstrations. STWC leaders, despite the protests of some of their members, reportedly agreed to all the conditions.

The cooperation between MAB and STWC was quite successful, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators participated to their events. It also led to the formation of a political party, RESPECT/The Unity Coalition, which achieved minor successes at the polls. Its candidates included far Left leaders like “Old Labour” MP George Galloway and Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party leader Lindsey German, MAB members like Anas al Tikriti, and other Muslim activists like Salma Yaqoob and Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist who had converted to Islam after being held in captivity by the Taliban.

Somewhat similar forms of cooperation have taken place in other Western countries over the last twenty years. But over the last decade some of the more progressive quarters of the West’s Left have adopted issues, frames and a language that are significantly different from those it traditionally used. Identity politics, intersectionality, concerns over systemic injustices and prejudices have become the predominant issues among leftist activists, particularly of the younger generation. The term “woke,” despite being contested by some for having become somewhat derogatory of the trend, is frequently used to describe this approach to political activism.

Wokeism, in its various manifestations, arguably constitutes a perfect political vessel for Islamists. The tendency to blame “whiteness” and the white man’s allegedly domineering tendency for most of the world’s woes is, for example, a perfect fit for an ideology like Islamism that was born in the first half of the 20th century in opposition to colonialism and that has since blamed a large part of the Muslim world’s problems on the West. By the same token, strong forms of identity politics perfectly match with the long-standing claim of Western Islamists that Western Muslim communities should be allowed to have their own separate social, educational and legal structures. If in his writings in the 1990s Yussuf al-Qaradawi urged Western Islamists “have your small society within the larger society, try to have your own ‘Muslim ghetto,” today’s confrontational identity politics offer Islamists arguments to make the case that Muslims need “safe spaces” to be shielded from “structural racism” and preserve their identity.

Moreover, wokeism provides Western Islamists with a strong, multipurpose rhetorical weapon: Islamophobia. To be sure, anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination are, sadly, fairly widespread problematics, manifesting themselves throughout the West both in subtle ways and, occasionally, dramatically violent actions. But Islamists have a tendency to exaggerate and instrumentalize the issue to serve their own various, overlapping purposes.

With Muslim communities, Western Islamists seek to use the Islamophobia card to foster a strong Islamic identity and carve out a position of leadership for themselves. Western Islamists have long understood that no other factor has a greater impact on the formation of a collective identity than the existence or the perception of an outside force threatening the community.

They have also shown an unparalleled cunningness in becoming the main advocates of causes that outraged the majority of Muslims, even those who did not share Islamist leanings. From the Rushdie Affair to the Danish cartoons, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to controversies over the veil in various European countries, Western Islamists have utilized their superior resources and mobilization skills to lead protests against events that they portrayed as part of a pattern of Western aggression against Muslims and Islam.

Fostering the idea that Muslims are under siege, discriminated and victimized, Western Islamists have portrayed themselves as the only voices willing and capable to stand up for the community. By framing them to suit their needs, they have exploited global political crises, undeniable forms of discrimination that have affected Western Muslims, and cultural tensions that have routinely appeared in most Western countries over the last twenty years. A “community under siege,” to use an expression often employed in Brotherhood circles after 9/11, tends to close ranks, reinforce its communal identity, and rely on aggressive and capable leaders who can defend it. Having nurtured this culture of victimhood, Western Islamists, as consummated identity entrepreneurs, have been consistent in tapping into the grievances of Western Muslims and presenting themselves as the only force able to “act as the first line of defence for Islam and Muslims all over the world.”

Externally, Islamophobia serves two main purposes. The first is to create a broad range of alliances with other communities that face discriminations and organizations that fight it. Western Islamists have increasingly framed Islamophobia as part of the structural injustices that, according to them, plague Western societies and, on that basis, have formed alliances with the most disparate organizations fighting discrimination. This includes entities from groups towards which the Islamist movement has historically shown animosity, such as Jewish or LBGTQ organizations. These alliances allow Islamists to gain greater access to mainstream society and counter the accusations of intolerance to which they have themselves been historically subjected.

