Andreas Banoutsos
(RIEAS Analyst)


In our days most academics, terrorism experts and journalists are speaking about the threat that Islamist terrorism poses to the West and fail to understand that terrorism is just one of the means that Islamists are using in order to subvert Western liberal democracies. There are also other means that Islamists are using in their struggle to undermine the cultural pillars of Western societies and establish their Caliphate from within. Islamist funds and donations to educational and cultural institutions in the West is for example another powerful mean which enables them to achieve their goal. In other words we must refer to the problem by using the term “Islamist subversion”.

The British Security Service (MI5) provides a definition of it (subversion) by reference to actions that are "intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means". The concept of subversion, therefore, focuses on hostility to democratic processes.

Is subversion in the 21st century still a threat to western liberal democracies?

According to MI5 ‘’ Since the late 1980’s, particularly following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Communism, the threat from subversion diminished and is now negligible. We do not currently investigate subversion!’’ But is the threat from subversion negligible? What about Islamist subversion?

Professor Anthony Glees, Director of the Buckingham University Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies and Chris Pope an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in their very interesting report: ‘‘When Students Turn to Terror” which was published by the Social Affairs Unit in 2005 argue that ‘‘There could also be said to be a conceptual distinction between subversion and terrorism.  In particular, it could be said that a terrorist does not need to belong to an organisation whereas a subversive must do so. However, it is perfectly sensible to argue that before becoming a terrorist (that is, someone who commits terrorist acts for political purposes), the individual in question will first have had to become a subversive (a member of an organisation or group which might consider the use of terror or violence, threaten it, but has refused actually to practise it).

When we write here of terrorists and extremists, we intend to imply that where such people subscribe to a set of political beliefs, they are more than simply violent criminals and represent a security threat of a different order because of the political beliefs they seek to advance.

The security community did accept that, since 1992 subversion was no longer a permitted target for security activity. However, they insisted, counter-terrorism work was essentially counter-subversion and since 9/11 the security community had been playing catch-up. Terrorism, they felt, was simply the new word for subversion.
We, however, would argue that there is a real difference between the two. A terrorist is someone who has already crossed the tipping point into action or a readiness for action. Subversion has to do with preparing the ground to allow the tipping point to be reached. It is subversion which primes an individual, creating the preconditions for terrorism or extremism.

Terrorism is, indeed, not another term for subversion which is properly defined – by MI5 – as “action intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means”. A subversive may not always be a terrorist, but a terrorist, where the purpose of terror is political, is always a subversive. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to argue that it is easier and better all round to catch a subversive whilst that is still what they are, before he or she becomes a terrorist and proves it.

What we are concerned with here, then, is actual terrorism, where the threat of death or extreme violence is used to try to achieve aims which would either take very long to be achieved through parliamentary means or might never be achieved in a democratic system.’’

In my opinion Islamist terrorism is ‘subversive’ for western liberal democracies because the Islamist jihadist ideology in the long term desires   the destruction of the Western civilisation and its values. Professor Anthony Glees and Chris Pope underline that the problem of terror and subversion is primarily, but not simply, a criminal one. “It contains an important political element. However, it is not, in itself, about a religion or religious beliefs. It follows that Jihadists are more than simple criminals, they believe in something and political ideas are clearly important to them. It is true, nevertheless, that their religion also seems to matter to them. We still do not know where the borders between faith and politics lie. We cannot tell whether preachers who preach political violence are clerics – or actually politicians. However, whatever the answer should prove to be, political dialogue and a clear statement of the political tenets of liberal democracy should always be placed at the front of any attempts to divert young radicals from extremism and terror. However, it is clear that for some Muslims, including some of its foremost scholars, Islam is itself a revolutionary faith which supports the overthrow of western liberal democracy. ’’

I believe that the jihadist ideology in the 21st century represents a far greater threat for Western liberal democracies than the communist ideology represented in the 20th century.  The link between the two ideologies is that both are totalitarian and subversive.

