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Rethinking Islamism IV

What kind of Islamic state do Islamists want?

The type of Islamic state -- a term which allows for many interpretations, and even denials that it makes sense -- that Islamists aspire to, varies according to what kind of Islamists they are.

The International Crisis Group, an NGO led by the former UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour and which has been described as "the eyes, the ears and the conscience of the global community" by Bill Clinton, defined three main categories of Islamist in a 2005 report: political Islamists, missionary activists and violent jihadists.

I do not propose to deal with the third category here, for while I think it certainly worthwhile enquiring why it is that people turn to terrorism, that is not the purpose of this series. Likewise, non-violent missionary activism, a category of Islamism that more often than not sees involvement in any western-style political system as un-Islamic, need not concern us here. (We might examine their beliefs and aims in a later post on the concept of jihad.)

This series started by raising the example of Turkey, and it is the political Islamism of which its AKP government is one example that I wish to concentrate on. The ICG's conclusion about this strand of Islamism is worth noting: "The most political tendency . . . is the least fundamentalist."

There are several good reasons why this should be so. The very act of participating in the political process in a country where the constitution may incorporate Quran or sharia-based ideas but, equally, may not, and is either way also partly formulated on western-style democratic/liberal/secular principles, is to recognise some distinction between political and other spheres (including that of religion).

This recognition may be grudging or merely pragmatic, but it is there nonetheless, and it is not one that Salafist missionary activists or violent jihadists would even contemplate. Further than that, though, this participation has had the effect of implicitly defending the integrity of the states in which they operate.

Confrontational and violent?

As the distinguished scholar Olivier Roy put it in an essay for the American Social Science Research Council: "The mainstream Islamist movements have shifted from the struggle for a supranational Muslim community into a kind of Islamonationalism: they want to be fully recognised as legitimate actors on the domestic political scene, and have largely given up the supranational agenda that was part of their ideology."

Clearly, if an "Islamic state" is their goal, then this is not the all-encompassing caliphate of Osama Bin Laden's dreams, one that would rule not just the Dar-al Islam (the Islamic lands) but would also conquer and incorporate the Dar-al Harb ("the place of strife", meaning "where the infidels live"). It is true that the constitutions and charters of many Islamist parties still state aims that strike the literalist reader as deeply alarming, if not blood-curdling. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that they necessarily reflect the intentions of those parties today.

So to say that because the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, talked of the "obliteration of Israel", or that because the Hamas charter quotes that passage at its beginning and goes on, somewhat ludicrously, to mention The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that we should assume that no branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, will rest today until that objective is achieved would be most unwise -- although it is a convenient assumption for those who wish to portray Islamism as monolithic, confrontational and violent.

Similarly, to insist that all political Islamists want to impose a strictly literalist, atavistic version of sharia and to subjugate women would be even more wrong. Female politicians, for instance, have come to the fore in Islamist movements in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. But never mind what I think. Here is what the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal had to say about these issues in an NS interview with Ken Livingstone last year:

KL: Do you wish to establish an Islamic state in Palestine in which all other religions are subordinate?

KM: Our priority as a national liberation movement is to end the Israeli occupation of our homeland. Once our people are free in their land and enjoy the right to self-determination, they alone have the final say on what system of governance they wish to live under. It is our firm belief that Islam cannot be imposed on the people. We shall campaign, in a fully democratic process, for an Islamic agenda. If that is what the people opt for, then that is their choice. We believe that Islam is the best source of guidance and the best guarantor for the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

KL: Do you think Jews, Muslims and Christians can one day live together in peace in the Holy Land?

KM: We do, in Hamas, believe that a realistic peaceful settlement to the conflict will have to begin with a ceasefire agreement between the two sides based on a full withdrawal of Israel from all the territories occupied in 1967 . . . It should be reiterated here that we do not resist the Israelis because they are Jews. As a matter of principle, we do not have problems with the Jews or the Christians, but do have a problem with those who attack us and oppress us. For many centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully in this part of the world.

KL: Does Hamas impose Islamic dress in Gaza? For example, is it compulsory in Gaza for women to wear the hijab, niqab or burqa?

KM: No. Intellectually, Hamas derives its vision from the people's culture and religion. Islam is our religion and is the basic constituent of our culture. We do not deny other Palestinians the right to have different visions. We do not impose on the people any aspects of religion or social conduct. Features of religion in Gaza society are genuine and spontaneous; they have not been imposed by any authority other than the faith and conviction of the observant.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the aims of the Islamists may astonish some.

When I was in Jakarta earlier this year (a full report of my visit should be appearing the magazine in the coming month), I had lunch with Dr Zulkieflimansyah, an MP and chief economist for the Prosperous Justice Party or PKS. It is an Islamist party, a term that Zul happily used to describe himself, has four seats in the cabinet, and regularly wins around 10 per cent of the vote, which is a significant figure in Indonesia's multi-party system.

Not only did Zul use a distinctly non-halal metaphor to explain why PKS did not believe in imposing their beliefs on anyone else -- "it's like trying to force a pig to sing - it won't work, and it annoys the pig as well" -- but he stressed the need for his party to be progressive, inclusive and open-minded, and criticised older generations of PKS leaders for talking about al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. All that was too rigid, he said.

So, what was their aim for Indonesia? "Islam as a moral code," was his reply.

Democratic imperative

That's a far cry from the kind of Islamic state (which, constitutionally, Indonesia is not) that strikes fear into the hearts of so many people here. Another Indonesian Islamist leader, Habib Rizieq of the hardline FPI, has said in the past that this concept is in any case not the point: the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, was more concerned with the formation of a Muslim society than with an Islamic state.

Next door is a country that actually is an Islamic state, at least according to the current Malaysian prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, and his predecessor-but-one, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. I won't go into that here, but as many commenters have queried my favourable remarks about Malaysia, I may look into the story of Malaysia as an "Islamic state" at a later point.

I will close by stating that I believe that parties such as the AKP in Turkey and PKS in Indonesia should provide hope, for those countries and also for those in the west who are fearful of political Islamism. Both participate in and recognise the democratic process and, so far at least, their actions suggest their aims are for Islam to inform the state, not to replace or destroy its current incarnation -- and all through free and fair elections.

Quite apart from the fact that if the voters of another country choose such a party as their government, then that is up to them: are these not people with whom we could and should do business?

For a blunter, but certainly a realistic, conclusion, I turn again to Olivier Roy. As he put it in a talk to the IPPR in 2006:

If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between [Turkey's Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.