Finally, Western Islamists utilize Islamophobia as a label for any criticism not just of Islam and Muslims but also of themselves. Any scrutiny of Islamist ideology and actors can be easily labelled as racist, an attempt by people with privilege to silence marginalized voices of color. This charge is made also against critics of Islamism with a Muslim background, as they too are not rarely accused of being Islamophobes.

Islamist Networks Go Woke

As wokeism has become gradually mainstream in Western societies over the last decade, Western Islamists have also increasingly embraced it. They have increasingly framed several of their “historical” issues, such as Palestine or anti-Muslim discrimination, through progressive frames that at times accompany but, in most cases, replace, at least externally, Islamist ones. And they also adopted new issues, such as the anti-capitalist agenda to tackle climate change or even gender equality, which have traditionally been alien, if not contrary to, Islamist discourse.

This new approach begs the question over its sincerity. A more skeptical observer could argue that it is purely façade, that Islamists use the language of the progressive Left simply to be seen as moderate, shed the bad image that tarnishes the Islamist milieus they come from, and be accepted in mainstream circles. But, fear the critics, Islamists have not abandoned their views and have just cleverly adopted wokeism as a political tool to better advance their goals, which in reality have little to do with progressive causes.

A different viewpoint is that the new cadres of activists that got their start in Western Islamist milieus are Western-born, have studied at Western universities (and, unlike the pioneers of the movement, not in technical faculties but mostly in humanities), and have frequently participated in the activities of non-Islamist entities. This, taken together, means young Islamists have been deeply exposed to wokeism and may have genuinely embraced at least some elements of its worldview and framing. In substance, it is not unreasonable that young Western Islamists generally embrace various aspects of wokeism, often juxtaposing and reconciling it with various elements of the Islamist worldview they also absorbed during their activism career.

It is impossible to assess which of the two opposing positions is correct, and obviously each case is different and should be looked at individually. In several instances a middle position, one that considers that Western Islamists are simultaneously embracing progressive causes and frames out of genuine conviction and more cynically adopting them to advance their cause without fully believing in them, is likely to be the most appropriate.

What seems clear though in this relatively new and fast-developing trend is the fact that, while individual activists might embrace wokeism independently, organizations and networks with clear and long-standing Islamist connections have been playing an important role in furthering this process. In substance, in what appears a fairly concerted effort, established Islamist groups or structures have been connecting, platforming and financially supporting activists with or without an Islamist background that adopt positions steeped in wokeism which advance the Islamist movement’s goals. In substance, while the adoption of wokeism might be spontaneous, there is ample evidence that Islamist structures seek to support it.

Examples of this dynamic abound. Among the most telling is that of Al Jazeera+ (better known as AJ+), which tellingly describes itself as “a unique, global digital news and storytelling brand dedicated to human rights and equality, holding power to account, and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities seeking to make their stories seen and heard” and “a social justice lens on a world struggling for change.” Launched in 2014, AJ+ is “the trailblazing brainchild of the young-and-restless creative minds of Al Jazeera’s Incubation and Innovation Unit, who earlier than most saw the emerging opportunity to reach a millennial audience with a video news product delivered via social media platforms.” As its own website openly states AJ+ “is part of the Al Jazeera Media Network, an editorially independent entity funded by the government of Qatar as an investment in promoting ‘the public good’ — in the way that the British taxpayer funds the BBC.”

Al Jazeera Arabic, the mother entity of the group, is well known for being heavily staffed with members and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood and for regularly broadcasting Islamist viewpoints, a fact that has led the channel to be banned in several Arab countries and suffer severe criticism in the West. AJ+, which has a large social media presence in four languages (English, Spanish, Arabic and French), targets a very different audience from the mother channel and adopts a radically different approach. AJ+, in fact, regularly features stories that focus on issues central to the progressive movement and framed in quintessentially woke fashion.

