Understanding political Islam

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2005 - 12:30

Cathy Nugent reviews Panorama, BBC1, 28 August

John Ware’s investigation into the leadership of Britain’s Muslim communities, focussing on the role of the Muslim Council of Britain,
has been variously condemned as a “witch-hunt” and a “stitch up”.

Protests came from the MCB itself and other Muslim organisations but also the Guardian journalist Madeline Bunting. As far as I could see there was little that was factually incorrect in the programme; the protestations were more to do with defending certain streams of political Islam (which the programme looked at).

That said, this was not a good programme. What could have been a serious investigation into the influence of political Islam in Britain was an under-processed scatter-shot account. The programme failed to provide a proper context for its facts, quotes and interviews.

The programme’s starting point was whether the MCB could, as it pledged to do, tackle “extremism” in British Muslim communities, if it was itself in the grip of extremists. The programme makers should first have defined what the MCB would mean by “extremism”. Probably the MCB would define as extremist those people who actively support and advocate global jihad, acts of terrorism — people who organise missions to jihadist training camps and so on. There is no reason to doubt that the MCB isn’t perfectly sincere in its opposition to that kind of political Islam.

But because Ware wanted to point the finger at the two more “mainstream” political Islamist groups in the UK he got himself into a muddle. Cluld the MCB really fight “extremism” if it had affiliated to it the Muslim Association of Britain (an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood), which has defended Hamas suicide bombings; or if it had Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) affiliated, after all it's founding "father" was in favour of, so said Ware, “Islamic revolution”. By failing to explain what might be “extremist” about these groups or how their views might lead to “extremism”, John Ware failed to build his case.

What he should have done is point to the chameleon-like qualities of both MAB and JI. For instance in the UK JI operates through front organisations, its “educational”-charity enterprises are relatively ecumenical. But in Pakistan JI is more than a little dogmatic. There, it is part of an alliance, which has taken over the provincial government in North West Frontier Province and has passed laws setting up a Taliban- or Iranian-style “moral police department”.

In fact the MCB’s allegience to moderate Islamism is in keeping with New Labour’s strategy for rooting out “Islamic extremism” in Britain.

They have set up a task force which will include Tariq Ramadan, a “reformist” adherent of a political Islam. A moderate or quasi-social-democrat on social questions, he is also, like most pious religious types, deeply reactionary on theological questions.

Making alliances with more moderate political Islamists makes sense from New Labour’s point of view. But the point is, it will not in the long-run pull young people back from the most reactionary ideologies.

Ware left this and many other things unanalysed.

What influence do MAB and JI have and where? Where do they recruit?

Are they numerically stronger than other strands of political Islam?

Two-thirds of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims are from south east Asia. But half of Britain’s Muslims were born in Britain. So is JI — a group from the “old country” — really that influential among the young? None of this was answered in the programme.

Ware’s purpose was a serious one. He wanted to examine the ideological dangers from within the Muslim communites of Britain. A good intention. However he failed to actually get to grips with the ideologies of political Islam. You can’t just point to this or that policy of the MAB or JI, say they are “extremists” and leave it at that. Further you need to have some more ideas about why some young British Muslims would find these ideologies attractive and why they might give succour to the jihadists. General hostility to the West or the policies of the US and UK governments, is the standard answer of the left. But it doesn’t add up. Ehsan Masood (Gateway Trust) writing in Prospect magazine gives a more subtle “insider” account of political dynamics involved.

Many young Muslims are caught in a trap. Their parents will come from conservative, rural parts of south east Asia. They want to defy their parents but they find it hard. “Being able to quote the Koran on Islam and marriage, children can defy parental objections without cutting off ties,” Masood argues.

These youth “find themselves torn between the material pleasures of British life — drink, drugs and sex — and their more puritanical Muslim heritage. This conflict can be exacerbated by trips to Pakistan or Bangladesh, which can then make them see the wider British society as shallow and materialistic, reinforcing an ‘enclave mentality.’ In some cases, young, confused Muslims will reach for a fundamentalist reading of the faith of their own accord. In other cases they may be influenced by one of the many Muslim evangelical groups that have emerged in the past two decades.”

From here they may go on to join groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir or seek out other more al-Queda type advocates through individuals, networks and websites. At university, in the mosque, at secondary schools or prison.

For Masood: “It is not always easy to understand what attracts those who do join extreme groups. Is it the comfort of being told that the Koran has clear answers to all of life’s problems? Is it liberation from parental control? Is it the thrill of being part of a heroic political movement that promises a new world order? Probably a combination of all these and more.”

It is a pity that Ware did not try to get to grips with any of these issues. A wasted opportunity.