Brian Whitaker on Islamism

I’m generally an admirer of former Guardian Middle East editor Brian Whitaker – he recently wrote an effective demolition of the government’s stupid decision to bar Ibrahim Moussawi from entering the UK, and anyone who is prepared to have a go at MEMRI and Yigal Carmon is OK by me. But Whitaker’s latest post at Comment is Free (“Should faith override the will of the people?“) is an ill-informed piece that repeats and reinforces misleading cliches about political Islam.

Whitaker’s article is written in response to an earlier CiF piece by Bob Lambert and Jonathan Githens-Mazer (“The demonisation of British Islamism“) which criticised the government for its hostility towards, and current refusal to work with, mainstream Islamists like Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Whitaker takes exception to the definition of Islamists, cited by Lambert and Githens-Mazer from the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, as Islamic political or social activists. Whitaker dismisses this as “the broadest possible definition”. He prefers a much narrower one: “Islamists are not simply politicised Muslims but Muslims who view their religion as the basis for a political system – as an ‘ideology that guides society as a whole’ where ‘law must be in conformity with the Islamic sharia’.”

The fact is that a broad definition is used by analysts of Islamism because they need a term that embraces a highly diverse movement. For example, in The Future of Political Islam, Graham E. Fuller writes:

“In my view an Islamist is one who believes that Islam as a body of faith has something important to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim World and who seeks to implement this idea in some fashion. The term ‘political Islam’ should be neutral in character, neither pejorative nor judgmental in itself; only upon further definition of the specific views, means and goals of an Islamist movement in each case can we be critical of the process.”

Fuller continues: “I prefer this definition because it is broad enough to capture the full spectum of Islamist expression that runs the gamut from radical to moderate, violent to peaceful, democratic to authoritarian, traditionalist to modernist.”

Whitaker rejects this approach because he wants define Islamism as an ideology that is incompatible with democracy, on the grounds that it seeks to establish a state based on religious principles. He writes:

“One of the basic requirements for freedom in politics is that sovereignty belongs to the people. Power may be delegated to representatives but the people should remain the ultimate arbiters. Islamists, no matter how they try to dress up their ideology, do not accept this key point…. Some aspire to a full-blooded theocracy while others envisage a degree of popular decision-making – at least up to the point where it conflicts with the ‘principles of Islam’.”

According to this definition, democratic Islamism is a contradiction in terms. Whitaker ignores a whole range of Islamist thinkers (Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, or Rashid al-Ghannushi) who argue that an Islamic state is entirely compatible with, and indeed requires, the widest possible popular democracy. It is precisely because they argue for democracy, against authoritarian and repressive “secular” regimes, that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have established a mass base of support.

Whitaker goes on to make the ignorant assertion that the world-view of all Islamists is “founded on a very literalistic reading of scripture and an ahistorical view of Islam as providing a set of rules established for all time that cannot be revised in the light of changing circumstances”.

Whitaker would benefit from reading Tariq Ramadan, who has identified six broad trends within contemporary Islam. One of them, in which he includes Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, is characterised by Ramadan as “Salafi” reformism. This category itself includes a wide variety of tendencies, but what they share, Ramadan observes, is “a very dynamic relationship with the scriptural sources and a consistent will to use reason in handling the Texts so as to take account of the new challenges of their epoch and of the social, ecomomic and political development of societies”.

In other words, these Islamist tendencies adopt a position in relation to “literalism” which is the direct opposite of that attributed to them by Whitaker.

In any case, while you might reasonably question how the Muslim Brotherhood would actually govern Egypt in the event of their coming to political power – and in any democratic election they would undoubtedly form the largest party in the People’s Assembly – it is difficult to see what this has to do with the arguments presented by Lambert and Githens-Mazer. They were addressing the role of Islamism in the UK, where Muslims form 3% of the population and the establishment of an Islamic state is not exactly high on the list of priorities for Islamists. Even the sectarians of Hizb ut-Tahrir recognise that the restoration of the caliphate is hardly a practical proposition in a country 97% of whose inhabitants are non-Muslim.

What distinguishes Islamists like Daud Abdullah from abstentionist tendencies like HT, not to mention the minuscule number of would-be terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda’s warped version of Islamism, is that he and his co-thinkers seek to engage peacefully and productively with democratic politics in the UK. They are ready to co-operate with the Left in opposing racism, fascism and imperialist war, and in supporting the rights of the Palestinian people against Israeli oppression. They are prepared to work with the government where there is common ground, while criticising the government where there is not.

But that is the problem with Islamists, as far as the government is concerned. What it requires of its Muslim partners is that they should remain silent about the role of foreign policy in assisting the tiny fraction of Muslim political activists who sympathise with “jihadist” terrorism to gain adherents.

Worse still, the government has now decided, evidently under pressure from Hazel Blears and her supporters, to draw the line at Muslim representatives who defend the right of people in Iraq, Afghanistan or Gaza to resist the forces occupying their lands. Muslims who hold such views are placed in the same category as those who back 7/7-style terrorist acts.

Given that large numbers of politically active Muslims (along with many non-Muslims, for that matter) uphold the right of resistance to invasion and occupation, this has the effect of demonising a whole swathe of the UK’s Muslim community and excluding them from discussions with the government. It would be difficult to come up with a more idiotic and counterproductive strategy.

Brian Whitaker’s efforts are better directed towards addressing this immediate political issue, rather than scaremongering about Islamists’ views on the relationship between faith and democracy in a hypothetical Islamic state they have neither the power nor the intention to bring about in Britain.