Most of AJ+’s stories have little or nothing to do with Islamist-related issues, but consistently accuse Western societies of a ubiquitous pattern of injustice and discrimination against a variety of victim groups, from ethnic and religious minorities to the LBGTQ community. Supplementing these stories, which constitute the backbone of AJ+’s editorial line, are stories that do cover topics closer to the traditional interests of Islamists, such as various Middle Eastern conflicts or anti-Muslim sentiments in the West. The insertion of the latter topics in the broader narrative and the use of similar language to discuss all of them clearly aim at making Islamist points of view acceptable to the AJ+’s audience, a large portion of which is composed of millennials and younger individuals without a Muslim background.

As an example, AJ+ English regularly demonizes the U.S. government for a variety of past and current sins with stories such as The Government Plot To Erase Native Languages; The Real Story of the Alamo: forget what you learned in school; Capitalism is a disease; and Raoul Peck’s Journey Into The Heart of Whiteness. These stories are accompanied by others such as Fleeing to the Heart of the Empire, which compares the experiences of Vietnamese and Afghan refugees to America (“the heart of the empire”). “Once again,” reads the article, “those subject to America’s imperialist adventures are banging on the door, seeking to escape the conflagration as troops pull out. And once again, they are met with widespread indifference.” Other stories include Resistance and the ‘War On Terror’ in East Africa; Palestinians Are Striking to Fight Apartheid;) or On COVID, India and privilege.

A similar dynamic is visible for the French language version of AJ+. French AJ+ has launched or actively promoted a series of campaigns to denounce various incidents, many of them steeped in pop culture close to millennials and their juniors, it considered racist with quintessentially woke frames. They include promoting the hashtag #BlackHogwarts to point out that people of color are severely underrepresented in the Harry Potter series; denouncing both Miley Cyrus’ twerk and Kylie Jenner’s hairstyle as cultural appropriation; and criticizing the French football federation for featuring a white player, Antoine Griezmann, as its main testimonial of its anti-racism campaign.

Accompanying these messages, which serve no Islamist goal if not that of painting Western countries as irremediably racist and potentially weakening young people’s belief in them, French AJ+ puts out messages that are more in line with traditional Islamist viewpoints. The channel, for example, has actively championed the campaign to support Tariq Ramadan after the Brotherhood-linked scholar was accused by French authorities of sexual violence against various women. And over the last couple of years, once the government of Emmanuel Macron began adopting increasingly confrontational positions towards Islamism, French AJ+ stepped up its anti-France rhetoric. An article, for example, compares France to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, arguing that the European country’s anti-hijab laws are identical to those of countries that dictate what women should wear.

If AJ+ is a glossy, multimedia platform targeting the TikTok generation with short, simple but professionally produced messages, other entities with a clear Islamist background seek to disseminate a more academic version of Islamist wokeism. A perfect example of this dynamic is the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), an “independent, nonprofit, research and public policy institution based in Istanbul, Turkey, and affiliated with Istanbul Zaim University.” Initially a small entity established in 2010, Zaim University has been closely affiliated with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It has received substantial government funding and therefore experienced remarkable growth, reaching 10,000 students in just a few years.

CIGA was established at Zaim by prominent Palestinian scholar-cum-activist Sami al-Arian. Al-Arian is a very well-known name in Islamist circles and was famously the subject of a high-profile terrorism case in the US. He was arrested in February 2003 in Florida on a 17-count indictment. He eventually plead guilty to one charge, being sentenced to 57 months in prison for conspiring to violate a federal law that prohibits making or receiving contributions of funds, goods or services to, or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a Specially Designated Terrorist. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “in his guilty plea, al-Arian admitted that, during the period of the late 1980’s and early to mid-1990’s, he and several of his co-conspirators were associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He further admitted that he performed various services for the PIJ in 1995 and thereafter, knowing that the PIJ had been designated as a Specially Designated Terrorist and that the PIJ engaged in horrific and deadly acts of violence.”

