Towards proper standards for engaging with ‘political Islam’

The UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee has issued a report which considers that using one label to describe groups that espouse “democratic principles and liberal values” and groups that instead hold “intolerant, extremist views” as plain wrong.

It is damning of the previous Cameron government’s approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The report also says that the approach of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ‘Political Islam’ should also be informed by the shortcomings of the Muslim Brotherhood Review, which had been led, extraordinarily, by Sir John Jenkins, UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia,

The report says that this what it calls ‘secretive Review’ sought to understand the Muslim Brotherhood but failed to mention some of the most significant factors influencing the Brotherhood, not least its removal from power in Egypt in 2013 and the subsequent repression of its supporters. The Committee concluded that its scrutiny of the Review was hindered by the Government of David Cameron.

This report on the Muslim Brotherhood follows a merciless report into David Cameron’s Libyan intervention.

In a comment on these developments, Peter Oborne writes that :

“… up until now Cameron’s policy has been informed by neo-con thinking which sees that the Islamic State (IS) group, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir and so forth are all different manifestations of the same phenomenon: theocratic Islamist politics with a propensity to violence.

Neo-cons view all manifestations of political Islam as dangerous because of what they call the ‘escalator’ or ‘conveyor belt’ theory. Even non-violent Islamism, according to the neo-cons, is dangerous because it can set regular citizens on the pathway to terrorism.

This dogma has been embedded at the heart of British and US thinking about Islam for more than a decade. Policy experts have applied it as much to domestic as to foreign policy: it lies at the heart of Britain’s cack-handed Prevent counter-extremism strategy as well as the Blair/Cameron foreign wars.

One of the most interesting sections of Monday’s report directly challenges the ‘conveyor belt’ thesis. It powerfully argues that, far from being a route to violent extremism, Islamism can work as a prophylactic against political violence. To quote Rifal Salaiman Lebbe who gave evidence to the committee: 

‘Isolation of democratic forces of political Islamic groups by successive British governments will give golden opportunities for the forces of extremist Islamic groups to indoctrinate youth and public in Muslim countries with their radical ideologies and staunch criticism of Western social values and way of life. Extremism grows in [the] Muslim world rapidly due to the fact that moderate voices have been suppressed in Muslim countries by both national and international political establishments.””