Stopping the spread of sharia should be central to British foreign policy (it says here)

Last week ConservativeHome posted a lengthy piece by Martin Parsons urging that “combatting [sic] the spread of sharia enforcement across the world” should become “a central feature of British foreign policy”.

With articles like this it’s difficult to identify where ignorance ends and conscious misrepresentation begins. For example, Parsons tells us that in Egypt “the Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikhwan al Muslimun) and the radical Salafist Jama’a al-Islamiyya [Islamic Group] formed a political alliance to fight October’s parliamentary elections”.

Leaving aside the facts that the elections began in November and that the roots of the Islamic Group are in Qutbism rather than Salafism, I suppose it is technically true that this organisation was originally part of the Democratic Alliance headed by the Muslim Brotherhood – but then so was the liberal Wafd party. However, Parsons omits to mention that the Democratic Alliance subsequently broke apart and the Islamic Group contested the elections as part of the Islamic Bloc headed by the al-Nour party. The Brotherhood’s Justice and Development party stood in an alliance with the Nasserist al-Karama and liberal Ghad al-Thawra parties.

The basic thesis of Parsons’ article is that “the aims of Islamists who use the ballot box differ only in their method, not their long term aims from those of violent Islamists, as can be seen where Islamists in countries affected by the Arab Spring have used democracy as a route to power”.

To back up this claim Parsons suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, including the army’s violent suppression of a protest in Cairo in October. But the Brotherhood has never advocated violence against Copts. In fact it recently mobilised its youth members to protect churches while Copts celebrated New Year’s mass.

Parsons also sees the success of the Ennahda party in securing 40% of the vote in elections to the national assembly in Tunisia as encouraging an offensive against Christians there: “The new sense of empowerment felt by Islamists was clearly evident when on 16th September a group entered a Christian church in the town of Kef and attempted to turn it into a mosque.”

Parsons fails to tell his readers that the “church” in question is a ruined Roman basilica and the dispute was over whether it should be returned to its earlier use as a mosque or converted into an art gallery. In any case, Ennahda was not involved in the Kef incident, which was attributed to a small group of Salafists. Nor could Ennahda’s electoral victory have inspired the occupation of the basilica, as the elections took place in October.

The weasel-worded formulations that Parsons employs here, which imply that the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda are responsible for anti-Christian violence while avoiding stating this explicitly, suggest that he knows quite well that the accusations against them are without basis.

Just as Parsons tries to obliterate the distinctions between opposing tendencies within political Islam in order to smear peaceful reformist organisations as no different from violent extremists, so he treats Sharia as a uniform repressive system that Islamists want to impose on society. That there might be some pretty fundamental divergences between Ennahda’s conception of a sharia-derived system of justice and that of, say, Boko Haram is not an idea that Parsons is prepared to examine.

Does anyone seriously suppose that the political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will result in a situation where Christians are “forbidden from building new churches and any adult male Muslim who embraces another faith faces the death penalty”, which Parsons claims are central features of a sharia-based legal system? The fact that the constitution has defined sharia as “the principal source of legislation” in Egypt since 1980 without any such consequences befalling its citizens is completely ignored by Parsons.

As Reuters’ religion editor Tom Henaghan recently pointed out, the Arab Spring has forced western governments to abandon the approach of treating Islamists as one undifferentiated mass and grapple with the complexities of the movements that can be grouped under the general heading of “political Islam”. For example, in October last year foreign secretary William Hague, responding to the suggestion that “Islamist extremist elements” might come to power in Libya, said: “This term ‘Islamist’, it covers a vast range of views. And there are people who could be described as Islamists who are in favour of what one might describe as being a moderate Muslim country. There are others who are what we would call extremists.”

ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman is evidently trying to mount a rearguard campaign against the Tory-led government’s adoption of a more sophisticated and pragmatic approach to Islamism. If the Tory party leadership accepts Hague’s nuanced view of political Islam in North Africa and the Middle East, Goodman no doubt reasons, how long before they apply the same approach towards political Islam in the UK? Goodman would then be unable to get a hearing for his anti-Islamist witch-hunting. Sayeeda Warsi might be allowed to attend the Global Peace and Unity event. The sky would fall.

Unfortunately for Goodman, publishing Parsons’ crudely argued piece is unlikely to achieve anything other than exposing ConservativeHome’s line on Islamism as the ignorant nonsense that it is.