Upon release, al-Arian received political asylum in Turkey, where he opened CIGA. Under al-Arian’s leadership, CIGA has established itself as a major hub of Islamophobia studies. Since 2018, CIGA holds a large annual conference on Islamophobia, which brings together dozens among the most prominent academics and activists engaged in researching and challenging Islamophobia. An analysis of invitees, sponsors and topics of CIGA’s conferences clearly show a mix between traditional Islamism and ultra-progressivism, the perfect Islamist wokeism combination.

CIGA’s 2021 conference, which due the COVID-19 pandemic was held online, clearly showcased these features. The event was co-sponsored, among others, by Qatar’s Ahmed bin Khalifa University and by Cage, a highly controversial UK-based organization created in the early 2000s to advocate for the release of Guantanamo Bay detainees that has since embraced various Islamist causes. Speakers included individuals with clear Islamist connections such as Yasin Aktai, chief adviser for the president of Turkey’s AK Party; Chafika Attalai, a leading member of Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an organization dissolved by the French government in the wake of the assassination of French school teacher Samuel Paty; and Cage’s Moazzam Begg, himself a former Guantanamo detainee. At the same time, many of the other speakers did not have any Islamist background, but were mostly Western-based academics, activists, defense lawyers in terrorism cases, and in general individuals in various capacities engaged in issues CIGA considered Islamophobia-related.

Somewhat embodying CIGA’s transnational academic Islamist wokeism is a young scholar from Austria, Farid Hafez. Hafez is a fellow at CIGA and was present at all three editions of CIGA’s Islamophobia conference. He is also a fellow at Bridge Initiative, “a multi-year research project on Islamophobia housed within” Georgetown University’s Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). According to Georgetown’s website, the ACMCU “was established in 1993 with the mission of building stronger bridges of cooperation between Muslims and Christians, and enhancing the West’s understanding of the Islamic world. In December 2005, Georgetown received a $20 million dollar gift from His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia to support and expand the center.”

The center is run by two prominent Islamic studies scholars with well-known Islamist sympathies, John Esposito and Jonathan C. Brown. Tellingly, both scholars have close ties to Sami al-Arian, CIGA’s founder. Esposito publicly described al-Arian as “a good friend” and submitted a letter to the judge of his U.S. terrorism trial praising him as “an extraordinarily bright, articulate scholar and intellectual-activist, a man of conscience with a strong commitment to peace and social justice.” Brown is married to Leila al-Arian, Sami al-Arian’s daughter and, incidentally, a producer for Al-Jazeera. Hafez’s position at both centers is therefore unsurprising.

Hafez is a rising star of Islamophobia studies, giving talks at institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and cooperating with many other scholars of the circle. His approach to the subject very much adopts progressive frames to discuss the issue of Islamophobia. His latest book, for example, is revealingly titled The ‘Other’ Austria: Life in Austria beyond white male heteronormative German Catholic dominance.

But Hafez is also a very controversial figure with Islamist connections. In November 2020, for instance, Hafez was detained as part of Operation Luxor, the largest counterterrorism operation ever conducted in Austria. According to Austrian authorities, the individuals investigated were part of a Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas support network in the Central European country. Hafez has been vocal in proclaiming his innocence and arguing that the case is baseless and politically motivated. Some of his defenses caused controversy, like when his article Xinjiang and Kristallnacht in Austria: Freedom of Religion under Threat compared the actions of the Austrian government in Operation Luxor to the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews and the Chinese government’s brutal treatment of the Uighurs. The article drew severe criticism from Jewish organizations in both Austria and the United States. He has nonetheless become a cause célèbre in Islamist and progressive circles, with petitions and online fundraising efforts created to support him.