According to Dr. Daniel Pipes Director of the Middle East Forum a US based think-tank: ‘‘Whom are we fighting? Two main culprits have emerged since Sept. 11: terrorism and Islam. The truth, more subtle, lies between the two--a terroristic version of Islam. Insisting on Islam as the enemy means a permanent clash of civilizations that cannot be won. Fingering terrorism or Islam, in short, neither explains the current problem nor offers a solution. Islam itself--the centuries-old faith--is not the issue but one extremist variant of it is. Militant Islam derives from Islam but is a misanthropic, misogynist, triumphalist, millenarian, anti-modern, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, terroristic, jihadistic and suicidal version of it.

Fortunately, it appeals to only about 10% to 15% of Muslims, meaning that a substantial majority would prefer a more moderate version. This implies a simple and effective strategy: weaken militant Islam around the world and strengthen the moderate alternatives to it. Fight it militarily, diplomatically, legally, intellectually and religiously. Fight it in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, in the United States--in fact, everywhere.

Moderate Muslims will be key allies in this fight. Yes, they are weak and intimidated these days, but they are crucial if the Muslim world is to leave its current bout of radicalism. Once the U.S. government helps them, they can emerge as a formidable force. Only by focusing on militant Islam can Americans both protect themselves from their most determined enemy and eventually defeat it.’’ (1)

Which other measures can we take in order to defeat Islamist subversion? Should we try to ban jihadist and terrorist groups? Does banning work?

According to Professor Anthony Glees and Chris Pope: ‘‘Our research shows there are simply no control mechanisms in place in universities to police a ban, other than the most rudimentary reactive ones. It is quite likely that within only a few months, any bans will be only as effective as ones such as banning the use of mobile phones in cars.’’ Francis Fukuyama one of the best known modern American thinkers argues that : ‘‘We have tended to see jihadist terrorism as something produced in dysfunctional parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or the Middle East, and exported to Western countries.

There is good reason for thinking, however, that a critical source of contemporary radical Islamism lies not in the Middle East, but in Western Europe. In addition to Mohamed Bouyeri the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the London bombers, the March 11 Madrid bombers and ringleaders of the September 11 attacks such as Mohamed Atta were radicalized in Europe. In the Netherlands, where upwards of 6% of the population is Muslim; there is plenty of radicalism despite the fact that Holland is both modern and democratic. And there exists no option for walling the Netherlands off from this problem.

It is in this context that someone like Osama bin Laden appears, offering young converts a universalistic, pure version of Islam that has been stripped of its local saints, customs and traditions. Radical Islamism tells them exactly who they are respected members of a global Muslim umma to which they can belong despite their lives in lands of unbelief. Religion is no longer supported, as in a true Muslim society, through conformity to a host of external social customs and observances; rather it is more a question of inward belief. If this is in fact an accurate description of an important source of radicalism, several conclusions follow. First, the challenge that Islamism represents is not a strange and unfamiliar one. Rapid transition to modernity has long spawned radicalization; we have seen the exact same forms of alienation among those young people who in earlier generations became anarchists, Bolsheviks, fascists or members of the Bader-Meinhof gang. The ideology changes but the underlying psychology does not.

Further, radical Islamism is as much a product of modernization and globalization as it is a religious phenomenon; it would not be nearly as intense if Muslims could not travel, surf the Web, or become otherwise disconnected from their culture. This means that "fixing" the Middle East by bringing modernization and democracy to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not solve the terrorism problem, but may in the short run make the problem worse. Democracy and modernization in the Muslim world are desirable for their own sake, but we will continue to have a big problem with terrorism in Europe regardless of what happens there.

The real challenge for democracy lies in Europe, where the problem is an internal one of integrating large numbers of angry young Muslims and doing so in a way that does not provoke an even angrier backlash from right-wing populists. Two things need to happen: First, countries like Holland and Britain need to reverse the counterproductive multi-culturalist policies that sheltered radicalism, and crack down on extremists. But second, they also need to reformulate their definitions of national identity to be more accepting of people from non-Western backgrounds.’’ (2)

In this fight against Islamist subversion all “weapons” are important. However we may suggest that in the 21st century strengthening the role of Intelligence and Security agencies is vital if liberal democracies are to remain strong and robust towards the threat of the subversive Islamist totalitarianism.

(1)Pipes D.(2002) Available from:
(2)Fukuyama F. (2005) Available from:

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