Britain has to embrace and engage with “Islamists” if it really wants to resolve the issues of domestic terrorism and integration, writes Najm Al-Din.
To most Britons, the buzzword ‘Islamist’ conjures all kinds of unpleasantries. Hardly a week goes by without a grubby tabloid raising the spectre of a Talibanesque conquest of Britain or gratuitously satirising Muslims for reserving a family fun day at a theme park.
Last week, ex-Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg was charged with terrorism offences in Syria. While many were cynical of the government’s justification for his arrest, the Home Office argued that Moazzam was not a law-abiding Muslim on a peaceful Syrian field trip. Rather, he was conspiring with the “Islamist” kind, training terrorists overseas and by default a national security threat on return.
So with all the hoopla surrounding Islamism, what does the word exactly mean? And how much do the British public know about UK-based Islamists?
As far as explanations go, defining Islamism is like trudging through quicksand. For a label that describes personalities as diverse as “Salafi” Al Qaeda Chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri to “progressive” Oxford University Professor Tariq Ramadan, it can denote multiple meanings.
To spare us the arduous task of describing every trifling taxonomy, in most academic prefaces and as per the understanding of counter-terrorism watchdogs, it by and large refers to a politicised Islam, where Muslims view their faith not only as a set of rituals, but as a comprehensive blueprint for a socio-economic order.
In this sense and historically speaking, it is not a religious accretion. The Ummayad, Abbasid and Ottoman empires were all periods in which Muslims derived inspiration from Islam’s legal traditions to enforce a just government, robust economy and effective judiciary.
To suggest such an ideology is unorthodox or instrumental in the emergence of a radical mindset could not be further from the truth. I myself am abuzz at the prospect of political Islam taking root in the wake of the Arab Spring and just in case the authorities were wondering, no, I don’t pass every waking hour weighing up the pros and cons of laying siege to western capitals. In fact, I bet my bottom dollar that the rank and file among lackey organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) are swarming with members who romanticise about reviving Islam’s Golden Age. Does that increase their propensity to seek violent retribution on British shores? Absolutely not.
Culture of fear and suspicion
Owing much to the Home Secretary’s fear-mongering, Islamists have been wilfully misrepresented to the British public. Take for instance Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the UK’s largest Islamist organisation. A permanent fixture in British Muslim politics since the early 90s, their aim is to restore the political unity of Muslim lands under a Caliphate and their party binds members to peaceful and intellectual activism. Despite their leadership reiterating to a public fraught with anxiety that the UK is not a launching pad for Shariah law, Theresa May is eager to have them proscribed on a second-tier banning order before they seduce Muslims with their “Jihadist” rhetoric.
In Whitehall’s estimation, demanding a caliphate in the Muslim world equates to militating against the host community and converting British localities into incubators of infidel-hating activism. As incredulous as it sounds, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the twisted logic tempting Whitehall to ban the organisation.
With the government’s misguided crusade on Islamism continuing apace, it’s time we dispel the manufactured fear. Instead of pigeonholing politicised Muslims through the War on Terror narrative, the government and public would be better off acknowledging the civilised face of British Islamists.
As part of their non-violent work for decades, HT and likeminded activists have sought the cooperation of non-Muslims for various initiatives, ranging from community projects to all kinds of social campaigns and political engagement. Last weekend’s demonstration outside the Home Office regarding Moazzam Begg was just one example of building the very bridges which Islamists are either accused of stifling or plotting to bomb from some remote breeding ground.
Speaking from the podium was Taji Mustafa, HT’s media representative, once falsely accused by The Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan for bankrolling a chain of extremist schools at the taxpayer’s expense. Joining him was Hamza Tzortis, a senior researcher at iERA, dubiously alleged by sections of the press for radicalising students on university campuses. Bringing proceedings to an end was the founder of MRDF, Dr Haytham al-Haddad, the Daily Mail’s favourite whipping boy and recently on the sharp end of Richard Littlejohn’s invidious gob.
But these were not Jolly Jihadi boys propagandising for Al Qaeda. Ask Victoria Brittain who was invited to speak – whether she felt she was sharing a platform with hate-spewing Islamofascists. The answer would be a resounding no. She was privileged to speak alongside those they deemed just as committed to the preservation of human rights and justice.
Having researched the political ambitions of British Islamists, the view that they are bent on bombing Britain into submission or that their children be taken into state care ála the Mayor of London’s suggestion is beyond outrageous. Of those I have known in a professional and personal capacity, their religious persuasions can in no shape, way or form be viewed as a conveyor belt for terrorists.
Whether on campus or at a local community level, Islamists of all stripes have always struck me as willing to build consensus on pressing social and economic issues which concern ordinary Britons, and not the type to raise alarm bells at Scotland Yard. From campaigning against gun crime and prostitution to organising thoughtful and stimulating discussions on topics as diverse as faith, gender and science, non-Muslims have featured considerably at their events, either as spectators or panellists.
In the hope of sharing expertise and reaching common goals, groups like HT, iERA and MRDF view it as a religious obligation to reach out to the wider spectrum of society, fostering healthy mutual relations in the process.
Despite their civic engagement and the positive appraisals of Islamists by many non-Muslims, they still evoke a niggling sense of suspicion and insecurity. The fight against terrorism has limited our inquiries and perceptions of Islamism to state-centric ones, leading to an obsession with policing, security and intelligence.
In its vociferous pursuit of the War on Terror abroad and at home, the government has blurred the boundaries between Islamism and violence and needs to calibrate the response towards politicised Muslims. Granting Islamists more freedom of activity may unravel the crucial role they play in filling the void left by the inward-looking politics of mosque committees and Imams who fail to represent their communities at a grass roots level.
The opportunity is ripe for ministers to endorse the work of Islamists by letting them function as a catalyst for mobilisation, so they may articulate Muslim grievances with British foreign policy while exploring dilemmas such as dual identities and conflicting allegiances. Doing so wouldn’t be pandering to extremists nor paving the way for others to be sucked into a terrorist enclave. Instead, it may help the Muslim community wrest back the monopoly on dissent which some demagogues have arrogated to themselves.
Instead of being duped into ready-packaged answers, it’s time the British public interrogate the government’s presentation of Islamism. There’s a political space to be exploited here, and we only ignore it at our peril.