Academically, Hafez has gained international attention for his role as co-editor of the annual European Islamophobia Report (EIR). Launched in 2015, the EIR is an edited volume in which contributors outline alleged incidents and trends of anti-Muslim discrimination in various European countries. Tellingly, the front cover of EIR’s latest edition (2021), a more than 900-page book analyzing 31 countries, features French President Emmanuel Macron on the cover, a clear indication that EIR’s targets are not just those individuals and actors that engage in clear-cut anti-Muslim hatred but also mainstream personalities that challenge Islamism.

EIR has some strong links to Turkey, a country whose AKP regime in recent years has consistently accused Europe of pervasive Islamophobia. The report’s co-editor is Enes Bayrakli, who has served as SETA’s director of European studies and Brussels office coordinator. Formally independent, SETA is virtually unanimously seen as a propaganda arm of the AKP. The founder of SETA is Ibrahim Kalin, President Erdogan’s spokesperson, and recently the co-author of a book with Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative director John Esposito. Kalin is also a fellow at Georgetown’s ACMCU, Bridge’s parent institution.

For several years EIR was published by SETA and funded by the European Union as part of the EU-Turkey Civil Society Dialogue. This created controversies and various European governments and European MPs publicly stated their views opposing the idea of European public funds paying for an Islamophobia report published by an AKP-linked think tank. EIR’s 2020 edition was no longer published by SETA but by the Vienna-based Leopold Weiss Institute. The institute has no website and is not known to organize any activity, but a search of Austrian databases shows that its director is Farid Hafez.

Turkey’s role in previous editions of EIR was evident, and it is particularly interesting to note how high-ranking Turkish politicians attended and keynoted EIR launch events. EIR’s findings were also often used by Turkish politicians to support their political positions. For example, at the launch of the 2018 edition of the EIR, Faruk Kaymakci, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister and director for EU affairs, stated that the rise of far right movements and growing Islamophobia were the main challenges to the European Union and argued that Turkey joining the EU could be the “antidote” to these issues. “With Turkey’s membership, the EU can change its image,” he stated, “EU institutions can reach the Muslim world; otherwise the EU will be seen as an imperialist Christian club.”

Reactions and Possible Developments

As said, irrespective of whether the adoption of woke issues and frames on the part of Western Islamists is genuine or tactical, it has allowed many of its activists to be accepted in ultra-progressive milieus in ways pioneers of the movement in the West could not. From anti-racism structures to mainstream media, from governmental agencies funding anti-discrimination and diversity work to progressive intellectual circles and churches, woke Islamists have made valuable alliances which grant them greater visibility and access. Moreover, their very proximity to these environments partially shields them from the critics’ accusations of being Islamists.

At the same time, over the last few years the phenomenon of woke Islamism has received increased scrutiny and criticism. This is particularly true in France and, more broadly, the French-speaking world, where concerns over Islamism and its impact on society have arguably been more heightened than in any other part of the West. Moreover, in France concerns over the spread of wokeism in general, which is largely seen as a divisive American cultural import, have been widespread and President Macron has openly declared he is “against woke culture.”

In this environment it is not surprising that discussions over the contested term Islamo-gauchisme (Islamo-Leftism) take place at the highest levels of French government and culture, with France’s higher education minister Frédérique Vidal stating that “Islamo-gauchism is eating away at our society as a whole.” Le Figaro’s piece described how FEMYSO, a Brussels-based student and youth organization founded by top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West and historically run by scions of prominent Brotherhood leaders and heads of Brotherhood-linked student groups throughout Europe, received large funding from the European Union to conduct anti-Islamophobia and pro-hijab campaigns. FEMYSO framed many of its slogans in typical woke Islamist fashion. For example, it described one its projects, MEET, as an “EU-funded comprehensive programme aimed at tackling gendered Islamophobia,” which it described as the “intersectional discrimination that Muslim women and girls suffer based mainly on grounds of ethnicity, religion and gender.”

But sharp criticism of woke Islamism has come also from non-governmental voices, many of them of Muslim background. Naëm Bestandji, a French-Tunisian author, has argued that Islamism is a quintessentially far-right ideology but that the movement has understood that working with the progressive Left is its most promising tactic and that “infiltrating anti-racist circles is therefore essential.” “For that,” he argues, “you have to transform a religion into a ‘race.’ Any criticism of their ideology, presented as just Islam, would therefore be an attack on individuals. It is the creation of a blasphemy specific to Islam by the diversion of the fight against racism. This is the art of the term ‘Islamophobia.’ The religious fight and the fight against racism are then intertwined. The second serves as a pretext for the advance of the first. It’s a masterstroke.”

An alternative way of looking at this is to interpret it not as a calculated ploy but as a genuine phenomenon that can be described as the Westernization of Islamism. It can be argued that we are witnessing a generational process that leads new, Western-based Islamist actors to shed some aspects of traditional Islamism and honestly embrace aspects of other ideologies. That could potentially further lead to a dilution and an atomization of Islamism, as various activists could embrace different ideological strands and embark on different pathways.

Of course, these are purely hypothetical theories and scenarios which are difficult to prove and they assume the trend will continue and that it will be adopted by the mainstream of Islamist movements in the West. But irrespective of whether it is tactically or genuinely embraced, Islamist wokeism has become a concern for many. Apprehension about the implication of the dynamic have been well framed by Belgium-based activist Dyab Abou Jahjah. Abou Jahjah has a background that makes his views particularly interesting. Born in Lebanon in 1971, he fought with Shia militias before moving to Belgium in 1991. There, he founded the Arab European League, an activist group that became particularly controversial in the years immediately following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, as Abou Jahjah expressed veiled support for the attack and other anti-Western views, earning him the nickname of Belgium’s “public enemy number 1.” He has since left activism and works as a teacher, but he has remained a keen observer of Belgium’s Islamist and Muslim scenes.

“This new woke Islamism,” writes Abou Jahjah on his blog, “along with the rest of the extreme progressive movement (often called ‘woke’), dreams of an archipelago of ‘Safe spaces’ that interact in justice and equity. It is in this colorful and beautiful utopian painting of society that the toxic nature of European Islamism resides today. Along with the other woke trends, the woke neo-Islamists deconstruct ‘universalism’ in favor of the ‘intersectionality’ of exceptions. Thus, one day, all exceptions may eventually become the rule.” 

“The fact that a large proportion of Islamists now embrace ultra-progressive politics is better than that they embrace jihadist fascism,” he adds. “Nevertheless, the attack on modernity and most of its values, including secularism, is carried out in a more refined and efficient manner and within a broad alliance with serious potential to mobilize. This strategy is not aimed at creating an Islamic state, but it can lead to a fragmentation of society along identity lines so that everyone can ‘be themselves’.” “When exceptionalism,” he concludes, “not universalism, becomes the cornerstone of citizenship, who will then dare to challenge calls for separate tribunals and even separate laws?”

It is difficult to say whether Abou Jahjah’s prediction of the evolution of woke Islamism is correct. What is clear, as this article has aimed to summarily describe, is that there is a growing trend within Western Islamist circles to adopt ultra-progressive/woke issues and language and to forge alliances with entities in that milieu. The questions over this relatively new development are plentiful, from whether it is authentic or tactical; whether it could determine splits within Islamist ranks, as some of the most conservative cross-sections might be uncomfortable with embracing various ultra-progressive causes; and whether some progressive circles will not embrace woke Islamists. These dynamics might play out in different ways in different circumstances and different countries. But it is clear that the trend of woke Islamism is one that deserves being followed.

Article first published on Hudson Institute. Refer to the original article for references.

Lorenzo Vidino is the Director of the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University.

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